They laugh, stretch and sing through their warm-up exercises. They improvise with phrasing, pacing and costumes. And all the while, Dallas International School students who are engaged in theater are learning and building new skills.
Theater is essential to a quality education because it helps students grow in several key ways. It gives them the confidence to speak in front of others. It fosters teamwork, so they learn to cooperate. It unleashes creativity, so they feel free to express themselves. And it helps support their DIS education as a whole.
“Focus and hard work are always embedded in what we do in the theater,” says Robert Clover-Brown, who has helped coordinate DIS’s middle-school performances and after-school theater program since 2013. “Like a DIS education, stage work helps prepare students for what’s ahead in life.”
DIS offers two basic ways for its students to hit the stage.
The first opportunity is built into the middle-school curriculum. DIS holds annual performances at the Waterview campus that are tied to core literature classes: a poetry showcase for sixth graders (held this year on May 24); a staging of A Midsummer Night’s Dream by seventh graders (May 23); and a performance of Romeo and Juliet by eighth graders (May 31).
“During these presentations, every middle school student gets a taste of what it’s like to be on stage—often for the very first time,” says DIS English teacher Patricia De Villiers, who has helped coordinate these performances for the past six years.
DIS students who want to explore theater in more depth are encouraged to seize a second opportunity: joining the after-school theater group that is run on Wednesdays at Waterview and leads up to the four-day Multilingual Theater Festival, which DIS coordinates every year.
In the after-school program, students can explore theater in the French language with help from Chloé Broutechoux, DIS French and theater teacher. They can also work in English with Clover-Brown, a London native and veteran stage actor who is known across Dallas as “Shakespeare Man” because he performs the works of William Shakespeare in venues across the city while dressed as the bearded, 16th-century bard.
Broutechoux and Clover-Brown spend each after-school session helping DIS performers gear up for the multilingual festival, which welcomes students from DIS sister schools in the Mission Laïque Française North American network. This year, the festival took place from May 9 to 12 at the Dallas Children’s Theater, with more than 80 young performers from Dallas, Houston, Los Angeles, New York and San Francisco attending to take workshops and perform individual pieces on the stage.
“When children have a true passion for theater, they should be able to pursue it, whether it’s in the form of writing, acting, directing, sound production or set design,” says Lorraine Gachelin, the DIS administrator who led the first festival in 2009 and who has spearheaded it ever since. “Students should be able to embrace their passions—and enjoy them fully.”
Whether DIS students experiment with theater as part of the middle-school curriculum or whether they explore it more fully after school and in the festival, they are learning to overcome stage jitters—a skill that will help them down the line when they defend dissertations, give presentations or recite speeches as adults.
“When I joined the after-school program three years ago, all of us in the group were nervous,” says eighth grader Jacquie Wheeler. “But we really enjoyed ourselves—and even the shyest students grew comfortable as we got used to being on stage.”
This boost in confidence has helped Nora Desmond, a 10th grader and after-school performer, in her classes at DIS. “In the ninth grade, as part of the diplôme national du brevet, we had to give an oral presentation,” she says. “Having theater experience really helped me look people in the eye during that part of the exam. It helped me memorize everything, and be clear and concise when I conveyed it.”
Nora and Jacquie say they’ve both made new friends by joining the Wednesday afternoon theater group. They’ve also expanded their social circles by mingling with students who are visiting Dallas for the annual festival.
“When you put on a stage production, it’s all about relationships between people who have different skills and who are working together toward different goals within the same project,” says Clover-Brown. “This teaches students how to coordinate in teams—and how to do it in a way that’s effective, respectful and fun.”
As they prepare for their late-May poetry presentations, DIS sixth graders are learning how to enjoy the process of working together. “There’s been a lot of debate and joking about costumes,” says De Villiers. “In teams, they’ve decided to complement their all-black outfits by wearing dark glasses for a reading of ‘The Blind Men and the Elephant’ by John Godrey Saxe, and crazy-colored socks for a presentation of ‘Ode to My Socks’ by Pablo Neruda.”
Whether they’re reading a stanza at the sixth-grade performance or showcasing their work at the festival, DIS students get to tap into their creativity and ask questions along the way. If they’re reciting a poem, what cadence will best bring it to life? If they’re playing a character, what might that person be feeling—and what gestures can they use to express those emotions?
Because students have the freedom to interpret roles in whatever way they feel moved, no two middle-school performances of Shakespeare plays are ever quite the same. While one Juliet may appear anxious, another may seem calm. While one Romeo may be gruff, another may seem refined. “As they take turns exploring these roles, students can express them however they see fit,” says De Villiers.
In the after-school program, Nora Desmond has experimented with works that range from Joan of Arc to Tom Sawyer to The Importance of Being Earnest. She says each one of these plays has engaged her creativity “in a new and challenging way.”
Supporting the DIS Curriculum
Just as Nora has performed in French, DIS sixth graders are preparing to read their rhymes in French, German, Spanish and Mandarin as well as English.
Incorporating foreign-language instruction is one of the many ways that DIS weaves its comprehensive approach to education into its theater offerings.
“When we present students with new pieces, we ask, ‘In what environment was this play written?’ and ‘What does this piece say about life in that place and time?’” says Clover-Brown. “DIS students are not just studying a particular play, but learning about history, literature, politics and the human condition as a whole.”
This broad-reaching approach—like the confidence, teamwork and creativity that theater helps instill in young people—can make a big impression on DIS students and their families, too. “Parents will come up to me in tears after performances,” says Clover-Brown. “They’ll stare in astonishment, then they’ll smile and say, ‘I never realized my child could do all that.’”