Five Things I Learned Teaching Creative Drama

and Directing Musical Theatre as a Teaching Artist Intern

By Eric Gelb

“Can I get a drumroll please?”, I would ask. Students would use their hands to drum on the floor. This would lead into the following dialogue – “today’s question of the day is…” and on this day, the question was ’why is musical theatre important to the world?’”


Eric Gelb has a conversation with the student performers.

“Musical theatre is important to me because I don’t have a lot of friends at school and when I come here, I feel accepted”, one student said. Another sitting nearby leaned in for a hug. “It doesn’t matter what kind of day you’re having because once you get onstage you get to be another person and live in their world”. Some students “snapped” to show their agreement.*

Doing the “question of the day” warm-up was one of the rewarding parts of my summer as a teaching artist intern at The Rose Theater in Omaha, Nebraska. Working at The Rose was an experience I could never have been perfectly prepared for.

The Rose Theater is committed to enriching the lives of children through theater and arts education, home to the Omaha Theater Company – one of the largest professional children’s theater in the country! Accessible to all, no child is turned away for economic reasons. Live performances are shared from two stages: the main stage and the Hitchcock Theater. Professional actor/educators offer classes in theater, directing, musical theater and more.

As a summer intern, I co-taught creative drama camps and assistant-directed a production of XANADU. With almost 40 hours of contact time with students every week, I had opportunities to lead classes, observe and lead lunch and before/after class activities. Sitting in on weekly education meetings, intern meetings and participating in lesson planning was part of my weekly schedule as an intern to gain a better understanding about how an education department at a professional theatre company works.

“How was Omaha???”, people asked when I returned. “I bet Omaha was like, super different than NYC”, some would say, almost sympathetically. So here are five things I learned…

1. Students will always meet your expectations if you give them the tools to succeed.

When I was assigned XANADU for the summer, it became my goal to make the show GREAT. I purposefully asked students to dig deeper into their roles than I knew they ever have been in the past. My co-workers often reminded me not to push them too hard, that they’re only 13. I was 13 when I co-produced my first musical. I knew they were capable of performing like professionals. And to be clear, performing like a professional doesn’t mean hitting all the notes or acting like Meryl Streep. It’s being a responsible actor and a team player. During the run, I was told by multiple people that the show was “the most prepared show of the summer” or “the best show in a LONG time”. Seeing their faces after opening night and hearing the applause confirmed my theory that we CAN test kids. They can handle it.

2. If you don’t do it, the kids won’t do it.

Teaching creative drama was particularly tricky because it asks students to be silly and LOOK silly in front of their peers. Part of our creative drama courses was spending part of the morning in-role as characters from the story we were studying. Of course we had students who suddenly “had a stomach ache” or “felt sick” as soon as we got in-role. In one class, we were pirates looking for Peter Pan! I didn’t dare step back and watch them act out the story – I was right there with them. If I didn’t join in, I wouldn’t be able to have gotten THEM to do it either.

3. Everyone teaches differently.

I am a tough teacher. I want my students to be the best they can be. When I am in charge, students do not sit out. They do not pass, and they do not skip. Everyone has to attempt or try the activity before they decide they don’t like it. Why? Because this is a theatre. We instill the concept of speaking in front of others, being a team player and taking responsibility. So if I let a student skip because they’re scared, or quit because their team isn’t winning… I’m not letting them learn those lessons. I often say “we don’t quit things because they’re hard”. Not everyone agrees with me – some have a softer, gentler approach. And that’s okay! We all approach students differently.

4. Your lessons will never go as planned.

I spent, probably, at least ten man-hours on the two lesson plans I presented solely by myself in classes at The Rose. I’d say we actually did about 60% of both of them. The truth is, no matter how hard we try, as artists, we can never really accurately estimate how long something is going to take in class. Sometimes inspiration strikes and we think of a fun medication to a game and it takes longer. Sometimes a new game doesn’t land well with the students, and it’s clear that you have to move on earlier than you expected. And that’s okay.

