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October 23, 2019

By Robin Becker, Assistant Director of Communications, Institutional Engagement

Students with a passion for performing arts at the Ethical Culture Fieldston School have no shortage of educational, engaging, and enlightening options to choose from. In recent years, actors performed a contemporary adaptation of “Oklahoma! — which grappled with America’s history of stealing land from indigenous peoples — and dancers mastered choreography inspired by the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. ECFS routinely offers opportunities both unique and challenging, expanding the idea of what Fieldston Middle and Upper performing arts departments can be.

This year, students at ECFS are exploring even more facets of stage production: both Fieldston Middle and Upper students have multiple opportunities to engage directly with playwrights and choreographers while working on original theatrical and dance productions commissioned by the school. Fieldston Upper fall drama, Dance Repertory concert, and 7th and 8th Grade drama workshop have all been or are in the process of being created especially for ECFS students.

These original productions offer the chance to witness the artistic process and to engage fully with the work from drafting to performance. Through these experiences, the curtain is drawn back, revealing the mysterious and often intimidating process of artistic creation. What’s more, students see themselves as part of the process.

“When they’re watching someone engaged in that aspect of the craft, it’s either a reminder or it’s an invitation to think of themselves as people who can create original work,” says Clare Mottola, Chair of Fieldston Upper Theatre and Dance Department.

Last spring, playwright Megan Hart spent an afternoon getting to know students and faculty at the Ethical Culture Fieldston School. The conversations spanned privilege, class, adolescence, and race. Over the summer, Hart wrote an original play, “Can’t Stop/Won’t Stop,” inspired by her time on campus. Fieldston Upper students will premiere Hart’s play this fall. 

“Can’t Stop/Won’t Stop” tells the story of a college town taken over by a relentless rainstorm. At the same time, young people in the town are consumed by an epidemic that causes them to dance uncontrollably. The play offers a profound, scary, and comical look at the adolescent brain and how it feels to lose control. 

“I am also, in my other life, a social worker by training,” explains Hart. “I am endlessly thinking about how structures and systems inform our lives and how identity plays a role in that.” 

Students are engaged with the play in a way that is unique to working with original material. If an actor feels like a line of dialogue or a plot point isn’t sitting right, they can address the issue directly with the playwright and work to solve the problem together. 

“It endows an immediacy and intimacy in their experience with the material,” says Mottola. 

Producing the fall drama is a highly collaborative process, down to the score — William Norman, Theatre and Dance Teacher, is writing original music that will be performed live during the show. 

“Can’t Stop/Won’t Stop” premieres on Friday, November 8, and Saturday, November 9, at 7:30pm in the Fieldston Auditorium. 

Every year, students in the Fieldston Upper Dance Company — a select group of dance majors at ECFS — work with a visiting choreographer to learn their “movement vocabulary,” or their style of dance, as well as a signature piece from their portfolio. Choreographer Nicholas Leichter began working with students in late September, and rather than teaching the company an existing piece from his portfolio, he will be creating brand new material: meeting with the dancers once a week, Leichter studies their movements, their instincts, and their strengths so he can use these observations to choreograph an original dance for the company. 

“This responsiveness is just formidable,” says Mottola. “For them to have the opportunity with this man who is a notable contemporary choreographer is incredible.” 

Through working with original material, the dancers learn much more than new choreography — it’s an opportunity for them to be challenged, to feel that they are an integral part in both the creation and the performance of the piece. The experience also carries more responsibility for the dancers, as they must communicate with Leichter what is working and where they struggle. They must be adaptable to ongoing changes in the choreography, practicing flexibility of the mind as well as the body. 

The Fieldston Dance Company will perform Leichter’s original choreography, as well as pieces the students create themselves, on Friday, January 24, at 7:30pm in the Fieldston Auditorium. 

These unique opportunities are not reserved for Fieldston Upper students — 7th and 8th Graders participating in this year’s drama workshop are working directly with playwright and recent Fieldston alum Noah Parnes ’17, an ethnicity, race, and migration major at Yale University. While at ECFS, Parnes studied screenwriting with William Norman; a play he wrote in class was produced during his senior year.

Parnes spent time in conversation with Fieldston Middle School students over Skype before writing “Cabin 7,” which tells the story of a summer camp. His dialogue with the students was integral to creating the play, and students cherished the opportunity to engage with the work from its early stages. 

“Middle schoolers love engaging with original work; it invokes their sense of possibility,” says Mottola. 

Parnes also benefited from having the opportunity to learn more about the students he would be working with — what occupies their thoughts, what troubles them, and what excites them.

“When I’m writing, I want my characters to be based in truth,” offers Parnes. “I want them to be as real as they can possibly be, to have desires and ideas and any number of other aspects of life that we grow to love in fictional characters across many different forms of art.”

Working directly with a playwright offers Fieldston Middle schoolers the opportunity to explore their creative instincts. It provides a fun, active environment where they are free to express their ideas and grow as artists.     

“They are not undervaluing the profundity of this opportunity,” Mottola says.  

The 7th and 8th Grade drama workshop will perform “Cabin 7” on Wednesday, January 8, at 3:00pm in the Alex Cohen Theater. 

The Ethical Culture Fieldston School builds its academic program around ten core tenets of progressive education. One of these principles is responsiveness — learning happens best when students are motivated, when they are supported, and when they feel that their curiosities and interests shape what they learn. 

Opportunities to work directly with artists provide Fieldston Middle and Upper students with a creative learning experience that is responsive and engaging. Students participating in this year’s fall drama, Dance Repertory concert, and 7th and 8th Grade drama workshop now see themselves not only as performers, but as creators.