So where is the actual skill building in “Glee” class Mr. Scheuster? Do student’s at William McKinley High School arrive sangin’ like Amber Riley and Naya Rivera with the dramatic empathy and comic timing of Chris Colfer and Heather Morris? Me thinks, no. Furthermore is someone actually teaching acting at WMHS? Because that one episode with Blaine’s brother, though hilarious, barely touched the reality that teaching music and teaching acting might be related as say teaching biology and teaching chemistry, but they are not one in the same, at ALL. You’re not going to score well on an AP Biology exam studying only Chemistry despite the fact that they’re both science courses.
As an arts educator the differentiation of subject matter is half the battle. And that is why Glee both fills me with, dare I say it, glee, but also drives me insane. And thus this blog.
So Mr. Schue, the jig is up. You’re a figment. It takes a small army of actual teachers to do the job Glee so casually drops in your hands.
When I started working at the Beacon School in 2004, the 30 x 40 ft multipurpose room that now houses our Black Box Theatre was white-walled with one 60-year-old cyclorama strip light suspended from the concrete ceiling on a chain. The school was starting to come into its own philosophically - but artistically they were way behind. When I was hired I was moved to tears because despite limited resources the small staff radiated a tactile passion to make the arts work FOR the eager and willing students.
As I start my 10th Year at Beacon our music and theatre programs are among the most respected in New York City. Brian Letiecq has a school of rock killin' it in the basement. Dale Lally directs two more main stage plays for kids who cannot stay after school. In total there are probably twenty five working professional artists: teachers, Broadway veterans, Grammy Award Winning Musicians, Tony Award Winning Actors and even a few Beacon alumni, who cumulatively teach the performing arts at our School. Theatrically we have been chosen to premier the high school productions of Rent; School Edition, Spelling Bee, Spring Awakening (uncut – thankfully – “Totally Stuck!” just doesn’t have the same kick), The Light in the Piazza and next year we’ll be the first high school ever to produce Passing Strange. Our show choir has no one to compete against in NYC, but nonetheless last year we were 65 voices strong. When we staged The Who’s Tommy the band was composed of Beacon student musicians. And yes, they rocked it.
Unlike Mr. Schue I don't want to be an actor anymore. I started a career as a musician and storyteller as a child who was left to her own devices - a lot. Living in my imagination was a security blanket for me and acting gave me permission to do that all the time - and get thunderous applause, and sometimes a paycheck, for my efforts. I started performing outside of school at sixteen years old and though I have played black boxes, summer stocks, opera houses, festivals and theatres in several states and the UK, acting simply doesn't bring me nearly as much joy as giving the craft away to students who need it.
Now I’m a 37-year-old arts-educator in beautiful New York City where I teach on the same block as the American Musical and Dramatic Academy, which many gleeks have declared “the real NYADA”. If that is true I might suggest that the real McKinley is smashed into a garage-like building next door. We don't have enough room. We don't have enough money. Our "budgets" ebb and flow like drifting snow. Sometimes abundant. (Cool! A movie star donated some arts money! Amazing!) Sometimes absent (Oh, you mean we ran out of funding for the teachers again?). We fight over square footage and performance dates. We sometimes fight over students. Thank god we don't have a cheerleading team because sharing dancers and guitarists among the art departments is hard enough! But my desk and tiny office is a swirl of angsty mirco-people asking questions and cracking up. Some days I can’t believe they pay me, some days I can’t believe how little I am paid. But I’m “teaching” from 8:00 AM – 7:00 PM and I’m lucky enough to make art with amazing young people. Yet in the eleven-second lull from time to time I find myself thinking about Glee – does Ryan Murphy have a spy up in here? How disturbingly ACURATE is the show? Absurdly when it comes to the kids, actually. Can they please stop bugging my office without my consent? Oh wait. Don’t. I love it.
Overheard backstage at the Beacon Drama studio :
- Boy #1: (17, ‘guyliner’, floppy curls, striking jaw line, squeaky voice): Hey, what do you call that stuff? That stuff, like, that girls wear that, like, makes their faces… paler?
