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Julie Robles #ASpotlight Interview

Our next #ASpotlight is with Julie Robles, Theatre and Technical Theatre Director. Read her full interview to learn about the importance of theatre and technical theatre in our boys’ well-rounded education, how theatre encapsulates social-emotional learning across divisions, and how she has structured our theatre program to thrive during remote learning.

Can you tell me about your educational and professional path to becoming the Theatre Director and Technical Director at Allen-Stevenson?
I always knew I wanted to go into acting. Right before graduate school, I toured around the South, performing Shakespeare at K-12 schools. After the shows, we would stay for 2-5 days to do acting workshops with the students and teach them about the plays that we performed. That experience taught me a lot and was one of the catalysts for my love of education.
My love for teaching theatre really flourished in graduate school at the University of North Carolina. I went to a small program that accepted only eight students every other year. It was a full ride, and part of the fellowship was that you had to teach undergraduate students a class that was your specialty. I taught Shakespeare and voice. I started falling in love with teaching quickly. It was the best of both worlds. I was able to hone my acting skills on stage and then take it off stage to these students who were so hungry to learn.
After I graduated, I came back to New York City. This moment is where Allen-Stevenson comes in because Stacy Donovan, who is my predecessor, was my theatre director when I was in prep school at Cheshire Academy in Connecticut. I have known her since I was 13. She cast me in my first Shakespeare play. That is when I fell in love with Shakespeare, and she and I have stayed connected ever since. She helped me with my undergraduate and graduate auditions, and she has been a second mother to me. She was looking for someone to do costuming in her A-S plays and knew I was interested in costuming and could do the technical side of theatre as well. So, she asked me if I wanted to try it out. For a couple of years, I was doing costumes for all the shows, and it blossomed from there as I became immersed in the Allen-Stevenson community. I got to know the students and teachers and worked backstage with the technical theatre crew. From there, I started working as a substitute teacher for the faculty and became even more familiar with the School.
I just fell in love with Allen-Stevenson! I love the environment. I love how small and connected the A-S community is – everyone knows each other and is supportive of each other. Specific to theater, I thought it was so great that boys this age were not only acting but that they also had the option to go backstage. They were able to pick and choose what they wanted to do within theater and get a full, whole view of the subject.
When Stacy Donovan decided to leave New York City after a long, meaningful career with Allen-Stevenson, I saw it as my opportunity to step up. So, I put my hat in the ring, and here I am.
There are many directions that your career could have taken within the realm of theatre. What is it about working in an independent school environment that speaks to you?
I always knew I wanted to work in an independent school environment where I could have close connections with faculty and students. I have always been drawn to smaller communities where you get that one-on-one student-teacher relationship. So, working at A-S has been a match made in Heaven.
This independent school environment fosters a culture where students are able to feel uncomfortable in a comfortable space. I say that a lot to the boys – that I don’t want them to be afraid to make a mistake. They know they have the Allen-Stevenson community as a support net to catch them if they fall. We want them to know that it’s okay to mess up. Everyone has missteps in life – how we pick ourselves back up is what’s important. This skill is especially relevant to the theater. We ask thorough and uncomfortable questions. We need to, and do, have a responsive, supportive community that will help students and faculty navigate that.
What value do you think our drama program adds to our boys’ comprehensive education?
Drama classes definitely help them think outside the box in unique ways because they are marrying their critical and creative minds and can imagine exaggerated scenarios and explore them. They can laugh and cry - things that might not be ‘masculine’ but that they can do in a performance space without consequences. I think that is so important at an age where students are sponges. They soak up everything around them. Theatre lets them explore themselves and the world without consequences or judgment. In this way, it is so important for social-emotional learning. 
Starting this year, theatre is now a separate class for our Lower School boys. Can you talk about how that started and the value it adds?
So, when COVID hit in March 2020, I decided to use it as an opportunity to tie theatre into the youngest boys’ learning. Before this, boys in Grades K-2 had always had an end of year play project dealing with what they’re learning in their curriculum. They didn’t have a drama class that helped boys to put it all together and connect those building blocks.
The program started with a Create A Play activity that I thought up last year as a new and creative way to keep our boys learning during these unprecedented times. I kicked off the project with a video introducing the concept and educating the boys about the vocabulary they may not be familiar with, like the word “prop.” Every week, I sent out a video providing a prompt word and two prop ideas that the boys needed to use when storyboarding their play. These props were household items likely to be in their residence, like ‘spoon’ and ‘glasses’. On the off chance that the boys did not have the prop at home, they were encouraged to get creative and draw or craft it instead! So, the boys used these words to imagine a script for a short play and used tech devices like tablets or smartphones to film their videos and upload them to the Seesaw app.