5. Everyone has a story.

No one teaches to be rich. People teach because they simply cannot live if they are not impacting the lives of young people, so those that do choose to work inside of a children’s theatre have some sort of passion for it. The people that work in the costume rental shop, those that work upstairs in accounting and even the teaching artist you may teach with daily – they all have a very heavy tie to the arts. Stopping to listen and hear their stories are fascinating.

In the winter, I will be joining the team at WICKED on Broadway in the stage management department as an intern. Broadway has always been the dream, and although not too similar to the work I did at The Rose, I am POSITIVE I will, probably without knowing it, allow all I learned at The Rose into my work at WICKED, which leads me into bonus number 6 – once you’re a teaching artist, you’ll never shake all you learn.


The students perform a scene from one of the musicals.

Eric is a published author; you can buy his book “Growing Up in the Wings” on Amazon at or at the NYU Bookstore. Follow him on Twitter (@DirectorGelb) or visit his website for more content.

* Answers have been fabricated to be generic and protect students’ identities.


NYU Educational Theatre Presents 2017 Swortzell Innovator Awards to Laurie Brooks and Johnny Saldaña

NYU Steinhardt’s Program in Educational Theatre has named Laurie Brooks and Johnny Saldaña the recipients of the 2017 Swortzell Innovator Awards, which recognize outstanding contributions and sustained service to the field of educational theatre.

Laurie Brooks and Johnny Saldaña; winners of the 2017 Swortzell Innovator Award

Laurie Brooks and Johnny Saldaña are the winners of the 2017 Swortzell Innovator Award

The Swortzell Innovator Awards were established in 2016 to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the Program in Educational Theatre and honor its visionary founders, the late Lowell and Nancy Swortzell. The inaugural award winners were Lynda Zimmerman, Rebecca Brown Adelman, Trent Norman, and Jay DiPrima.

“The Program in Educational Theatre is thrilled to bestow Laurie Brooks and Johnny Saldaña with the Swortzell Innovator Award not only for their exceptional work in the field, but to honor their ongoing commitment to actively sharing their high quality expertise with others,” said David Montgomery, director of the Program in Educational Theatre at NYU Steinhardt.

Johnny Saldaña has been named the winner of the 2017 Swortzell Innovator Award for outstanding and sustained service to the field of ethnodrama and qualitative research. Saldaña will be presented with his award at the NYU Forum on Ethnodrama, which takes place April 21-22, 2017.

Saldaña is professor emeritus from Arizona State University’s School of Film, Dance, and Theatre in the Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts. He has authored, co-authored, and edited eight books on qualitative research and ethnodrama including Longitudinal Qualitative Research: Analyzing Change Through Time and Ethnotheatre: Research from Page to Stage.

Saldaña’s works have been cited and referenced in more than 4,300 research studies conducted in over 120 countries in disciplines such as education, medicine and health care, technology and social media, business and economics, government and social services, fine arts, social sciences, human development, and communication.

Laurie Brooks has been named the winner of the 2017 Swortzell Innovator Award for outstanding and sustained service to the field of Theatre for Young Audience. Brooks’ award will be presented at the 20th anniversary of NYU’s New Plays for Young Audiences, which takes places June 10-25, 2017.

Brooks is an award-winning playwright and fiction author. She has received numerous awards and grants including TCG National Theatre Artists Residency Program (The Coterie Theatre), AT&T FirstStage award, three Distinguished Play Awards and Charlotte Chorpenning Cup from American Alliance for Theatre and Education, New York Foundation for the Arts, and Irish Arts Council Grants (Graffiti Theatre Company). Brooks’ Lies and Deceptions Quartet for young adults includes The Wrestling Season, commissioned by The Coterie Theatre, developed at New Visions/New Voices, and featured at The Kennedy Center’s One Theatre World 2000. Additional award-winning plays include Deadly Weapons, The Tangled Web, and The Riddle Keeper, commissioned by Graffiti Theatre in Ireland; Selkie: Between Land and Sea, developed at New Visions/New Voices; Brave No World and Jason Invisible, commissioned by and premiered at The Kennedy Center; Devon’s Hurt, The Match Girl’s Gift, A Laura Ingalls Wilder Christmas, Franklin’s Apprentice, The Lost Ones, Triangle, Atypical Boy, and All of Us.

