Q & A with Jennifer Little, theatre educator, director and social justice advocate based in New Jersey
Based in New Jersey, Jennifer Little is a theatre educator, director and social justice advocate. TPE reached out to her last month after the lockdown began, to talk about her work in theatre and education.
Q: Tell us a little bit about your work and how you got in to drama and theatre education.
A: I started in conventional musical theatre, performing in conventional spaces. After fifteen plus years, I found myself at a crossroads. It was in the aftermath of 9/11 and being a New Yorker, it felt somewhat skewed to be focusing on song and dance rather than looking more closely at the world around us. I decided to move away from performing but was somewhat lost as to what was next. A school district in a suburban high school offered me a full-time teaching job. I was hired to teach theatre and have these young people learn Shakespeare and the classic literature of Western European theatre. The majority of my students were not white but rather a rich diversity of African-American, Asian-American, Hispanic, African, Middle-Eastern and Caucasians.
It was in the aftermath of 9/11 and being a New Yorker, it felt somewhat skewed to be focusing on song and dance rather than looking more closely at the world around us.
My first year was a mess. I did all the conventional things. Voice, diction, history, etc. The students found it difficult to care about these things when they had friends being cut down in the streets due to gang violence; when they had power turned off; when they were keenly aware of economic inequality in our country.
My second year, I decided to stop forcing the conventional structure on them and moved to listening to their needs and adapting literature to them. I partnered with an amazing teacher, who was deeply immersed in the community. He and I started looking at how theatre (and the arts more broadly) could serve our community and their needs. We started listening to what issues were top of mind for them. What shows, dramatists, productions could speak to them? And that started me on the work of working with and eventually creating original work around community-specific drama.
Our young people informed our choices, from picking the shows to picking locations for the story-telling (an apocalyptic Macbeth, a hip-hop Midsummer, a multi-racial Romeo and Juliet, an in-depth look at economic resources in Project Katrina, a look at civil disobedience in Voices from Home). This new way of approaching the work allowed us to create a community of young artists who were excited about theatre and film; but more importantly were actively engaged in civic engagement through the arts. This resulted in us being noticed locally, nationally and eventually internationally. It was an amazing journey.
I woke one morning and thought, “this feels like work”.
Q: What was your journey from actor to director to educator like?
A: I have been in theatre my entire life. I started performing in my teens and moved into professional theatre in my late 20’s. I performed professionally in theatre here and abroad, along with dabbling in film and tv for fifteen years or so. I love performing. I loved the interaction between audience and actor. I loved the moment the audience took a breath with you, took that journey with you, fell in love with you and hurt with you. It was heady and exciting and I thought I couldn’t survive without it. But when I was in rehearsals for Mame, I woke one morning and thought, “this feels like work”. It was a shock to my nervous system. I finished that run and was home.
I had a callback for the Broadway performance of Oklahoma that was scheduled the day after 9/11. I thought, surely they would reschedule it. They didn’t. The director was from London and was hellbent on casting the show. Only about half of us even made it to the audition. And that day there were multiple new bomb threats in the city and it was very difficult to get home. I found myself sitting in that audition waiting room and thinking, “what is going here?” I was shaken by the fact that this didn’t feel like the theatre I loved and needed. I needed the community that had rescued me as an insecure teen. The theatre that provided a safe haven from a troubled home. This felt like corporate America. I wasn’t sure that was what I wanted in my life. I didn’t get the show (big surprise) but more importantly, I wasn’t sure I wanted to do more shows. Not like this, anyway. That was when I really went through a crisis. What to do?
All my life, I had been a performer. It identified me. It defined me. Now I was rudderless. I started looking at directing (I was abysmal to begin with). I was asked to do some guest artist teaching. I enjoyed it but wasn’t sure teaching was my path. When I was offered the full-time job mentioned above, my attitude was “I’ll try it for a year. I can do anything for a year. But when it is no longer fun, I am gone.” And that is what I did. The first year wasn’t fun. But I could see an opportunity and I could see a need. This community had a group that had been marginalized by the music department in the district. The music department was for the high achievers and the students struggling weren’t getting an opportunity to perform or tell their stories.
What would you give for power? What issues do you have with your parents? Would you run off to the forest to be with the “love of your life”? What would you do if you suddenly run into woodland fairies with a mind of mischief?
