5 Discoveries About Presenting Applied Theater Work At An Academic Conference

Conference Attendees Take A Look At Our Puppets

Written by Heather Nielsen, Kevin Ray, and Sherry Teitelbaum

On March 17th, Everybody Act! teaching artists Heather Nielsen, Kevin Ray, and Sherry Teitelbaum returned to our alma mater, The CUNY School of Professional Studies, to make a presentation at the Masters in Applied Theatre program’s inaugural Applied Theatre Lab Conference. Our presentation, Community Celebration, Pollution and Puppets: Developing and Implementing an Applied Theater Project, was a case study of the 2012 planning and implementation of Newtown Creek Celebration: Puppet Parade and Pageant. The presentation touched on every phase of the project, from pitching it to potential community partners, to identifying potential funding sources and securing grant support, to balancing our creative vision with the dynamics that our youth participants brought to the table. In this blog post, we share discoveries we made as we overcame some of the challenges we encountered in presenting our applied theater work.

The Project In Brief

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Newtown Creek is a four-mile stretch of water that separates Brooklyn from Queens. The creek is one of the most polluted waterways in the United States and was granted Superfund status by the EPA in 2010. One of the neighborhoods affected by the pollution is Greenpoint, Brooklyn. In the summer of 2012, we took an asset-based approach to address the causes and problems of pollution in this densely populated neighborhood, and used our skills as applied theatre practitioners to celebrate its youngest residents, and together envision what a clean creek would be like. The result was a two-week puppetry and theater program that offered free workshops to youth in Grades K through 5 enrolled in North Brooklyn Development Corporation’s summer day camp. During the workshops, teaching artists from Everybody Act! supported youth to build puppets, improvise scenes, and create an original performance that told the story of Newtown Creek in the past, present, and imagined future. (For more information about the project and our upcoming 2013 iteration, click here.)

Setting the Stage for Discovery in Practice

Presenting applied theater work in a conference setting presents challenges since the fieldwork encompasses multiple components (e.g. community engagement, arts instruction, qualitative outcomes etc.) That being said, we had to be selective about which components to focus on rather than attempt to present the whole panoply of the project. To that end we endeavored to address the following questions:
  • From creative inspiration to project implementation, what does a real-world timeline look like?
  • How do applied theater practitioners identify community partners and potential funding sources?
  • Who were the participants in the project and what voice did they have in the creation of the performance?
Answering all of those questions in an hour and fifteen minute session was a tall order. Here are 5 discoveries we made that could benefit other applied theater presenters preparing for academic conferences.

1. How Do You Get To The Conference Hall? Practice, Practice, Practice.

Initially, our presentation was scheduled for October 2012. However, Mother Nature had other things in mind and the entire conference was postponed due to Hurricane Sandy’s impact on New York City. When the conference committee rescheduled the event for March 2013, we were happy to participate since we had already planned our session in the fall. Yet on second view, we realized our session was crammed with too much content and too many activities. We met again to trim it to the essentials by referencing our designated outcomes and considering the essential question: What knowledge did we want our session participants to walk away with? We scheduled additional planning sessions to edit our presentation, and contacted the conference committee to secure additional rehearsal time in the room prior to our presentation. Luckily, we were scheduled first in the day and the committee could accommodate us.

2. A Puppet in Hand is Worth A Thousand Words

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We brought in a small selection of puppets that were made by the youth during our 2012 project implementation; creating a display that session participants would see when they entered the room. As they came in, we invited participants to take a look at our display. But we forgot to mention that the objects were puppets. However, as soon as we told our participants that these artifacts were indeed puppets, they asked us if they could play with them! We were happy to oblige and were delighted by the smiles as they experimented with how the puppets worked. Putting puppets in the hands of our session participants created an interactive experience, allowing them to relate to those objects in a way that we would never have been able to convey in words.

3. Put On A Show, Or Two!

Applied theater is intrinsically interactive; we are always looking for ways to engage our participants through drama. Although our session was primarily presentational, we felt it was essential to include theatrical elements to underline key moments that would help participants retain important information. To achieve this, we began our presentation with a short puppet show using fish puppets built by the youth during the project. The puppet show introduced the underlying problem (the pollution of the creek), showed how the team of applied theater practitioners came together, and identified each team member’s unique assets. In another dramatic moment, we acted out our varied attempts to meet three different community partners to the sound of a ticking clock. The sound of the clock helped to show that our efforts to secure a community partner were time constrained as we only had two weeks to find a partner before our grant application was due! Not only was the scene fun to perform, it gave participants an easy entry point to the intimidating problem of responding to a request for proposal by using humor.

4. Three Heads Are Better Than One Slideshow

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We wrote our grant applications and implemented the project as a team, so it was second nature to present together at the conference. As a team, we wanted to show participants the scope of the project even though many of the puppets built for the culminating event were too big to transport to CUNY. So we incorporated a slide presentation with embedded video clips into our session. The slides graphically illustrated important points and the short video clips gave an inside view of the process and the final product (to view the videos click here.) We had never worked with this technology before so it was a big risk for the team. Initially, the slide presentation went swimmingly as we showed maps of the creek and an animated web diagram tracing our funding. But a few seconds into our first video clip, the presentation froze! At that point, Heather and Sherry stepped in to cover the remaining content while Kevin worked to get the computer back up and running. Heather presented the project’s day-to-day implementation, describing workshop sessions with youth, while Sherry presented the year-long project life cycle. Having a team of three enabled us to move easily into our contingency plan when technology failed, demonstrating that the collaborative team approach, often used in applied theater, is well-attuned to adaptation and problem-solving.

5. Reflect After the Session

Reflection is a key component of applied theater work. We use reflection during projects to encourage participants to identify what they feel they have achieved and where they would like to go next. In the same way, we also use it as a team to assess our work together. Considering our technology tanked, it was essential that the team check in with each other immediately following our presentation so we gathered in a nearby hallway to quickly reflect. Despite the technical glitch, Heather and Sherry were so informed about the project, having facilitated it, that they were able to speak to the session participants while Kevin was troubleshooting the computer. The reflection helped all of us walk away having gained some perspective on what happened and able to see our successes clearly.

Ripple Effects

We were thrilled to present at the conference and to share what we learned about our project with a community of applied theater students and alumni. We hope that by sharing our discoveries in this blog post our learning will have a ripple effect to an even wider applied theater community. Please use the comment section at the end of this post to continue the conversation: What discoveries have you made when presenting your applied theater work? Post a comment and let us know!

If you would like to bring this presentation to your institution, site, or program, click here to send us an email.

Newtown Creek Celebration: Puppet Parade and Pageant is sponsored, in part, by the Greater New York Arts Development Fund of the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs and the Decentralization Program of the New York State Council on the Arts, both administered in Kings County by Brooklyn Arts Council (BAC).

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