When I started teaching at Temecula Valley High School in 2009, I was as new to the field as I could be. I’d scarcely had my teaching credential authorized before a position became available in my hometown. Before I had much time to process what was happening, I found myself getting ready to teach a full schedule of young people that were, in some cases, only four years my younger. What’s more, part of my new workload was helming the school’s theatre department – which meant that the production choices, set design, casting, blocking, and any number of other sundries associated with public high school theatre – were now in the hands of a fella who, only months before, had been finishing up his undergrad studies.
So, you know: no pressure there.
Though the connection between the two wouldn’t be clear for some years, I was just as new to (and just as lost in) the popular culture explosion that came about in the late-00s. I hadn’t read comics coming up – it wasn’t until college that I became engaged with the medium – but the release of Iron Man in 2008, and the subsequent media shift caught my attention. I attended my first Comic-Con in ’08, and with it found myself awash amid characters, stories, and concepts whose sheer volume I hadn’t ever appreciated. So began a kind of new awareness for me: I, always on the geekier side as a kid, but never fully immersed, had ascended to capital-letter, proud-of-it, unabashed “Nerd”.
I saw some superficial overlap between the two worlds almost immediately. My new students, being so close in age to myself, found it a novelty to have a teacher with whom they could talk about things like comics and popular film (“Did you see that scene at the end with Sam Jackson?”). Being not only aware of popular culture, but openly enthusiastic of it, helped to establish my classroom as one where it didn’t hurt to be genuinely excited about the things that were of interest. As an emotionally-open environment is key to a successful theatre environment, I called that a promising beginning.
Then and now, I make no secret of my hobbies and appraisal of Nerd culture, both because I remember how it feels to be in need of validation in the face of judgmental peers, and because those topics are of use to me during the course of my day-to-day work as an educator.
Over the course of the last nine years, I’ve seen that an enthusiasm and awareness of popular culture is more than just a handy means of code-switching and superficial engagement: especially in the theatre classroom. Popular culture and the work we undertake as students and teacher are very tightly linked.
Relevance and representation
One thing you learn quickly as a theatre teacher is the danger of the season’s “hot show”: destined to be played to death by well-meaning students, whatever the musical du jour was in a given year inevitably became the bane of my existence for its constant presence in my classroom. When Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton was released during my sixth year of teaching, I was hesitant to jump on the bandwagon for this very reason. It was played – constantly – by my students, and I had developed what I can only describe as a pre-emptive aversion to any consideration of its merits as a result.
It wasn’t until a new show, the evocative Dear Evan Hansen, had snagged my students’ attention that I gave Hamilton its fair shake. I recognize now, as many millions have, that a good deal of Hamilton’s success came not from its music, but from its presentation: its openness of casting and its heavy emphasis on a multicultural representation make it an ideal starting place for discussions about typecasting, characterization, and whether some aspects of a story outweigh others. What’s more, I recognized that my students had gravitated to Hamilton for the same reason that Dear Evan Hansen so resonated the next year, and that shows like Heathers and Carrie (yes, that Carrie – check it out!) make such a splash: our students recognize themselves in the shows they most adore, be it because they hear voices that are their own, or because the actors and actresses on stage resemble them physically.
We see the same thing in popular “nerd” culture, comics and films and the like, and I don’t think that the two worlds are altogether separate. We consume that which we recognize as genuine, and our first cue that something is genuine tends to be that we see ourselves reflected in it. It’s this perspective that kept my students from appreciating an exceptional, professional production of the golden-age classic South Pacific that we chanced to see on a field trip: though the work was technically sound, the story and characters did not resonate for their distance from what my students saw as their own life experiences, age or circumstance. In hindsight, it seems obvious that Dear Evan Hansen, a show about the crippling youthful pressure to be noticed in a world that sometimes feels so large and disconnected, would be next on my students’ playlists, just as I began to hear more talk about the Kamala Khan iteration of Ms. Marvel and excited rumors about a Black Panther film: honest identification with a character or circumstance that is relatable and real stands to make more of an impact than even the most revered alternative.
Paying attention to the “man behind the curtain”
As popular culture picked up around the new comics-based media during the start of my teaching career, my students and I became inundated with a whole new crop of household names: Robert Downey Jr. (“Hey, Heid, wasn’t he in stuff in like, the 80s?”), Chris Evans (“No fair, he’s already the Human Torch!”) and Chris Hemsworth (“…you mean Captain Kirk’s dad?”) became focal points for lunchtime nerd-out conversations. The students of mine that were regular Comics readers were more interested in Bendis, Busiek and the Lees (Jim and Stan) and what they were cooking up in whichever crossover epic was coming next.
