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ACT OF LEARNING

Chekhov Theatre Ensemble trains and nurtures teacher-actors & their pupils

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Chekhov Theatre Ensemble does everything other arts-in-education programs do: instruct, nurture and inspire. But what makes this Fort Greene-based program different is that it does this not only for the children, but also for its teaching artists.

"Teaching is what they do; artists is who they are," says artistic director Floyd Rumohr. "We provide performing opportunities for our teaching artists because without this support, they won’t reach a certain level of artistry and teaching skill."

That performing opportunity was provided in May by a series of workshop readings of Nobel Prize winner Dario Fo’s political farce "We Won’t Pay! We Won’t Pay!" in Manhattan and Brooklyn. The readings were directed by Robert Kalfin, who first produced the play at his Chelsea Theater Center in 1980.

The play imagines what might happen when a group of women pilfer produce from a supermarket, and one of these women, Antonia, tries to hide the theft from her self-righteous husband by stuffing the stolen goods under her friend Margherita’s dress and declaring her pregnant. In the fine tradition of Burns and Allen, or Lucy and Desi, the two women fool their frazzled husbands, Giovanni and Luigi, eventually finding them accomplices in larceny.

Kalfin says that directing the play becomes an educational exercise because of its "unique style and form." He came up from Florida to help Rumohr because he felt that "what [Rumohr] is doing is very important for the survival of theater."

"The fact that people are learning the practice and value of theater means that we will have audiences in the future," he says. "[Theater] is a healing art because of what it does for us. It feeds the soul of society."

Rumohr founded the Chekhov Theatre Ensemble in 1994 and named it after Michael Chekhov, a nephew of playwright Anton Chekhov and an actor, teacher and director himself. Considered one of Stanislavsky’s most brilliant pupils, he came to the United States in 1940 and established his own school, the Chekhov Studio, based on a whole approach to actor-training using the body and movement.

"In education it’s called kinesthetic," says Rumohr. "Fifty percent of children are kinesthetic learners. Speech and movement processes should be intrinsic to the world view of literacy."

The program has reached children in New York City, Long Island, Westchester County, the Lee County school district in Florida and most recently, Bache Martin, a school in the Fairmount district of Philadelphia.

Rumohr says he goes through an extensive process before selecting a school for collaboration.

"We have to feel comfortable working with each other," he says. "We look to see if the school has resources as well as intent, and will give professional development and reflection time. The school must see the program as a viable academic experience."

Teaching artists visit schools once or twice a week and teach rehearsal skills and technique in what Rumohr calls "sustained, sequential theater instruction." They make use of existing text, create their own script or modify an existing text.

"One third-grade class used Roald Dahl’s ’Matilda,’ but there wasn’t enough dialogue, so we created it," Rumohr says.

This year at PS 145 in Bushwick, each of four classes in grades 3 to 5 acted out one scene from "Macbeth." The children worked with percussion instruments with their music teacher and created their own scenery, props and clever costumes with red gloves to represent blood, and witches’ masks with eyes to show that the witches can see into the future.

Rumohr believes the program is beneficial not only for students, but also for teachers.

"It allows children to excel where they previously didn’t. It’s good for teachers to see kids responding in new ways and good for kids to see teachers in the role of learners," he says.

April Cantor, who played Antonia, is also Rumohr’s co-teacher at PS 145. She remembers one girl, shy and not very popular, who wasn’t happy performing on stage and decided to help with the props instead.

"She took full responsibility," says Cantor. "She found her niche backstage but more important, she knows she can be good at something." Cantor says she observed a change in manner, dress and the way this girl interacted with her peers.

Georgia Southern-Penn played Margherita, and last year worked with two Long Island schools: a mixed group of children from Herricks Middle School and Viscardi School for children with physical and learning disabilities.

The children acting with children who couldn’t speak learned to work with voice boxes. Others learned to push wheelchairs.

"They had to learn how to work together," says Southern-Penn. "They were great problem solvers."

Interestingly, it was the students with disabilities who had previous performing experience that served as mentors.

"They motivated the other kids," says Southern-Penn. More importantly, she said, "They learned that they were all alike."

In March 2000, Chekhov Theatre Ensemble moved into 138 South Oxford St., a Fort Greene building housing 19 arts programs, including the Kings County Shakespeare Company and Roots & Branches, a Jewish culture organization.

In this building Chekhov Theatre Ensemble teaching artists train, rehearse and perform workshop readings of plays like "We Won’t Pay! We Won’t Pay!" which are open to the public.

For more information, call (718) 398-2494 or visit www.chekhovtheatre.org.

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