Brooks has been an assistant professor, playwright in residence, and literary manager for NYU’s New Plays for Young Audiences. She has served as playwright in residence for the HYPE Institute at The Alley Theatre in Houston, artist in residence at Arizona State University, and has taught at the University of Missouri-Kansas City and The University of Texas at Austin.

Brooks’ new play, Now Comes the Dust, will be staged at New Plays for Young Audiences in June, where she will also be part of a 20th anniversary roundtable event and panel discussion to explore emergent directions in writing and producing works.

Two Weeks with the Queen Opens Tonight!

Tonight I caught the dress rehearsal for Two Weeks with the Queen, a fantastic show you won’t want to miss!
Based on a popular Australian novel by Mary Morris, Two Weeks with the Queen is a moving TYA play that appeals to people of all ages. While it explores some serious subject matter, director Philip Taylor ensures that the story is told with humor and warmth to create an uplifting experience about overcoming fear and handling the challenges that life has to offer. Fast paced, funny and skillfully directed, the show highlights a very talented ensemble of actors. Meghan Crosby gleefully and beautifully portrays the spunky and determined 12 year old Colin, while the rest of the gifted cast, including Cheryl Brumley, Maggie Bussard, Brendan Chambers, Eric Gelb and Shannon Stoddard, impressively play a variety of memorable characters. What a pleasure it was seeing them all work together so well, each making strong choices to create many lovely moments on stage.
The designers and crew also deserve praise, including Daryl Embry’s clever set design, Leah Cohen and Daryl Embry’s appealing lighting, Meaghan Cross’s delightful costumes, and Kari-Noor Thompson’s effective sound design. The production stage manager Sarah Brown, assistant stage manager Jiawen Hu, and assistant director Andrew Gaines are also to be congratulated for their hard work in helping to create this remarkable show.
Poignant and full of hope, Two Weeks with the Queen is a production with a lot of heart!
David Montgomery

Poster advertising the production of Two Weeks with the Queen.

Children Will Listen: TYA Shows Get Political

Originally Published in American Theatre

Nashville Children’s Theatre is confronting issues of gender and social repression with its production of Laurie Brooks’s Afflicted: Daughters of Salem, which runs Sept. 15-Oct. 2. Commissioned by Coterie, where it premiered in 2014, Afflicted depicts the events leading up to the Salem witch trials from the perspectives of young female accusers.

“Very little is known about the young women who made the accusations, and so it’s fascinating from an historical perspective,” says Alicia Fuss, NCT’s director of education and the production’s director. “What might have led them to make these accusations? What might have been their motive? It’s also a script that brilliantly taps into the nuances of teenage female friendship.”

Like The Nine Who DaredAfflicted also includes a forum component, calling on the audience to help determine the story’s final outcome. “The more I worked with the script, the clearer it became to me that it’s not really a post-show forum—it’s the end of the play,” says Fuss. “Without it, the play has no falling action or resolution. My hope is that it provides a springboard for more intimate conversation between the friends and families that attend the show together. I also think that we don’t spend enough time listening to young people. In the forum, the youth are directly asked to share their ideas. Suddenly the characters they’ve been listening to for an hour are turning to them for their thoughts. That’s a very powerful framework.”

Fuss also notes how the issues facing the young women in the play have moved her to rethink adult attitudes towards children.

“As an adult, this play has pushed me to think about the restrictions and influences we place on our young people today, and what the ramifications of those might be,” she says. “I think it shows the adults in the room how very capable the youth are at thinking through both the historical event and the applications to their contemporary lives.”