Here also I came across an unanticipated crossover in my classroom: the same kind of “personality fandoms” that existed in popular culture have an analog in the performer fandoms of educational theatre. My students hung on every nuance of performances from Daveed Diggs, Ben Platt, Jonathan Groff, and scores of others in the same way that they obsessed over the Chrises and RDJ outside of rehearsal. In the saturation of these performers, there exists a chance to talk about what makes these performances notable or worthy of study, and in both cases, there is also a case to mistakenly narrow the focus of the craft, missing out on an essential component of what makes these media so alluring.
For every five students that I had that were interested in Dear Evan Hansen’s music or the performance chemistry between the leads, I had one that was far more interested in the show’s absolutely stunning set design; the same rough ratio existed for students that were more engaged by the use of color and lighting in Hamilton than by Diggs or his talented costars. I realized I’d be doing those students a disservice to not devote equal attention to scenic design and the less visible components of storytelling on the stage. It was from that realization that I drew my first group of stage technicians and set designers, and before long TVHS had a small army of invested young people who were just as happy – in some cases happier – to work behind the scenes to tell the story that unfolded under the stage lights. In the dark of the backstage was where they shone best, and where they thrived. They became leaders, teammates, part of something that was essential, able to demonstrate that their talents and interests, though not as immediately visible, nonetheless had worth.
It’s likewise essential for our students invested in popular culture to recognize the sheer amount of labor and passion that goes into the media that they consume, be it film or print, without appearing as much more than a blip in the credits to a layperson. I see it frequently from teacher colleagues that are handling Comics in their classroom for the first time: with all the best intentions, the work of dissecting the comic book becomes a strictly literary endeavor, focused almost exclusively on story and characterization with little more than passing lip service to visual elements such as color, page layout, and lettering. My students whose interest in Comics focused on the writers and illustrators would be engaged in conversations about story, plotting, and characterization, but the students that were interested in the page layout, the choice of lettering, the use of gutters and color and negative space to enhance the mood of a work – they too deserved validation. Though their interests are not as glamorous nor as immediately visible, they’re just as essential as the work of my backstage technicians.
Tending the garden
Perhaps the most noticeable overlap between theatre and popular culture is in the community that inevitably develops around a group with shared interests. My students became as tight as any group on campus, and before long, for many of them, the performance space that was our classroom was where they spent most of their outside-of-class time during the day. They treated each other like family and the community that developed around our classroom was, by the admission of more than a few, one of the only places on campus that they felt comfortable being themselves.
Even without having been long in the culture, I experienced the same comfort of shared enthusiasm at that first Comic-Con in ’08. Knowing that I could express my inner Nerd without fear of judgment was freeing, and I spent more than a few queues gushing about some latest announcement with the relative strangers in line with me. I’d never been anywhere like it, and it’s a feeling that I return to every year in San Diego.
I’m of the mind that a great deal of the strength of unity that develops in a high school theatre department is due to the secondary-class status that the arts net in the traditional public school environment. Put up against school staples (like sports, etc.), there’s very little surprise that students invested in theatre would take an almost protective interest over theirs and their own; the same can be said of the popular arts, which are likewise stigmatized by outsiders looking to denigrate the art forms as something lesser or unworthy of critical attention. A lot of the unity in both camps comes from a need to protect against overwhelmingly negative impressions from outsiders.
The link is humanity
The similarities between running a successful high school theatre program and maintaining a healthy perspective on popular culture boils down to the humanity shared between each. A theatre is, at its core, an extension of its people: performers and technicians, artistic or pragmatic. The theatre’s community exists as a result of the interactions between them all. It is just so in popular culture: our sphere of shared “fandom” is an extension of that which we each individually bring. We see ourselves in our media; we occasionally struggle to acknowledge all of its moving parts; we come together to form communities that may require some pruning from time to time.
At the start of my teaching career, I wouldn’t have thought too much about the inherent link between theatre and popular culture, and how much the interactions of one mirror those of the other. After nearly a decade in each, the link seems obvious, even natural.
The link is humanity.
The link is us.
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Pop Culture Classroom