This autonomy over their work was so empowering for our youngest learners. Creating and uploading a video with only minimal help from adults is a pretty impressive accomplishment!
I was so inspired by the creativity that the boys were showing, and the kids loved it. In Second Grade the other day, I had a student ask me if we can have a movie day to watch their submissions from last year.
Moving forwards, Create a Play will be a once-a-year thing. I don’t want my content to become stale. So, I want to keep it but really broaden my lesson plans to meet the boys where they are and focus on what they need for a specific grade.
You incorporate a huge amount of social-emotional learning into your Lower School theatre curriculum. Can you tell me about that and why this is so important to our boys’ education?
In large part, due to COVID, the boys are all about emotions and human connection right now. So, we are focusing on emotions in characters. We are studying emotions and then slowly building to how to put emotion into your characters.
Maybe as a theatre person, I’m just hyper-aware of these things, but I became aware of a shift in our boys from when they were all unmasked learning from home to when some transitioned back to school and were wearing masks over Zoom. Some were hesitant to express themselves, and others couldn’t read how classmates or teachers were feeling because the masks were obscuring facial expressions. We are in the midst of a societal shift right now. I think that even when we have a vaccine and COVID ends, some people are just going to feel more comfortable wearing a mask. Our society might normalize mask-wearing more. So, we must help our boys adapt to reading emotion using other clues, like body language.
At the beginning of class, we do a check-in, and the boys often tell me stories about themselves. They light up and get so animated - I can tell what kind of emotion they’re expressing even when they’re wearing a mask. I realized through these storytimes that we need more specific emotions beyond happy and sad. We needed to get more specific. 
I was on an acting website that I enjoy, and I came across a photo layout of Actor Jim Varney making a series of amazingly expressive faces. I took that photo and turned it into a project that I called “The Masters of Expression.” I photoshopped face masks over Mr. Varney’s mouth in the photo layout and had boys guess what emotion he was acting out.
The class discussed how difficult it can be during the pandemic to know how people feel because everyone is wearing a mask. But, by being more aware of other parts of the body like eyes, eyebrows, hands, and foreheads, they can play detective and become masters of expression! I had them take the image and break it down to learn really specific emotions and build up their vocabulary.
For another Lower School class, I bought a bunch of those emoji expression masks like the ones people use in wedding photo booths. I held up an emotion and had the boys tell me what feeling they thought it was. Often, they started by saying something simple like “sad” and I would push them deeper. I might say, “when you are just sad, do you sob and cry?” The boys would think and say, “So, maybe he’s more than sad.” Then we talked about which words mean more than simply sad, thus introducing more vocabulary.
We talked a lot about the silly face emoji during this unit. The boys often said the emoji man is feeling “crazy.” I pushed back and pointed out that “crazy” is not an emotion, and if you call someone crazy, it can be hurtful and make them feel sad. Maybe it would be better to describe his emotion as “super silly.” We also talk about the word “dumb.” You can say someone is “confused,” but you don’t want to call them “dumb.” “Dumb” is not an emotion, and it is hurtful to call someone that.
It’s important for boys at this age to be able to take these emotions and – kind of like a tree – branch off and explore more specific emotions.
You are working with our sixth graders now on improv. What value do you think improv has outside of theatre class?
Sixth-grade theatre class is all about the foundations of improvisation, and I think it’s fantastic for their social-emotional development. Improv teaches them how to think fast on their feet, collaborate, work together, and how to celebrate their peers and themselves. Celebrating themselves is just as important. They need to feel good about themselves, especially during this trying pandemic time.
It has been great to watch some boys really come out of their shells. Boys who might be wallflowers are starting to open up and voice ideas that they want to share. They had those ideas before – now they just have the confidence to speak up without fear of judgment. They are building confidence that what they have to say is valid, that their classmates will support them, and that it’s okay to be silly sometimes and you don’t need to be embarrassed.
Also, I want them to not second guess themselves. So much tension comes from this anxiety to please others, which causes you to pull back and inhibit yourself. I want them to let go of that and learn how to laugh things off and move on.
