In 2009, a theater company was looking for someone to teach a class in Brooklyn for a very unique group of people. They had tried numerous teachers who had failed with the class, but thought I might be a good fit, saying: “You like challenges, right?”
I jumped right in, and fell in love with the work, developing my own curriculum and style of teaching to fit the specific needs of the group. Since then, I have led classes in a number of group homes, community centers and schools with both adults and kids with special needs. Many people ask how I have become so successful with this work, and I truly believe it is mainly because of my personality and partly due to my unique curriculum.
I begin each session by getting to know each student. We use theater games and exercises to learn about each other, and then work together to improvise and discuss plot ideas for a short play. After the first couple of classes, I write an original play for the class, based on their personalities and interests. I strive to create a balanced piece that is both manageable and challenging for the group. The students love the process and are much more invested in the production because they helped create the story. Even though they are excited about the production, some of them have never taken an acting class or performed on a stage in front of an audience. Stage fright can be difficult to deal with, so I make sure to acknowledge their fears and empower them with words of encouragement and positive energy. I also remind them that I even though I have performed in hundreds of shows, I still get nervous every time I get on stage!
When it is time to start rehearsing the play, we make sure to master the text before we get up on our feet. I teach the same vocal exercises I use in other classes to help develop stage presence, volume and expression. In my recent group, some of the students described me as “tough” or “serious” because I would make everyone participate in each activity, even if they were feeling shy or tired. My directing style is the same for all my classes: I have high expectations for the actors and uphold a “no excuses” atmosphere. Everyone must participate. For these classes, I sometimes alter the requirements within each activity to fit the needs of each person, making sure they are able to be successful and challenged at the same time. These minor adjustments to the rehearsal process help each student progress at their own pace.
The growth of each student over my recent 8-week program at the Y was amazing. Students started out the session with little or no experience with theater and ended the session with a basic understanding of how to create, rehearse, and present a play. In addition to learning all about theater, students learned skills that will help them thrive in their every day lives. Teamwork, communication, and collaboration are just a few of the skills that students developed in my class. For some students, growth was measured by their ability to memorize lines, speak louder, or improve their facial expressions. For others, simply participating in an activity they thought was too hard at first, was a huge achievement. I am thrilled and challenged by my students, and look forward to the growth of this program!
-Giselle D'Souza, Drama for Adults with Special Needs Coordinator at the Y