Lauren Jones, Amanda Card, Megan Murphy Chambers, Jamie Farmer, Rosemary Fossee in “Afflicted: Daughters of Salem” at Nashville Children’s Theatre.

Lauren Jones, Amanda Card, Megan Murphy Chambers, Jamie Farmer, Rosemary Fossee in “Afflicted: Daughters of Salem” at Nashville Children’s Theatre.

In Conversation with Finegan Kruckemeyer and Gabriel Jason Dean

In Intro to Theatre for Young Audiences with Jonathan Shmidt Chapman

By Tamara Weisz

When I started Jonathan Shmidt Chapman’s Intro to Theatre for Young Audiences class a few weeks ago, I knew that we were extremely lucky to be analyzing the world of TYA through reading some of the most incredible, thought-provoking TYA scripts out there today. Little did I know I’d be in for a treat, when two authors whose work we had been reading joined us for a lively discussion on Tuesday, October 8, 2013.  As Gabriel Jason Dean and Finegan Kruckemeyer entered the room, our faces were giddy with big grins of excitement, and we were automatically greeted with a charming hello by Finegan – he’s Australian – and Gabriel, saying he was sorry not to have an accent to woo us with. Thankfully their sense of humor made us laugh and calm our nerves before delving into this exciting conversation.

Who are they?

Finegan Kruckemeyer and Gabriel Jason Dean

Finegan Kruckemeyer and Gabriel Jason Dean

Gabriel Jason Dean is an American playwright whose first TYA play, The Transition of Doodle Pequeño, received a lot of praise at last year’s John F. Kennedy Center New Visions/New Voices conference for dealing with issues of gender identity through a humorous and compelling story. ‘Doodle’ has been work-shopped in a variety of settings, and is being made into a children’s book as we speak, but has yet to have a full professional production. Finegan Kruckemeyer is based in Australia and has had 52 of his plays performed around the world. In class, we have read two of his plays, Helena and the Journey of the Hello, and The Tragical Life of Cheeseboy. You can probably tell by all of the above play titles that these two playwrights are challenging the notions of what is children’s theatre, and we were eager to hear their opinions.

Taking Risks in a Changing Scene

Both writers are challenging norms of what we think that children can handle or understand. They believe that children are capable of exploring heavier subjects, and their plays deal with complex emotions, including sadness. Often, producers get nervous that their audiences will not understand this type of subject matter and they may think that sad moments ultimately classify a play as inappropriate  – something not to be shown to children. A lot of times, adults are trying to speak for kids and it is here we realize that the problem is not with the children – it is with the adults. How do we change this conversation? How do we take risks in producing plays and trust that child audiences will go on the journey, even if it includes ups and downs? The taboo of sadness in TYA is something that both of these writers are trying to break, which is an amazing feat.

In all, Kruckemeyer said that he writes plays that he feels will resonate with audiences that bare the same humanity as him; if he can be moved towards empathy, he hopes that will resonate with anyone, regardless of their age– and in that sense, there is no difference between children and adults. If we focus on telling great stories, they will be universally understood.

Where Are We Now?

What was really inspiring was hearing both playwrights talk about working in America right now, at a time where we are on the cusp of an exciting directional change; something new is brewing in the world of TYA – we are doing some soul searching, and people are starting to realize that it is okay to take risks and challenge preconceived notions of what TYA is fundamentally. They also mentioned how amazingly collegial the TYA scene is in the States, where different people from different companies across the nation are actively in conversation about TYA’s future.

Hopes for the Future:

Kruckemeyer hopes that we stop focusing on the ‘what’ – what will the show be about? Everyone wants to know everything beforehand – can we trust our audiences? He hopes people will come experience the ‘what’ in the theatre itself, and he hopes that a lot of how’s and why’s come along with it. Dean looks forward to seeing braver choices, and stepping away from current trends (adaptations and “safe” titles). While both writers understand that there’s financial risk involved, they hope new work is created which invests in the storytellers of our generation.