- Boy #2: (16, quite thin, 4in platform boots, puppy dog eyes, calls himself ‘lolita’): Umm, like, foundation?
- Boy #1: Yea! That’s it! Foundation…. can you teach me how to wear it?
- Boy #2: (He bats his lengthy eye lashes.) Yea, sure. Anytime.
An “actable verb” introduced in our Advanced Acting Studio last semester.
- “Avalanche – to insult so accurately and speedily, almost as if without breathing, such that the target cannot interrupt to stop the hatorade – as exemplified by Santana Lopez”.
My studio is full of little genius’s I tell you.
I can count my Kurts and Pucks along my Mercedes, Quinns and Sams. Tinas and Mikes are rare. The Rachel’s are rarer, but nonetheless precious. They all graduate and reappear like perennial flowers. There are Brittanas and Finchels everywhere. I can’t even keep track. They fall in love. They fall out. They fall in love. They come out. The go back in. They trade up. They settle. They ask questions I can’t answer. They answer questions I didn’t ask.
Thankfully, Glee can help teachers navigate difficult conversations. The characters resonate so personally with our kids that it helps them open up about themselves when things get complicated, even if they insist that they’ve “outgrown Glee”, “they’re not obsessed with it anymore”, and “Glee’s just not cool anymore.” They can protest all they want and I will continue to chuckle because they ARE glee in all their clunky charm.
Because they starve themselves, cut themselves, hide from their families, from each other, from their truth. They have too little. They have too much. They don’t make the cut. They have too much choice. They make dangerous choices and suffer the consequences. They run away. They hide in the roles they play. They cry on me. Some curse me out. Some go to rehab. They come visit in suits and ties sometimes, all young adult citizens of the world. They are grateful. Sometimes they even apologize. And yes, even a few have died long before their time.
But the foil to their adolescent turmoil is the art my students are able to make in our little 120-seat theatre where they can sing like angels and truly be free. Beacon students have gone on to play Carnegie hall, star in TV shows, Broadway shows, attended Ivy League colleges, medical schools. I just learned of a Beacon alumna, who is wheel chair bound, that was recently in Elle and live blogs from NYC Fashion Week. A couple that fell in love during my very first Beacon production in 2004 just had a baby. The first “B’DAT Baby”. Another gave a TED Talk. I’m stupid proud.
They make and break my heart. Everyday.
Arts education matters.
Are we teaching our students to be artists? Or people? Is there a difference if we can trust that the time they spend with us is time they are NOT getting themselves in trouble? No there isn't. My job, my obligation, my passion, is to open my students to their truth - whatever that may be - through the conduit that is our work together.
Thus I'd like to get show folk over at Camp Murphy (pun intended) by the collar and show them a thing or two about what really goes on in choir rooms and high schools in real time. They are missing the point with Glee and this is what completely burns my chicken. Mr. Schue can’t just be a frustrated artist who can’t let go of his high school glory. I assure you, those are the LEAST affective teachers of the performing arts. Perhaps he could revel in the artistry that is connecting the dots between young artist and the world? The biggest gift he has to offer his choir room of misfit toys is the very act of getting them in the room and gifting them to each other.
Every year my students move on to their life after high school and through November I hear from recent graduates all the time. They check in about their classes, ask questions to impress their new professors with the answers to, bring their boy or girlfriends by to meet me. Then most disappear. Visiting your high school after the first year away is just lame, or so they think.
But the beauty of social networking lets their images drive by my dash when a few hundred likes hit a photo of their first professional gig, their acceptance to Law School, their engagement, the birth of their first child. The most recent Kickstarter asking me to toss them a few bucks to make something new. Yet what makes me beam with pride more than getting a personal shout out from a Broadway stage (though that was pretty cool, I’ve got to say) is seeing the digital chatter they create amongst themselves. They ARE artists. They are working. They hire each other. They make movies. They tell stories. They write. They sing. They scream. They ARE changing the world for and with one another and that makes me so grateful that such a mix matched group of odd ducks allowed me to stitch them together with the magic only making music and plays together can provide.
I wish we could see Mr. Scheuster get in on that.