Aleta Staton on Teaching & Theater

Meet our new Community Engagement Manager, Aleta Stanton, in this second half of our interview in which she talks of how her 35 years of teaching experience has shaped her life. Her passion and open perspective continue to inspire as she shares how theater translates to everyday life.

Aleta Staton, past project manager, artist services and community programs associate at our festival, is stepping up as our new Community Engagement Manager. Besides working as an educator for 35 years, she has also worked in arts administration, business management, and staff supervision. We are excited to have her expand further community engagement through her bond with the New Haven community, her artistic skills and her extensive leadership background.

 

Not only have you interacted with different people through the festival, but you personally have worked with many different groups through educational settings in teaching theater and other courses. Through working with these communities, how has your approach to instructing art changed?
Through the years, I have come more into my own as an instructor. I’ve found everybody has a way of communicating. There is no—especially in higher education—completely prescriptive way of teaching this or that. You have to discover along the way what parts of you can connect with them that you need to share every day, and what parts of them do you want to draw out, and what methodologies are you going to use for them to communicate with each other in this room, because it all boils down to what is happening in this room. I love teaching higher ed because from day to day, I have a lesson for every increment of the subject matter, but the lesson can veer to the right or the left or explode in the center, and those are the magic moments in class! I live for that, and I’ve learned through the years to let the veering happen. There was a time when I said “We’re gonna get through this lesson; we’re gonna get through every point in this lesson,” and by hook or by crook I got through everything I had planned on paper, but I’ve learned to let the lesson breathe and let it live through this group of students that is gonna be different every semester. Their needs and challenges are going to be different, and so I’ve learned to listen and pay attention to that.

It’s clear that you’re passionate about providing the experience of art to all ages. You’ve taught youth, young adults, college-age students and beyond.
I ran a lifelong learning program for mature adults; I’ve probably taught from Pre-K to mature adults! Playwriting, theater courses. At Quinnipiac I’ve taught theater and First Year Experience (the experience of transitioning into academic life), and at Osher Lifelong Learning Institute I taught theater classes and was a co-teacher of a historical course on the Harlem Renaissance. I was only delivering the theater portion, but I wanted to design in the visual arts and the development of queer and gender perspectives throughout the Harlem Renaissance as well as the writings of the Renaissance and all of that, so this was a really, really wonderful course and they ate it up! I’d love to get the chance to do it again. It was very expansive; it could never be done by just one person.

And you’ve taught vocal music as well?
I taught a course on scat singing. It was more an experiential course as opposed to a music course. It was a course for middle school students that rendered an approach to jumping in to the experience, letting go enough to be able to sing scat music, to create as we go; scat lyrics that are completely improvised over either a music score or a traditional song. It was a very successful program at Betsy Ross Arts Magnet School that ran a few years. I had a master musician actually accompanying me in the class. He was the music expert, and I was the experiential leader—“Be brave; jump in the pool! You can do this!” I was the cheerleader. It was a good design and I haven’t seen anyone delivering a class like that, something I would also love to see continue to happen. The whole idea of improvisation: When does that start? I think that can start as early as and even earlier than middle school.

Were those students already being trained in vocal music at Betsy Ross, or were they first time learners?
Mostly students were experienced in vocal music. For some of them, the accompanist was their teacher. So we tried to tie the scat singing with some of the music they had already studied, with the notion that you can bounce off of whatever you already know and add a scat feature to it.

How would you compare working with students who have some artistic background with working with students who you’re introducing theater, or even younger students who are first experiencing performing arts?
Depending on the age group, sometimes there’s no difference. With younger kids, it’s all new to them. Each instructor has their own style, so even with students who have a lot of experience, they’re meeting you for the first time, and so your style has given them a new lens to look at some of the same material. I’m finding that they’re all being lifted and pushed forward, sometimes at the same rate.

Can you share what personal significance teaching theater to college students has in your life right now?
The importance that it has for me right now is the ability for different classes to open up perspectives of groups of people who were not so ready to get to know each other, to touch each other, to handle conflict in an inventive way… It really gives me joy to see at the end where they’ve come from, how far they’ve come. As they walk into my classroom they’re already adults, but they’re not so ready to reach across the table and even speak to each other, play with each other, and debate with each other, escalate in a safe way. It gives me joy to be able to carry people through those steps and to see them, in a healthy way, be able to interact way differently than they did in the beginning when they first walked into the room; again, it’s all about what happens in that space.

As you teach, what are you having students do to start the experience of interacting with each other and exploring how to express themselves?
In the beginning we take a good, long look at what happens before we speak. We don’t speak for several weeks, and we zoom in on what we’re actually doing: what is happening to expression and through gesture, what are you thinking about, what are you assuming and why are you assuming? And what can you glean from someone’s posture, or from someone who’s not attending to you? So we examine everything that’s happening before we speak, and then we start layering. Layer speech on top, layer grander gestures and expressions, and by the end we have a toolkit of things that we can use that actors and directors use to manipulate a situation. Theater is about manipulation: I want my audience to respond in a specific way, I want them to feel a specific way or not. What I do as a teacher and a director is manipulate through these tools. The tools that students walk away with, they can use on their own. They can use them if they’re going to deliver an address, if they’re going to have a public conversation, if they really want to emphasize specific points in whatever situation they find themselves in. A lot of my students are not theater majors, so the question becomes “why do you need this; what good is this going to be for you when you leave this class?” I add a specific emphasis on that as well as the intersectionality of theater with other industries.

In theater, you’re using these layers to build a believable self, and outside of theater you use them to realize and recognize how we communicate and express ourselves.
Absolutely, and how can you enhance your believability; how can you enhance your concern? You’re very concerned about something: how can you convey that to the room, how can you convey that one-on-one—to the person that might write you a check? (She laughs.)

What are some of your current inspirations? Any performers or works?
Things are gonna pop into my head now and in 10 minutes, so bear with me! Who is inspiring me right now… anybody who is struggling through it in front of me. Anybody who is sharing what is hurting, what is hard to do, what they made a mistake with and are trying to rectify; anybody who is transparent about the struggle. I am inspired by that because it makes it so that I don’t feel so alone with my own struggles. And anybody who’s able to get out of their own head and see that it might also be an issue for someone else is being helpful to me, because they’re giving me something that I can share forward.

— Written by Danae Sawchyn