Every summer, teachers from across the country descend on New York City for Broadway Teaching Group's Broadway Teachers Workshops, four three-day professional development sessions that pair arts educators with Broadway professionals for workshops, networking, and, most excitingly, tickets to Broadway shows. Produced in conjunction with theatrical licensor Music Theatre International, the popular events sell out every year, offering teachers not only the chance to learn new teaching methods and skills, but earn professional development hours and graduate level academic credits as well.
This year, Connecticut theatre teacher Rob Kennedy became our reporter on the scene. Get an inside look at this year's workshop—including sessions with Beetlejuice star Alex Brightman, director Lonny Price, and more—in this first-person journal from the experience.
Hello Playbill! My name is Rob Kennedy, and I am a high school theatre arts teacher and director from Bethany, Connecticut. I have been teaching at Amity Regional High School in Woodbridge, Connecticut for the last 15 years. Every summer (with the exception of 2021) I attend the Broadway Teachers Workshop in New York City. I call it theatre teachers' fantasy camp. Teachers come from all 50 states, Canada, Mexico, Australia, Japan and beyond. Broadway Teachers Workshop (or BTW) is the brainchild of director Gordon Greenberg and Producer Pam Pariseau. The conference consists of three days of workshops with some of Broadway's best and brightest, and each night the participants attend a Broadway production, four in total. This year marks my 17th BTW. Every time I attend, I leave feeling renewed and energized for the upcoming school year. I have attended classes in every conceivable aspect of theatre. BTW has made me a better teacher and a better theatre artist. I have chosen my class options for the next three days and the shows we are seeing in order are; Moulin Rouge! The Musical, Company, The Play That Goes Wrong, and Funny Girl.
Up and out early to catch the 7 AM Metro North Train to Grand Central. The conference is at A.R.T./New York Theatres in Hell's Kitchen. After a quick detour to drop my bag off at the hotel, it will be time to check in and pick up my information pack and my show tickets.
The first workshop of the day is with Marcia Milgrom Dodge. Marcia is an accomplished director and choreographer who has worked on Broadway and across the world. Marcia shared her process with us focusing on pre-production. It was fascinating to hear how she approaches her work. She used her 2021 production of Beauty and the Beast at the Olney Theatre in Maryland as an example on what her directing process is like. This production put a new spin on the Disney classic by casting a disabled dancer who had lost his leg to cancer as the Beast and an actor of color and size as Belle. Marcia discussed how by being open to casting non-traditionally, it helped her tell a unique story and explore new ideas in her version of the musical and what it means to today's audiences. She shared her passion for research and inclusion of all the cast in her creation of a show. Marcia detailed how she starts the production process, how she breaks down her scripts, collaborates with designers, and works with the actors. She explained what she called the “the 5 questions” on how she approaches a play. She explained how she always assigns names and job titles to everyone in her ensemble cast as a means to make them feel included in the process. I loved that idea and now will incorporate that into my own shows. Marcia's class was a great way to kick off BTW.
My second class of the day was called “Celebrating Sondheim.” The class was led by actor-director Lonny Price. Lonny greeted us and acknowledged what Stephen Sondheim meant to him. Lonny has directed many Sondheim shows across the world and was in the original Broadway cast of Merrily We Roll Along. Lonny also directed a documentary for Netflix on that experience that I highly recommend, titled Best Worst Thing That Ever Could Have Happened. Lonny introduced the two actors he was going to work with and that they had each prepared a Sondheim song. The idea was that Lonny was going to work with the actors like he does when he directs a show. The first actor sang “Marry Me Little” from Company. After the actor had sung it once, Lonny asked her to just speak it as if it were a monologue. They discussed how it was a negotiation, with pull and push from the actor and her imaginary scene partner. This approach worked very well, and when the actor sang it a second time there was a huge change in the performance. The song became very grounded and real. It was really interesting to see Lonny guide her through the idea of the song and what it means to her. The second actor sang “Finishing the Hat” from Sunday in the Park with George, which Lonny proclaimed to be his favorite Sondheim song. After the actor finished, Lonny discussed how audiences don't appreciate any self-pity from a character. He said it makes the audience lean back instead of lean in. He also talked about when a performer has to hold a note for a long time and how sometimes the actor can have “dead eyes” while holding the note. He suggested the actor process the next idea or beat of the song while they hold the note instead. His direction worked like magic on the performer—It was a whole new performance after that. I am definitely going to use that when directing my own shows. I asked Lonny a question during the Q-and-A period that flummoxed him a little. I asked him what he knew about Sondheim now at 63 that he didn't know when he was 20. He paused for a long time and didn't have an answer. He said he would have to think about that. This was a really interesting session. It's always fascinating for me as a director of high school students to watch a professional director at work. I always learn so much by observing.
