Applied Theater and Youth Media

Robert Martin trained professionally as a stage and screen actor and continues to produce, direct, write and perform original stories in schools, theaters, festivals and just about any community setting where a story needs to be told and folks want to tell them. He specializes in the fields of Community-based Arts, Applied Theater, and Digital Storytelling; utilizing his diverse background in alternative styles of theater, hip-hop and oral history to create original media. He currently produces the Clear Creek Festival, a multi-discipline, community arts festival just outside of Berea, KY.
YMR: You have developed a successful approach toward incorporating Applied Theater and media production in the classroom. How did your own background inform the work you do today?
Robert Martin: I became a youth media educator and researcher through a passion for theater and story. Like most of the arts, theater gave me a voice, a platform to explore my identity, and tools to interact with the world. Through theater, I could connect to others, communicate my own experience, and begin to examine the world.
In college, I spent a lot of my time thinking about storytelling—what the tools are that a storyteller needs to successfully honor both voices in the story, that of the actor and character they portray. Theater helped me record my experiences in my physical and emotional memory so I could re-create experience as a writer, actor or director. After graduating, I moved to New York City and was drawn to community-based artists and culture workers—people who did not necessarily identify as traditional theater practitioners, but who had stories to tell about their homes, lives, communities, and place in the world.
I found that when a group is deeply invested and has control over the fate of their projects, the participants often develop a much greater capacity and passion in telling their own stories and incorporating stories they find meaningful. From this place I approached my work as a theater artist and activist, which led to becoming a teaching artist; and, eventually led to work as a youth media educator.
YMR: How did you come to the work of applying theater and media production techniques in the school context? Tell us about your experience in transfer schools and your vision for your work.
Martin: It started when I became a teaching artist with Dance Theatre Etcetera working in NYC Transfer High Schools in Brooklyn. I was wrestling with how to connect my own insights into the power of storytelling with the situation facing Transfer School students. Transfer students are sensitive to failure and doubt, which are aggravated by the traditional top-down, learning-for-the-test, pass/fail structure of the conventional public school system.
Transfer schools are a particular initiative by the NYC school system to address over-aged, under-credited students. These are students that in high school fell behind in their necessary Regents’ credits requirements for reasons of truancy and a variety of other factors, dropped out of school, and agreed to re-enter the educational process through a Transfer School. These schools are typically small (with about 150 students) and have a staff of advocate counselors from a partnered social service agency who meet with students in group sessions each week in addition to their Regents-required classes. Coined “group,” these meetings are a more accessible space to talk about the challenges that affect the school process.
In addition, transfer schools often have a curriculum that is student-based and each student has her or his own trajectory. Additional structures are set up to help re-frame the student’s experience so that they no longer experience failure, including opportunities to work or intern and see society and the workplace differently.
As a teaching artist, I found that an efficient way to cut through the anxiety and insecurity shared by the students in relation to their previous experiences, often with oppressive institutional structures, was to focus my approach as a facilitator using a Freirian approach of Co-Intentional Education—the idea that every person has something to offer, a story to tell, and the capacity to teach as a member of a community if the learning space is genuinely grounded in power sharing and dialogue.
My goal was to help students use media to re-frame their history of experiencing failure within the school system. For many students media was also a tool to examine challenges they felt within their families, their communities, and society more generally—toward an experience of ownership, agency, pride, and community engagement.
YMR: In your work, Applied Theater techniques are a fundamental component of the process through which you support students’ storytelling and media production. Explain a bit more about how this works.
Martin: My aim has been to combine applied theater and critical pedagogy alongside digital storytelling because media and video production clearly piqued my students’ interest from day one. Most students were instantly hooked by the prospect of learning media production, specifically professional camera equipment and editing software.
Students were using media technology as a tool for recording and communicating information. I had only a small role in getting them engaged in this aspect of the class, mostly because new media technology, including video, audio, social media and cell phones, were totally normalized and preferred means of communicating. It took a bit more time to ramp up to the task of telling personal stories, but when framed around assignments—such as: create a short PSA on an issue teens face at school or discuss the challenges teens face getting to school in the morning through a short narrative film—students were able to own their vantage point, become more open to sharing and receptive to other’s feedback as we began to build community around shared experience.
I found that using Applied Theater techniques, such as role-playing exercises, were key. For example, students would role-play as media creators (a role I would ultimately ask them to own by the end of the class) the process of presenting a film treatment to an audience who, in turn, played the role of a production company giving the presenter the opportunity to dialogue around suggestions for improvement and collaboratively arrive at strategies for moving forward.
The combination of Applied Theater and media production, in addition to offering high level tools of expression, creation, and collaboration, positively impacts the lives of students, offering a process that allows students who experienced failure in school to reframe their experiences in a different light with the support of their peers.
YMR: What would you recommend to other youth media educators, given your experience?
Martin: I recently completed my Master’s degree through the first Applied Theater Masters program in the United States at the City University of New York School of Professional Studies (CUNY SPS). At CUNY, I was able to reflect on my teaching practice as a scholar practitioner and go further in capturing the best practices of fusing applied theater with digital storytelling to make the most of classroom learning.
My research evidence includes first-hand accounts from my students who explained why the process engaged them as learners and how it helped change their ideas of what they could accomplish in their lives.
Youth media educators can apply theater and media production to over-aged, under credited students—an important demographic—but also in any school as the goals are the same: to build classrooms that transgress, pursue critical dialogue, support a safe and accessible space for students to explore what ignites and confounds them and their place in society. Such classrooms emulate those envisioned by such scholars as Dewey, hooks and Freire. But the goal is not simply a classroom commitment to “educate” in an innovative way or even to achieve a rise in graduation rates. While those are important outcomes, our approach is fundamentally about valuing young people and their experiences and encouraging them to own and invest in their lives and communities when so many outside influences suggest the opposite.
An Applied Theatre approach to Digital Storytelling will be challenging to the youth media practitioner as it requires group building, acting, devising material, role play, and critical dialogue carefully integrated within a tight media pedagogy. We also know most teachers may not have opportunities to create these learning opportunities left unsupported in their classrooms; but, as alternative educators with access, we can utilize these tools to aid the classroom in becoming a transgressive and safe space that deeply engages story and personal development through theater and media.