I opened my classes to everyone. (Guidance counselors loved me). My classes had about a 50% level of students with IEP’s (meaning they had special learning or behavioral needs). But these students flourished in an environment that allowed them to have a space to make mistakes; allowed them to have their voice listened to and respected; allowed them to perform with everyone else. I had students with third grade reading levels doing Shakespeare.
You note we did do Shakespeare. But we related him to our students’ lives. What would you give for power? What issues do you have with your parents? Would you run off to the forest to be with the “love of your life”? What would you do if you suddenly run into woodland fairies with a mind of mischief? (Those Twilight movies weren’t so popular for nothing!)
Q: You follow Paolo Freire’s Co-intentionality as praxis and philosophy in your classroom. Tell us about co-intentionality as pedagogy. How did you arrive at it? How has your process evolved?
A: I discovered co-intentionality when I went back to grad school to get my Masters in Applied Theatre. I decided to get my Masters after I was asked to speak at NYU at an Applied Theatre conference about the work we were doing in my high school. I said, “I’m very flattered. Um, what is applied theatre?” It turned out that the work we were doing, utilizing theatre to explore social issues and create dialogue and discourse around student driven ideas – WAS applied theatre. Who knew?
I was fascinated and compelled with the idea of EVERYONE in the classroom being experts in their own right.
At this point, there were only three schools in the US that offered a Masters in this field. Two in New York and one in California. I spoke with both in New York and one was more theoretical and one more practical. I went with CUNY, offering a more hands-on approach. There I was introduced to Paolo Freire’s book Pedagogy of the Oppressed my first semester. It literally expanded my horizons beyond belief. I was fascinated and compelled with the idea of EVERYONE in the classroom being experts in their own right. It took what I had started doing instinctually and gave me more grounded, built-in tools. I started learning how to structure a classroom, with mandated state curriculum, into a space where students were an active part of the teaching as well as the learning. I must be honest, this is an ongoing endeavor. I am constantly checking in on my praxis. Am I listening as clearly as I can? Am I offering the space for everyone to speak freely and not feel intimidated by the natural power structures inherent in a professor/student dynamic?
It is easy to fall into the “I am the teacher, therefore I know best” position of power – rather than taking the far more difficult one of listening to criticism, opposing points of view, pushback from your students.
There is an existing power imbalance in place. It is a daily challenge to work to overcome the inherent privilege of our position. It is easy to fall into the “I am the teacher, therefore I know best” position of power – rather than taking the far more difficult one of listening to criticism, opposing points of view, pushback from your students. They have a life experience that is different from mine but no less valuable. Therefore, everyone in the space has expertise and important knowledge to give to the group. My process is evolving all the time. Because I am human and I make mistakes – all the time – I constantly make myself reevaluate and see what I need to do to make myself more open and more willing to listen and collaborate with the students. This does mean transparency. I tell students – this is the state mandate on the material we must cover. However, I also tell them, “how we cover it – that we can explore together”. It is a balance. It isn’t true co-intentionalism – it is my bastardized version that is evolving as I move through the days.
The knee jerk reaction of the district was to get back to work and hurry to catch up on missing time. I didn’t do that. I took a week to reassess the students and their experiences.
Q. What is your experience in bringing social issues that are important to learners in to the classroom?
A. I try to give space in the room to discuss what is happening during any given time in history. So for example, when we had Hurricane Sandy here, it impacted many of my students. The knee jerk reaction of the district was to get back to work and hurry to catch up on missing time. I didn’t do that. I took a week to reassess the students and their experiences. They felt off kilter. They were struggling. I’m attaching an article about that work with these. Hope it helps. For other issues, quite frankly, without minimizing things – I ask them. What matters to them? What do they care about? What are they struggling with? So let’s talk about it. Could we do work around it? Sometimes they will offer two or three topics. We will then do an open discourse, discussion about what is more pertinent and relevant. Sometimes we have the luxury of exploring all themes. Sometimes we have to go with the less balanced majority vote to choose one. My experience is that so few educators, and quite frankly adults, ask students what they think; what they care about; what worries them; what is catching their interest in the world; that they are HUNGRY to talk and explore the issues. They are more in-tune and aware than given credit for.
To read more about the work her students made in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, click here.
Q. What do you think is the most important thing to remember when using drama with young people?
A. I think we just need to remember that drama is story-telling. At its centre, it’s an opportunity to come together and share the best, the worst, the hopes, the dreams, the nightmares, the stories of our society. Young people want to have their stories told. They hunger to participate in telling their stories and to be heard and given weight. So drama with young people should focus on the stories they want to tell. Does that mean you can’t do the classics? Of course not. But think about the central themes that matter to your young people and choose work that reflects or helps them explore or build upon those.