After the session, [Broadway Teaching Group Co-Artistic Director] Pam [Pariseau] introduced a bingo game for all of the participants to get to know each other a little. The Bingo spots included “Directed Mamma Mia!”, “has had a former student appear on Broadway,'' and “canceled a show due to COVID.” Then we broke for lunch.
After a great lunch at Mom’s Kitchen and Bar in Hell's Kitchen, my first afternoon session was with actor William Youmans. Bill is a Broadway veteran who is mostly known for originating the roles of John Astor in Titanic and Dr. Dillamond in Wicked. Most recently, Bill was in the cast of To Kill a Mockingbird as Dr. Reynolds and others. Bill was very easy going and friendly. He brought a scene from To Kill a Mockingbird and asked for volunteers to play the various parts in the scene. The scene was performed multiple times by different actors. Bill spoke about making the scene unique to each cast and how each actor brought their own experiences to the part. It was very interesting to see how all the different casts read the scene and how the dynamics changed each time. I got to play Dill Harris in one of the readings. My friend and colleague from Trumbull, Connecticut Jessica Spillane took some photos of me. Thanks Jess! Bill also briefly talked about the importance of the text and even spoke about how Aaron Sorkin, the writer of To Kill a Mockingbird, insists that the actors cannot change one syllable of text.
The final sessions of the day turned into what Pam described as “Sophie's Choice.” Due to a scheduling conflict, the two sessions offered were “Meet the Artist: Harvey Fierstein” and “Comedy Scene Study: Beetlejuice” with Alex Brightman. As I had seen Harvey speak many years ago at this conference, I chose the Alex Brightman workshop. It didn't disappoint! This is my second interaction with Alex. In 2016, I took my high school students to New York to see School of Rock. We had arranged a workshop before the show and Alex came at the end to take questions from the students. Alex is a born teacher. He is irreverent and funny, but he also has a great way of describing his process and sharing his experience to help others learn. When Alex arrived, he explained that COVID was tearing through the Beetlejuice cast and they experienced their first canceled performance that very evening. Alex shared with the group a document called “Comedy in Musicals.” Receiving information like this as a high school teacher is incredibly helpful. Alex talked about his own process and telling young actors to find their own comic voice and not to copy. He said, “steal and learn from the best, but don't copy.” He told us to tell our students to “lean in” and don't take the safe route. He said that to make great comedy and find the humor in a script, the actor has to be unafraid to fall on their face or be unfunny. He explained that failure is just a necessary part of the process. He shared some ideas for assignments for our students, like having them watch two episodes or their favorite sitcoms and simply write down what they found funny and why. He told them to become “joke detectors” so they find their own comic voice. This is the first strictly comedic workshop I have attended at BTW. I found it endlessly interesting and informational. Alex Brightman is a treasure.
After a short break for dinner. I grabbed a quick shower at my hotel and walked to Times Square for our 7 PM show, Moulin Rouge!. Do cookies from Schmackary's count as dinner? Oh well. Tickets to all the shows we see are included in the workshop. Moulin Rouge! was wonderful. They transformed the entire theatre into Paris in 1899. The performances were incredible, as were the sets, costumes, and particularly the lighting. After the show, the performers stayed after for a talkback with teachers. Members of the ensemble and leads Derek Klena and Ashley Loren stayed after to answer our questions. One of the great surprises of the night was that two of the ensemble actors had their very own high school teacher attending the workshop this year. It was wonderful to see them reconnect and how proud the teachers were of their students.
