Over winter vacation, Kelly Schuster ’15 took a break from her career as a drama student and assumed the role of drama teacher, offering her skills to a group of young international students at the American School of Bombay (ASB). Schuster traveled with her mother to India to teach dance and drama at ASB’s Intersession Program.
There, they led workshops for groups of students that ranged from kindergarten to 6th grade and came from a wide array of cultural backgrounds. Schuster found out about the program at ASB through her mother, who works at the Singapore American School, and became interested in the Intersession program for its emphasis on cultural exposure and academic specialization.
The Intersession program does not exclusively accept ASB students and offers free attendance to all of its students, allowing for rich diversity. “It was important to me that the classes would consist of students from a variety of places and economic backgrounds as this multitude of perspectives can make for a powerful and interesting theater space,” Schuster said. The classes included students from Korea, Japan, India, America, Mexico, Italy, Indonesia and Ghana. The students had varying levels of proficiency with the English language. For this reason, Schuster said, “We tried to not privilege English as the primary method of communication in our classroom. To do so we had many activities that focused on artistic expression through other forms besides verbal communication, such as story-telling through movement, pantomime, song, dance, visual art and games where we used ‘gibberish.’”
Culture and identity became a consistent theme for the workshops. Schuster, like many of the students she taught, moved around between international schools and struggled to locate where home, being a moving target, was. She found that sharing this common experience of dislocation to the learning process’ advantage. She worked with the 6th graders on monologues about traveling, changing homes and haikus about personal experiences, which were then transformed into movement theater pieces.
Schuster described several educational techniques from her and her mother’s backgrounds, including the Laban technique and Ann Bogart’s “Viewpoints” method, which she employed for the movement theater pieces. Laban “Movement Analysis” interprets movement by focusing on different aspects of the body. “Viewpoints” uses movement improvisation to explore theatrical spaces and stories. But she also got to learn and embrace the theatrical methods India had to offer. “It was important to us to allow our immediate context to inform our theater making and incorporate what we were learning into our classes,” Schuster said.
The concept of Rasa, which in Sanskrit translates loosely to “essence” or “flavor” and refers to the theme or emotion evoked by an artistic concept, particularly attracted Schuster’s attention. The evolution and changes in Rasa between different scenes is important in how a given theater scene or play operates. The younger students explored this idea through practicing transitions between different emotions, while the older students worked on tracking the changing Rasas within their monologues.
ASB’s Intersession program appealed to Schuster for its commitment to individualization of the learning experience and concentration on specific subjects. The program brings in instructors like Schuster from around the world to work intensively with interested students. Collaboration between teacher and student are important to its core philosophy. “So that no one student (nor teacher) ever monopolized the class time, we made sure to let the students lead different exercises and dances to help them trust themselves and each other as theater-makers,” Schuster said.
One of ASB’s goals is experimentation with alternative school year calendars, as exemplified by the Intersession program which is in part a research tool. Schuster wrote, “By having classes and workshops available during school year breaks, ASB is moving towards a more balanced model that is in line with their plan to continually evolve their school structure to make it relevant for their current students.”
Schuster hopes to pursue devised theater that centers on female adolescence, which nicely ties into Schuster’s decision to work with 6th graders. Devised theater refers to pieces that are created collaboratively and originally, rather than from a script. “I think adolescence is a critical time to give them a safe space where they can express themselves as artists and their individual voices are valued in a society so ready to silence them in most other aspects of their lives,” Schuster wrote. Indeed, Schuster is also pursuing a correlate in women’s studies in addition to her drama major.
Schuster also found working with her mother, who has a background in the Laban technique and elementary physical education, to be particularly valuable. “I felt honored to work with my mother because growing up she was one of the best teachers I ever had, both in and out of the classroom,” she said. When her mother left for Singapore toward the program’s end, Schuster took over for the youngest class’ final performance.