Ed Meehan Reinvents the Acalanes DramaDons During Distance Learning
Drama Director Ed Meehan has been teaching at Acalanes High School since 2006. The past year of teaching has been unlike any other, but as LPIE learned during a recent chat, Mr. Meehan took the challenges in stride and has managed to capitalize on them. Read on for more details about Mr. Meehan’s program, teaching philosophy, and the cutting-edge live Shakespeare production his students are producing this spring.
How have you had to pivot your teaching during distance learning?
It’s been a steep learning curve. I didn’t really figure it out until well into the first semester, and I felt lucky because I don’t have music to contend with. Music is much more difficult because of timing – you literally can’t sing or play over zoom, but you can act together. There will be a lag time but it’s totally doable. And we don’t have art, clay, a special computer program, whatever, to deal with – our students just need to bring themselves to the camera.
Still, this pivot to distance learning was difficult, because I’m mostly a live performance guy. When you go see a play, as an audience member, you are integral to the experience. When you go see a movie, you can have an experience with the movie audience, but you can never affect what’s happening on stage; it’s one way communication.
So when I pivoted, the decision I made was to figure out what the most basic important pieces were for my class, and those are: first, creating a safe community, and second, telling stories. That was the basis for success, and every drama group was able to successfully do that one way or another.
Once we got to the second semester and dreamed up our spring project, we took everything to the next level. We took learnings from other places – such as the San Francisco Shakespeare Company’s pioneering method of using a virtual unified space – gave it to our students and they’ve figured it all out.
My biggest “aha” moment was realizing how real this new method would feel, even though the audience wasn’t sitting in front of us. I had an experience doing the format with our improv mentor, Kenn Adams, and realized that if we’re performing live, even with all the performers in different spaces, and the audience watching live from other locations, that changes the game, because even in different physical places we’re still all in the same space at the same time – so the “live energy” is there, and it feels like we’re in the same physical place.
That’s why this spring project is so important, because we’ll be performing it live – the energy will be there and we’ll all feel like we’re in the same place.
Your spring production sounds exciting; can you tell us more?
Yes, we’re very excited about it. We’ll be performing two abridged one-act Shakespeare plays live, 30 minutes each. Macbeth will be performed Friday, April 30th and Midsummer Night’s Dream will be performed Saturday, May 1st. The students will all be performing live, mostly at Acalanes High School, each from different remote studio classrooms, at the same time. The technology pulls images from each individual screen and combines them into one big screen with a single background so it looks as if they’re all together. Stay tuned: more details are coming soon on performance times and tickets!
LPIE funds Acalanes drama coaches; who are they and what do they bring to your program?
For drama, we focus more on workshops and residencies. We’ve had long-form workshops with Kenn Adams, a phenomenal improv educator and inventor of The Story Spine. Professionals such as Elena Wright have joined us for a residency, focusing on armed stage combat. Other companies have come in for one-shot workshops such as Oregon Shakespeare Festival. And I’m working now to bring in a tech mentor for Stagecraft. All of these are in-classroom mentors and professionals, funded by LPIE, which we’re very thankful for.
What are the various drama classes offered to Acalanes students?
Acalanes offers Drama 1, Drama 2, Advanced Drama, and Stagecraft classes.
Drama 1 is a survey class that explores acting, technical theatre, theatre within a historical and cultural context, and begins development of a variety of communication and problem-solving skills. Drama 2 and Advanced Drama continue dramatic arts exploration and skill building at more advanced levels. Stagecraft is devoted to building a foundation in technical theatre and studying technical aspects of the production process, including dramaturgy, design, set construction, props, lighting, sound, costume, and make-up, as well as theater management.
We have a dearth of non-musical theater available to young people regionally, and so that’s where we land in drama at Acalanes; we try to fill that gap. I focus on storytelling, but more so on the building of a community. All my drama classes are infused with life skills more than anything else: communication skills, working as a team in a community and in an ensemble.
I don’t refer to my classes as acting classes, but instead we talk about the story, the creation of the story on the stage, and live performance. My classes are all about two-way communication, and stories. Why do we tell stories? To understand, to figure ourselves out.
I like to do a lot of improvisational work and we also include some focus on Shakespeare. Generally we do a Shakespeare play every other year. Though Shakespeare is an old dead white guy, his material can be used to teach all sorts of issues that are relative to now, such as racial equity and gender equality.
So what we focus on is community building, storytelling, and creating a space that is for all people. Everyone is welcome here – that’s one of the things that I’ve really been pushing forward - you don’t have to take a drama class to be in one of our plays. I’m trying to get more people in the room, to hear more voices and more experiences, that’s what we’re trying to achieve.
The arts are usually the first program to be cut in schools; why is it important for our community to maintain the arts as part of Acalanes’ curriculum?
At a time when we’re increasingly disconnected, increasingly reliant on technology, we’re losing something fundamental to us as humans: face-to-face, real communication. That’s never going to change – it’s essential for us, and that makes storytelling even more important – communicating, getting up and away from the screen and interacting with people and solving problems. It’s fundamental, and that’s what dramatic arts is all about.
This pandemic has absolutely brought this point home. Though our electronic tools are useful, even robust, and I’ve been able to figure out work-arounds, it’s not actually authentic, in-person communication.
The arts, all arts, are so important because, as I said earlier, they help us tell stories, in order to help us understand ourselves better. We humans have been doing this for longer than we’ve been doing almost anything else.
In the February LPIE Loop article, you talked about your focus being on the process and not the product; can you expand on this?
This is something people don’t necessarily recognize – that our classes, across the board in the arts, are about process rather than product. People tend to be focused on the product, because it’s what they see. The audience isn’t there during the making of the product, but actually it’s really all about the process. As our visual arts teacher Mr. Porter says, the audience sees the “residue of the process” – the concert or play, or piece of art.
But we’re about the building of the play, the creation of the play, and the process we go through to make that happen, how to get there. It’s process that gets you to product.
Though I do produce and direct, most of the students are at the forefront of making decisions. Of course I advise and teach, but the more I can stand back and let them move the pieces on their own, make the decisions, the better. It’s all about how we get there – that’s where the learning is, that’s where you accumulate the experience – by going through the process, you’re solving problems, in person with your body and hands, and mind, those are the tools of drama. That’s how it works.