Some Fun Facts:

– Did you know that Finegan Kruckemeyer has a 13 year old dramaturg that he’s been working with for years now? He says she scrutinizes his work in every aspect!

– Gabriel Jason Dean work-shopped his play, Doodle, in a middle school in Austin, TX for 6 weeks and working with children fundamentally changed the play. He believes if we trust children with the work, they may truly have something to teach us.

For more information on these playwrights, please visit:

Finegan Kruckemeyer and Gabriel Jason Dean


Tamara Weisz is a graduate student in Educational Theatre in Colleges and Communities. She will continue studying new play development as a Graduate Student Observer at the Kennedy Center’s New Visions/New Voices conference in 2014.

Reflections on Salvation Road: Music, Improv, and the Hurricane

By Natalie Mack

Family feuding, religious cults, the strong ties of friendship, and live music made D.W. Gregory’s Salvation Road a must-see, main-stage production in Steinhardt’s Program in Educational Theater. Under the direction of Dr. David Montgomery, the ensemble of Salvation Road worked closely to create a performance that suspended audiences between the past and present as its main character Cliff (Jack Dod) took us along his wild journey to rescue his sister Denise from an oppressive religious cult. His adventure was sprinkled with fond memories of life before Denise disowned her family, which came in the form of flashbacks that Cliff would seamlessly narrate audiences in and out of.

Natalie Mack and Jessica Honovitch perform. Photo by Chianan Yen.

Natalie Mack and Jessica Honovitch perform. Photo by Chianan Yen.

As I played the cult-member and former rock-star sister Denise, I was given the rare opportunity to write music to be played live in the show. This process was a blast as I worked side-by-side with Assistant Director Jess Honovich (who played Denise’s band-mate, Patty) to create original songs written from the perspective of the character, and immersing the audience into the tight-knit, cause-driven, and comical musical world of Patty and Denise.

The process began with me bringing in a couple of original tunes that I had previously written, which we would then tweak and write lyrics for in the mindset of our characters. After reworking the songs, we’d develop vocal harmonies, catchy melody lines for our Casio keyboard player, and Jess would write parts for the Ukulele and Mandolin to top it all off.

My favorite song in the show “We’re Lost Horizon,” a foot-stompin’, mandolin strummin’, folk song, describes the back-story of the band’s name: Lost Horizon. The idea for the song came to me on my walk back from a high-energy rehearsal on a Friday night…I actually started mumbling the words of the chorus into the voice recorder on my iPhone as I walked eastward down Broadway (getting some funny looks from passerbys!). The next day I came into rehearsal with the scattered recording, and David, Jess, Dan (ASM & ensemble member), Talia (SM), and I began improvising on the original riff. Within about a half an hour with Jess on mandolin, and the rest of us coming up with words and stomp-clap rhythms (with Talia at the dry erase board jotting all of this madness down!), we came up with the band’s title song. Needless to say, our process involved serious collaboration, some quick-witted improv, and a whole lot of good old-fashioned fun.

Speaking of improv, the opening weekend of Salvation Road took an unexpected turn, to say the least. After an exciting opening night with the playwright in attendance, news of Hurricane Sandy began flooding headlines across the East coast. By the time the cast and crew were getting ready for our Sunday matinee, the vibe in the theatre (both onstage and off) was unsettling. The brave souls who came to the show entered Pless wearily in hopes of being able to return home safely, while the Salvation Road cast costumed up backstage, pondering the thought: If this storm really hits, this could be our last show… That afternoon our fearless director led us in a warm-up, knowing full well that it could be our last, and even under those ominous circumstances he reminded the cast of the hard-work , talent, and love that was poured into the production, and urged the Salvation Road family to ‘make it count.’

Undergraduate students Marco Santarelli, Marshall Burgart, and Jack Dodd share a moment during the show. Photo by Chianan Yen.