There is a huge amount of trust involved in improv. You need to have a positive mindset, and that mindset stretches beyond improv. We talk about constructive criticism and lifting each other up. I tell the boys that it is all about buoyancy. You don’t fight in scenes. You keep it buoyant and positive.
I think the two biggest things I want my boys to take away from this class are celebrating each other and supporting each other outside of theatre class. A boy this age can be so quick to shut others down and say, “that’s so stupid.” I hope this class opens the boys up to giving others a chance to speak and, if they don’t agree with what others say, to find a kind, productive way to voice their opinion that doesn’t put the other person down. It’s possible to have healthy arguments in life, and you don’t always have to agree with what others say, but you DO have to be kind and respectful. Let others speak their truth, and you speak yours. We want boys to leave Allen-Stevenson with healthy mindsets that set them up for success in life.
Our Seventh Grade Play has also been creatively adapted to fit these times of social distancing. Can you tell me about that?
We wanted to find a way to show boys that theatre has not gone away – it’s here and it’s still strong! And the boys are brimming with ideas. I get emails from them constantly with ideas and we always try to incorporate their input to give them authority over what they’re doing. It’s virtual – which is their world. They know this work better than we do. They’re able to take so much autonomy and really make this their own.
So, we had them present monologues from real people – not from plays. The pieces themselves are from books like Working by Studs Terkel, Me Talk Pretty One Day by David Sedaris, and even a speech by Barack Obama. The boys did extensive research to create the backstories and personalities of the characters. For example, one boy was given the role of a paperboy from a specific year. He had to research what a paperboy did, how much money he made, what clothes he would wear, and what were his pastimes. The boys learned so much and put so much of their personality into these characters. The project required an immense amount of creativity and incorporated tons of empathy. They also had to really understand their character and take a walk in their shoes, so to speak.
I also decided to keep some of the normalcy and have the boys do their monologues live during Middle and Upper School Monday Morning Meeting. All of their friends are in attendance, so they have to practice talking under pressure. It really ties in public speaking and is a fun way to keep the experience as authentic as possible.
Tell me about what is happening with Gilbert & Sullivan this year?
Our virtual G&S is going to be quite an endeavor – in a good way! This year’s operetta is Patience, and it will require patience. We kicked off the process with a Fall Elective, where we broke down the script and talked about how to study a character. We also explored the art of taking an audition, which is a unique experience itself.
So, what we are going to do is release G&S in parts that we are calling “scene sets.” We will release them each in separate videos. We are sending the boys microphones to record themselves, and then the technical theater boys will put it all together with help from me and members of the Music Department, Michelle Demko, Jaison Spain, and Aleeza Meir.
We are set for a release in March, around the time G&S happens typically. The boys are really excited! They are working so hard on this.
In addition to theatre, you lead our Technical Theatre team. Why do you think it’s important for schools to offer both theatre and technical theatre to students?
Our theatre program is unique in that boys can be on stage, off stage, or both. They can choose what they want to do – lights, sounds - it’s up to them.
Technical theatre gives them an option to be involved in the process in a way they are comfortable. Not everyone has to be on stage. It’s inspiring to see all the boys on their headsets running the show.
During technical theatre, we do design to application. They boys read through the script, and we brainstorm together, coming up with a set and ideas for feasible ways to execute its design. From there, we shift to specific roles each boy wants to take on. One boy will say, “Oh, I have a great idea for sound,” and another will say, “Oh, I know exactly how to make that tree for the set.” They’re very good at divvying up roles and taking ownership of their part. That’s what makes it such a successful collaboration. They have their own roles in which they take pride, and as a group, they put these parts together. The process gives them an incredible amount of autonomy and many leadership opportunities.
During the live show, I am very hands-off – the boys really do run the show themselves. I think it’s important for me to take a step back and give them a chance to run with it. I believe that the satisfaction they feel after a show is deserved because they earned it. They worked hard and independently.
Our Town, the Seventh Grade Radio Play last spring, would not have happened without our tech boys. G&S would not occur without our tech boys. None of our performances would happen without them. Especially during the pandemic, none of these things would happen without them. They are so wonderful.
Do you have any other roles at A-S with which our community might not be familiar?
I help behind the scenes with Middle and Upper School Monday Morning Meeting. I have started hosting that and it has been a great way to work with new colleagues and get to know students I don’t always spend time with daily. It’s also nice to have this top of the week thing every Monday, and start the week off with our wonderful community.  

Allen-Stevenson’s distinctive “enlightened traditional” approach educates boys to become scholars and gentlemen.

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