New Faculty Leading the Way Part 1: Fostering Partnerships with David Kelly

When you think about being a first year faculty at St. Andrew’s, you generally imagine a year of all the questions.  Where is the printer? How do parents expect us to communicate with them? What level of rigor are these students used to? How long will it take us to get through this particular unit? 

But our incredibly inspiring 2022-23 cohort of new faculty have reminded us that sometimes the new kids on the block come with far more than just questions . . . they come with a host of experiences, knowledge-bases, and even relationships that make them more-than-ready to lead.  I first spoke with David Orace Kelly (Theater Arts, US): 

David, what brought you to theater education and collaborations? 

I’ve always been a theater practitioner and an accidental-educator that has really fallen in love with education, but the first couple of years of teaching  I was looking for a way out of the classroom because I saw myself as a practitioner.  But, then I realized that the classroom was my theater. So I changed my mindset from “these are students” to “these are members of an acting company that I get to train and collaborate with” and that’s a lot of what I do here.  

So how does seeing your students in this way impact your approach to theater education?

Everything in this program is very student-centered: very much about their journey, where they are.  We are trying to build in metacognition and reflection, not so much on the deadlines and very much more so on the authentic journey that the student has, while also keeping them accountable to the things we have to be accountable for.  Theater has constant deadlines built into it. The show has to happen and what that means is sometimes there are things that don’t get on to the stage. Or, there are projects that don’t get done because we are spending extra time on another project that’s more potent and important to the students than I had conceived (or my concept six months ago was incorrect –  when I planned the sequence of action – that the project would have been completed faster).

This is perhaps a peripheral topic to collaborations, but partnering with other folks sure does a ton of flexibility. How do you remain flexible in this way without feeling like you’re compromising on high standards?

I think of high standards as part of a learning journey: like what does a student need right now to continue to build and grow inside of the context? I have a student right now accomplished as a performer, but they have less experience in their current work.  They are very much interested in the domain, but their work might appear to be below grade level for the average student. Yet, they are still pushing themselves to grow.  For them, their high standard is taking that next step.  I’ve got many students in theater tech who are like “all I’ve ever done is work with construction” or some other element, so their growth is doing something introductory in another domain. I also have other students who have been doing the same domain for the last 3-4 years, and I talk to them in a more collaborative way, almost like a colleague, and this encourages their growth because they are ready to be in a professional space.  [I am] asking them questions I don’t necessarily know the answer to and collaborating with them. That’s also high standards – super individualized high standards.  

Ok so let’s get to the topic of the day: partnerships.  How do you approach these? 

Well it’s yes, and  . . . that’s it.   “What can you do, and how can I add to it” or “what do you [already] do and how can I add to it?”

What are some concrete examples of ways you have collaborated internally and externally this past school year? 

  • In Wizard of Oz [they invited elementary and middle school students to participate.] That was an “I want to give you space, elementary, middle to be a part” . . . 
  • Also, internally with graphic design, we had our whole season of [production] posters (and t-shirts) designed by Mrs. Humble’s graphic design class.  It was an interesting/wonderful process.I heard many students appreciated having a more professional or exterior application to their skills rather than just the siloed classroom.
  • We partnered with MS opera this year. . . . and we are planning future collaborations.
  • We had a student employee. . . to start supporting community outreach.
  • We have the ballet coming in, MS youth symphony orchestra, bringing in community partnerships so our students see there is a home in the arts outside of SA’s . . . but also so they can start getting professional connections.
  • This is the first year in St. Andrew’s history that we competed in the International Thespian Association,  so that was a bigger community thing.
  • We got the big projector [on the stage] through a “yes, and…” conversation.  It wouldn’t have happened with the collaboration.  It started with a conversation with Stephanie and then Tony really did the logistics and research and all of the vetting. 

Wow! That’s a ton for your first year at the school!  What advice do you have for planning to collaborate? How and when to start?

My advice for planning and collaborating is like finding the right temperature for your bathwater.  You start running the water and keep checking on it, mix in a little of this and a little of that.  Sometimes it takes a long time to get the right temperature, and so you must start the conversations and plannings now and then you’ve got to be ready and willing to take the next step when the next step presents itself.  It might be tomorrow; it might be in 3 months.  You’ve got to keep talking about it to people and keep refining it, because you are gonna get the feedback from the people you are talking to.  You’re going to get the idea or the caution or whatever it is, and you’re going to find partners in that talk.  So I don’t think one should ever wait.  

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