An Uber back to the hotel and off to bed! I was exhausted and another big day was ahead.
First up: coffee, and lots of it. BTW is a marathon, but it's always harder when it's 10,000 degrees like it was this week in Manhattan.
The first session of the day was led by Producer and BTW founder Pam Pariseau. Pam offered up topics for all of us to discuss and share. The main topic was of course teaching theatre in the time of COVID. This has been a struggle for all of us, even in the second half of the pandemic when we were back at school but dealing with the fallout of a year in lockdown and virtual school. Many directors discussed declining numbers and difficulty with students truly engaging again. Often what I find in these discussions is not a solution, per-se, but an empathetic ear. Most often a theatre teacher is a unicorn in a school system. They are a one-person department. Being able to discuss these kinds of topics with other teachers who are going through similar situations is really helpful. I know I always feel better when I know that I am not alone (Thank you, Mr. Sondheim).
The second session was led by the always-informative Peter Flynn. I have taken quite a few workshops with Peter and I learn something each and every time. Peter is a professional director with credits from Broadway and beyond. Peter is also a professor at Montclair State University, and his teaching experience is always helpful to us. Peter’s workshop focused on blocking. Peter explained his process in very simple terms. He explained how all the blocking has to serve the play directly. He said over and over again that “the text is everything!” One of my favorite things that he said that changed my perspective is to think about the audience's needs. We must know what information the audience needs in order to understand the play. He gave us so many questions to ask ourselves. Why sing? Why dance? Why sing now? Why this song? Who is hearing them sing? Peter is a dynamic teacher. Every single time I attend one of his sessions I go home with pages of notes.
Session two was hosted by Bliss Griffen, who is a champion of inclusion in the arts. This is a topic that is very near and dear to my heart right now as my school is struggling with this. Bliss provided us with great reading materials and places we can look for resources on this subject. As a theatre teacher we often have a unique set of problems to deal with when it comes to DEI. Bliss pointed us in the right direction. We talked about inclusion in casting and stereotypes versus archetypes. I really appreciated this session and was glad Pam and Gordon included it.
I skipped eating during the lunch break and hustled down to the Drama Book Shop on 39th street. Whenever I come to Manhattan I always try to stop here. The selection of scripts and textbooks is second to none. The staff is amazing too—plus now they have coffee! Two-hundred dollars later I was headed back uptown to Hell’s Kitchen for the next session.
For session three, we had the pleasure of having two cast members from Company come to spend an hour with us. Etai Benson and Brittany Coleman came with a scene from the show and used a lucky volunteer teacher to read the scene with them. The two cast members were so easygoing and relaxed as they went through their experiences with the play and working with director Marianne Elliot and Mr. Stephen Sondheim. Thankfully. Mr. Sondheim's spirit was all over this year BTW. Both actors sang from the show for us. What a treat it was to have them perform for our small group of 100 or so teachers.
The final session of day two was a meeting with the folks at Music Theatre International. MTI is the licensing house for many Broadway shows and has been a longtime BTW partner. We got to meet our representatives who issue contracts to us high school folks. MTI laid out some new shows that will become available to high schools soon, including Groundhog Day, Rocky, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, and a special Sondheim In Concert. They demonstrated some of the technology they offer to help enhance our productions, including a new projection service that provides digital backdrops. We also took part in the infamous “Rehearscore Challenge” for some great prizes.
After a quick rest, we had a 7 PM curtain for Company. I was really excited to see this show, and it surpassed all expectations. It's the first show I have ever seen that had three mid-show standing ovations, one for Matt Doyle after his amazing rendition of “Not Getting Married;” another for the queen herself, Ms. Patti LuPone, after an earth-shattering “The Ladies Who Lunch;” and for Katrina Lenk after “Being Alive.” I think because the show only had a few weeks remaining, the theatre was full of Broadway fans. The audience was “in it” from note one. Of the four shows we saw, this was my favorite.