My experience is that so few educators, and quietly frankly adults, ask students what they think; what they care about; what worries them; what is catching their interest in the world; that they are HUNGRY to talk and explore the issues. They are more in-tune and aware than given credit for.
I am also a HUGE believer that drama for young people should be ALL young people, regardless of talent, IQ, ability or disability. Too often theatre is a reward for those with talent or money or resources. At every institution where I teach, I make theatre open for any and everyone who wants to participate. We hold auditions only to find out how to spotlight every single person. We invite adults with disabilities to partner with us onstage and off. We welcome anyone and everyone, regardless of skill, talent or training. Does this require more work on our end? Yes. But it is worth it. To watch young people grow in a community of love. A community of safety. A community of “family” surpasses it all. And we don’t give up artistic or aesthetic standards. We push everyone to grow – we just have them grow at their pace. Build new skills for themselves. Everyone will be different. It’s okay. We’ve gotten pushback for it. I just got pushback this fall, that the talent onstage wasn’t good enough. But we will continue to fulfill the mission statement that theatre is an opportunity and community for EVERYONE and we will not bend to outside pressure.
Q. How do you see the role of a drama teacher within a school or within education as a whole? Especially in the time we are going through?
A. I think drama educators can and should be core in any educational community. When I taught high school, I worked with the principal and the superintendent of our district. We used drama to create and teach a year-long anti-bully program, Shadows, written and performed by students. We had drama students perform scenes from Shakespeare that English students were reading in class. Bringing literature to life was invigorating for both groups. We worked to address community issues in our district through theatre – we sometimes had to fight to do that – but we did it. Our students became spokespeople in the district; the board of education would speak to our students directly because they saw them as civic-engaged.
My students count on one another for friendship, community, caring, self-help, support and a myriad of other things. It will be key during this time to stay in regular contact and build our community – rather than let it slip away.
Any drama educator can make similar inroads in their district. At the university in which I am working now, I work with the dean to create more diversity on campus through the performing arts; I work to create civic engagement around voting and other political issues through the performing arts; I work with the other performing arts groups to create a single voice to create more ways to tackle issues on and off-campus. Even today, we met virtually and discussed how to use the virtual platforms to address the needs of our community during this time of social isolation and distancing. We are actively exploring several options – including opportunities for students to perform and share through video; devising an original piece about living through these times – in real time – using ZOOM as a performance medium – new virtual ways to promote the 20-21 season and even emergency planning for fall ’20, just in case.
For my theatre community, my students count on one another for friendship, community, caring, self-help, support and a myriad of other things. It will be key during this time to stay in regular contact and build our community – rather than let it slip away. We just came back to classes this week (last week was our spring break). I will have a better idea of how successful we are after this semester. I will say, that because of how we run our theatre community – everyone is welcome; co-intentionality in play selection, directing, feedback and class participation; multiple options for participation at all times; feedback through a wide range of services both live and online – I think we have a real shot of not only making through this time but creating some powerful new work. We will see. We have an operetta we had scheduled for May – student-directed. We are also seeing if we can salvage that. It is a lot but we are all willing to work on this together.
About Jennifer Little:
Jennifer Little spent over fifteen years as a professional actress, performing on Broadway with such luminaries as Harold Prince and in film (with Ron Howard and Penny Marshall) and television. Her credits include The Phantom of the Opera, Sweeney Todd, Into the Woods, Mame and As The World Goes Round and others. She holds a B.A from SJSU in Performance and an M.A. from CUNY in Applied Theatre. In 2005, she began teaching full-time, working on bringing applied theatre to standard curriculum programs within public schools in the U.S. and integrating Arts with Social Studies and English.
She has spoken at NYU’s conference on Applied Theatre and Citizenship, EdTA National Conference, Human Rights in Global Perspective Conference, AATE National Conference, and National Drama Conference in Wales.
Jennifer wrote the new national standards for theatre with National Coalition for Core Arts Standards (NCCAS) in 2013-14 was a New Jersey State Jefferson Youth Project 360 Honoree for Peace and Justice in 2014. She helped found SOS Theatre Company and with that company, created several critically acclaimed, award-winning original dramas. She currently teaches at The College of New Jersey, where she is director and producer of TCNJ’s Lyric Theatre; along with teaching graduate courses at Adelphi University in the theatre education program.