Macioce has attended the Broadway Teacher's Workshop for the past nine years and continues to take what she learns there back to her students. The annual event, led by Gordon Greenberg and Pam Pariseau, invites teachers from across the U.S. to immerse themselves in a three-day intensive that allows them to work alongside Tony Award-winning Broadway professionals.
Macioce spoke with Playbill.com about working with students to bring Helen Keller's life to the stage, as well as the challenges the play presents.
Playbill.com takes a look at the production as part of our new Playbillder.com Spotlight series. Organizations across the country can now create an authentic Playbill as part of this new venture.
The Miracle Worker is known as a classic, but can be a challenge for high school students. What about this production made it feel like the right fit for your school community?
Cynthia Macioce: One of the first questions addressed by our production staff when picking our theatre season is: "Which shows will allow the most growth for our students?" We felt that it was a great time to do The Miracle Worker. Our English 9 students read and analyze the show, so we felt there was definite value in supporting the literature already studied in the curriculum. (We have done this with The Crucible and To Kill a Mockingbird as well.) Being able to see the literary work come to life on the stage reinforces the meaning of the work as a true classic piece of literature [and] provides a three-dimensional look at characters and story. Can you speak about the process of casting the role of Helen Keller? This is a very challenging role for any actor, especially a high school student.
CM: We knew the casting of Helen was going to be critical for the overall success of the production. Our evaluation of the girls auditioning for Helen was twofold: We knew we had to have a young lady whose features gave the impression of "young," but the actress also had to have the stamina to handle the physicality of the demanding scenes, the unpredictability that goes hand in hand with live theatre, and the maturity and intuitiveness to create an honest and believable character. Definitely a lot to ask of a novice actress! At the end of the casting process, we went with a young lady with several professional credits (regional and New York) who we felt could carry the role.
Doing a production like The Miracle Worker puts a theatre in a very sensitive spot regarding casting. With organizations such as Theatres Breaking Through Barriers, which advocates for actors and writers with disabilities, did you have concerns about doing this play and not casting a non-hearing or non-sighted actor as Helen? Do you feel it is still okay for school groups and community organizations to produce plays such as The Miracle Worker and have sighted and hearing actors play the role? Or does producing the play in an educational setting justify making that leap?
CM: What I try to impress on my students is that ultimately it is the story that matters. The main job is to serve the show; to be the storytellers of the truth. We encourage students of all abilities to be involved in our productions, as cast, crew and audience members. One of the many messages which one can take away from the story of The Miracle Worker is that when we are able to break down barriers, we are able to accomplish great things. That life lesson applies to all people… We are all differently abled and we need to acknowledge and celebrate those abilities together! It makes the journey and process of learning a fuller and richer one for all of us. Not only do I feel producing this play with all sighted and hearing students is justified, I feel it is my responsibility as an theatre educator to take advantage of the power that theatre has to educate as well as entertain.
What kind of research did the students do with students about Helen's life and the era of the play?
CM: There was so much documentation concerning Helen and her journey! We were able to gather insight from her autobiography, her letters and historical notes. But our biggest piece of research came in the form of one of our other students... who happens to be blind. She did a seminar/workshop for the cast and crew members about the daily challenges of being blind in a sighted world. The students had several questions for her and her father (our student actors playing Captain Keller and Kate Keller actually asked her dad to stay after to answer more personal questions about parenting a non-sighted child). The sighted students came out of this session with a better understanding of the world around them.
Can you speak a bit about your experience with the Broadway Teacher's Workshop? What were key things that you were able to take back to your own classroom?
CM: This past summer marked my ninth trip to New York to attend the Broadway Teacher's Workshop. What I have enjoyed the most is being able to connect and collaborate with other drama instructors from around the world! The sessions are geared to all levels of instruction, and Pam and Gordon have made sure to take our suggestions and feedback and incorporate them into the following year's sessions. I have brought back several team building activities (warm ups and improv) as well as new ways of looking at student work and achievement! The biggest "take away" from attending BTW is knowing that I am not alone in the struggle to promote and encourage performing arts education in a high school setting.