When America shut down in March, one of the immediate challenges was the school year in-progress. What would class look like when in-person education wasn’t feasible or safe? For Ryan Machen, this was further complicated in that he’s a theatre teacher and overnight, had to figure out a way to teach an in-person artform in a virtual learning environment. To even further complicate this, he and his students were on spring break when Texas announced state-wide lockdown meaning he was away from everything in his classroom.
Ryan and I are approaching 15 years of friendship. We were roommates in college and he’s remained part of my nonnegotiable inner circle of friend-family. We even both share the same middle name, Christopher. He’d provided me with some insight throughout this process about the challenges he’s faced so I wanted to share his story, his spirit and his optimism.
Ryan B: Alright let’s start with the last thing you did before the world shut down.
Ryan M: I had a dinner with some friends for my birthday the Tuesday before Texas announced lockdown. My birthday fell during our spring break so I was already at home.
Ryan B: And from there, you just didn’t go back.
Ryan M: Right. It was really frantic and felt like we were thrown directly into the deep end. It was spring break so the teachers were already at home when the district announced they weren’t opening up the following week. We didn’t leave for spring break knowing we’d be teaching from home for the rest of the semester so it sent everyone into panic mode trying to figure out how to accomplish our jobs when we weren’t allowed in the school building to get supplies from our rooms.
Ryan B: I hadn’t thought about that component. So you were left to figure out e-learning on your own?
Ryan M: I’d used Google Classroom in the past but most of theatre is in-person so it wasn’t often. However, I was lucky I’d used it before because that meant my students were already in Google Classroom and I could start figuring out how to make assignments there. I still had to get used to how that worked but I wasn’t completely lost. Some teachers had never used the online platforms before so the transition was even more difficult for them and they were at home, trying to figure it out on their own.
Ryan B: Okay so what was the immediate challenge of teaching theatre at home?
Ryan M: I teach Theatre 1 so I’m required to teach history, intro to tech, critique and evaluation and aspects that don’t have anything to do with acting. However, you learn theatre by seeing it and doing it. It’s next to impossible to do theatre over virtual learning so it became more like I was teaching a theatre appreciation class where we removed all interaction from it.
Now, in the fall, we’re doing virtual synchronous learning, I still have to teach what the state requires for Theatre 1 but now that also means incorporating acting. It’s been a challenge and will become more of a challenge because I’m basically limited to pantomimes and monologues. They can’t really learn to act with each other because they’re not in the same space. It’s required a lot more creativity on how to keep them engaged virtually.
Ryan B: So let’s talk about the ways in which you are engaging with your kids.
Ryan M: We’ve incorporated mini lessons into our weeks to spotlight people in theatre who are doing or have done awesome things. We use a hashtag theme. #ManCrushMonday, #TimelessShowTuesday, #WomanCrushWednesday, and #TheatreJobThursday. Each comes with a PowerPoint slide they have to copy into a digital journal they’re keeping for class, jotting down important information on the person or show. We also incorporate at least one video so they can see what and who we’re talking about.
For example, on the last #TheatreJobThursday, we talked about stage managers and had a video of a stage manager during Jekyll and Hyde calling the cues in the headset backstage. A couple weeks ago, we talked about Norm Lewis on #ManCrushMonday and how he was the first black actor to play the Phantom. We found some good quality videos of him in the show and the kids seemed to really respond to his talent and, despite the fact it took 30 years for that show to get there, his being the first black man in that part.
Ryan B: That speaks to representation.
Ryan M: Yes, it does. At our high school, our student population is probably 60% Hispanic, 35% black and 5% everything else, so one thing I learned over the summer—partly through reading the book White Fragility—was how we white people don’t even realize the ways our society has been set up for whiteness to be the norm. For example, in school textbooks, the picture representations are of white people so for students like mine, they are looking at people who don’t look like them. It’d hard for our students to connect with what they learn when every example they’re being shown doesn’t look like them.
When Black Panther came out, suddenly our kids felt like they were and could be superheroes. For that same reason, it’s important we incorporate people who look like our kids into our theatre education.
So when we do #ManCrushMonday, #WomanCrushWednesday, and #TheatreJobThursday, we include as many people of color as possible. Obviously there are important white people in theater we talk about them too but if I teach them about directors or fight choreographers, there are people in that field who are doing this professionally who also look like them. Our director and I have made it our goal to ensure the see themselves in what we are talking about.
Ryan B: Have you found your job has now transcended theater?
Ryan M: As a high school theater teacher, it’s always transcended that. We get to connect with our kids on a level that regular core teachers don’t because we spend so much more time with them and can build deeper relationships. Especially during this shutdown when our kids are confused about why life is the way it is, are feeling lonely at home, and some are even going through depression, we tend to be the teachers they’ll open up to. For me, teaching theater is always secondary to facilitating their growth as humans.
Even in a Theatre 1 class with kids I might not get to connect with as much, where most will not go into the business of theater, a lot of what we teach can be applied to so many aspects of life. Critical thinking, collaboration, self-confidence, public speaking. These are things people need no matter what they do.
Ryan B: This year has been tough. What have you learned about yourself?
Ryan M: I’ve learned I fight my loneliness, anxiety and negative emotions with busyness. If I pack my schedule with work and a show and seeing friends, I don’t have to deal with those emotions. When the shutdown happened, all of the sudden, there was no way to fill my schedule anymore and it forced me to look at those parts of myself and meditate on why I do that. What can I do instead? What is it that’s causing those emotions in the first place?
The only way to do shows outside of school requires me to be busy since rehearsals are five days a week and on school nights. It makes my entire day full and I don’t want to give that up because I love being in shows. However, I’m trying to leave behind the feeling that I need it to survive. So, using busyness as a crutch is what I’m going to try to leave behind.
Ryan B: My last question is about hope. What have you seen in 2020 that’s given you hope?
Ryan M: I think it’s been the protests. I know the events surrounding them are horrible and could cause you to lose hope, but this is what this country claims to be founded on: the ability to fight for your rights and freedoms and to use your voice. We saw people doing that this year, unafraid of violent retaliation. We saw people spending their time showing their support and solidarity on the streets, chanting and holding signs for someone else’s rights. And so many of them were young people and that gives me a lot of hope for the future of the country. Even as dark as things seem right now politically, that’s what I hold onto.