After Company, Pam and Gordan set us up for a mixer at Sardi’s. We had the entires second floor bar to ourselves and we enjoyed some social time with each other. This mixer is a BTW tradition and I always look forward to it. What better place to have the mixer than the world famous Sardi’s? Afterward, I headed over to The Glass House Tavern for a late-night bite and to catch up with my former student Kimberly Jenna Simon, who produces the very popular Pronoun Showdown at Feinstein’s/54 Below. We had a great chat and some great bites as always at the Glass House.
Time flies when you are having fun! A shortened schedule today, as we had a “two-doe shay.” We attended The Play That Goes Wrong for the matinee and Funny Girl in the evening.
Session one was led by Pam Pariseau once again. This session focused on the drama teacher as producer. A lot was shared in the hour. Teachers shared victories and failures during the pandemic. We are all concerned about what long term effects COVID will have on our programs and our students' mental health. At the beginning of the session, Jeff from the online ticket service ShowTix4U spoke to us about some of his products and he shared some data with us about average ticket prices, ad revenue, and the importance of capturing data from our theatre patrons. Some of the teachers are struggling for ways to legitimize their programs to their administration and struggle to keep up with sports. Others spoke about their cooperation with their administration and athletic directors to make the arts equally important to sports. Various fundraisers were offered, and one director spoke about a pilot program of a show they ran with MTI. It was during this exact session back in 2007 that I changed the way I direct and produce high school theatre. The information shared here was invaluable to me. I found new ways to fundraise and become entirely self-sufficient from my school's budget. I became a much better producer and advocate of my own program. I hope other teachers find the same from this year's session.
Session 2 was called “Broadway: Meet the Artists.” Our esteemed guests were all from the cast of The Music Man. We had Harold Hill and Marian understudies (respectively) Max Clayton and Kathy Voytko, joined by the effervescent Nicholas Ward, who plays one of the barbershop quartet in the show. Each actor shared their own unique journey to Broadway. Kathy was a dancer who eventually went on to study at Shenandoah University. Nick was a choir singer who was given encouragement from his high school choir teacher. He worked many years in regional theatre and theme parks before making his Broadway debut in the The Lion King after dozens of auditions. Max Clayton, who studied at the Cincinnati Conservatory of Music, shared his experience of attending the Tony Awards on a Sunday night and the next day flying to his home in Ohio only to be summoned back to New York to go on for Hugh Jackman, who had contracted COVID. Each performer sang for us and answered any and all questions from the teacher attendees. It was our privilege to hear them sing and to get to know them.
Next was a quick take-out lunch and an Uber to New World Stages for the long-running The Play That Goes Wrong. This is the funniest play I have ever seen. The laughs are non-stop, and the actors' physical performances are not to be missed. It's no wonder this show has run for so many years. After the show, we had the honor of a special talk back session with the actors and the stage management team. They took us through the technical aspects of parts of the show and how they all wear protective gear underneath their costumes so they don't get injured. The timing and choreography necessary for this play is off the charts. The cast was very nice to stay after when they had another show looming later that evening.
Time for a lunch break at Virgil's Barbecue, where I enjoyed some brisket and pulled pork.
A short rest and a shower, and I was headed back into the theatre district for Funny Girl. There was a lot of buzz around this show about its star, Beanie Feldstien. I have never seen a production of this show and I looked forward to seeing what all the fuss was about. We all enjoyed the show and Beanie was very winning in her performance of Fanny. The audience was clearly behind her and rooted for her throughout the show. I was glad I got to see it. I might come back to see what Lea Michele will bring to the role.
Well, another Broadway Teachers Workshop in the books for me. I am already counting the days until number 18! I feel rejuvenated after a tough school year, and I feel energized and armed with some new tools and perspectives on my teaching. I know how lucky I am to live so close to New York to be able to attend each year. If you are a theatre teacher, do whatever you can to attend at least once in your career. It will change your life!