Undergraduate students Marco Santarelli, Marshall Burgart, and Jack Dodd share a moment during the show. Photo by Chianan Yen.

As we all know too well, the storm did in fact hit hard and the long-awaited school shows and second weekend of performances were sadly cancelled. Instead of a week filled with classes and performances for busloads of kids, the cast, crew, and entire NYU campus were faced with power outages, flooding, and little means of communication and transportation. It was not until the university reopened, that there was talk of remounting the show.

In just two days time, Dr. David Montgomery was able to wrangle the cast and crew back together to put on one final show on the Wednesday following the reopening of campus. The cast and crew were only able to get into the theatre 30 minutes prior to curtain. The spectacular cast and crew were costumed, made up, warmed up, and the stage and technical elements were ready to go in just a half hours time – the energy was way, way, up and the cast and crew were incredibly happy to be safely reunited for a final go.


Lamplighters is a cross-school collaboratory Lamplighters logotheatre initiative for New York University students interested in Theatre for Young Audiences (TYA). Lamplighters is an All-Square organization at NYU open to ALL students from any of the colleges at the university.

Our Mission

Lamplighters is devoted to exploring engaging, accessible, and thoughtful theatre for all ages. Using the collaborative talents of a variety of students from all different schools at NYU, we strive to build a community of artists, educators, designers, and professionals who have a strong respect for and interest in TYA at NYU and in New York City. We work to promote a fun and stimulating environment of learning and creation, as well as provide opportunities for professional development, artistic achievement, group-learning, and collaboration through events, meetings, and the development of new productions.

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Adventure and Spontaneity in YIKES!

By Tal Etedgi

Yikes! production image

Photo by Chianan Yen

I walked into the Provincetown Playhouse, signed in for the YIKES! audition, and waited a few minutes until I was called in. Walking down the steps of the theater, I was approached by Tony Graham, a wonderful director and teacher from England. He shook my hand, introduced himself, and asked me to sit down and talk about myself. At other auditions I’ve been to, I’ve felt that they were so rushed and that the auditors aren’t always listening to you so I appreciated that Tony listened to me and made me feel comfortable.

It was such an honor to receive a callback, and to be cast as the “Grandma” in YIKES! After reading the script, I was sure I had come across the most obscure and out of this world TYA musical. With that, rehearsals began, and we went right into the bazaar world of Grandma, Solomon (the grandson), Mary (the granddaughter), Baby, Zipper (the dog), and of course the Wakikata (characters from the Japanese tradition, known to be the assisters on stage who served as our obstacles, ancestors, and guides through our trek).

In rehearsals, Tony led the cast through collective warm-ups and exercises such as singing “Yonder Come Day” and a game in which one person was the choir director conducting the rest of the cast through sound. After the first week of rehearsals, everyone felt very connected and fully embraced this strange and obscure musical. Zipper, played by Gus Jacobson, was on all fours, while Mary, the ridiculous and angry teenager became snootier by the day.

Yikes! production image

Photo by Chianan Yen

When performances came around, I was eager to see how the students would react. After every school performance we gathered the entire cast and crew onstage, and had a Q & A session with the students. I’m sure I can speak for the cast when I say that we were blown away, and completely amazed by all of their questions and thoughts which included: “Where did the Grandma go?” “Who is going to take care of the children now that Grandma’s gone?” “Are the Wakikata angels?”

Being a part of YIKES! instilled so much adventure and spontaneity in my acting, and I want to thank Tony that as well as for the trust he had in the cast to put on this beautiful production, and the passion he has for theatrical journeys. I feel that from the moment I auditioned, to the end, the journey was strong, and powerful. The cast went beyond any expectation with this musical, and I no longer consider this show “obscure,” but as a beautiful piece of theatre that has a lasting effect on both young children and adults.


Yikes! was presented at the Provincetown Playhouse in February 2012 featuring book and lyrics by Bryony Lavery, music by Gary Yershon, and direction by Tony Graham.