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  • Words by Stacey Bowers / Photography by Alex Kent

Self-Constructive: Working with Power Tools Builds Confidence in Parkview Students

The stage at Parkview Arts and Science Magnet High School is abuzz two weeks before the opening of the school’s fall play, Arsenic and Old Lace. Stage left, on a French-inspired settee, a student uses a needle and thread to touch up seams in a costume. Stage right, another student brushes gold paint onto a false wall to create the illusion of patterned wallpaper. Near the middle of the stage, a group of young men takes down a large rectangle of wood painted to resemble a window with sunlight shining through, and a pair of young women work together to straighten the railing of a staircase the class built together using a brand new set of cordless drills they received this semester through Thea’s Art Closet.

Their drama tech teacher, Shelle House, beams with pride over the sturdy staircase, the underside of which is fitted with crossbeams to make it strong enough to withstand one of the actors running up it during the performance. House points to the heads of screws visible near the top corners of the underside of the stairs. She says, before the set of cordless Makita drills arrived, this would have been frustrating with the set of bulky, beat-up drills the class had to use before, and cords from the drills would have run a web over the stage, creating a tripping hazard as well as interfering with the electricity. “We used to trip a breaker a day, I think,” House says.

In House’s project request, which she submitted to, a nonprofit that helps schools get materials they can’t afford and with which Arkansas nonprofit Thea Foundation partners to provide funding for local classrooms, she talks about the high energy that fuels drama tech. “In one corner, a group of kids is fabricating giant lollipops while, across the room, a second group is using a table saw to cut lauan to the right size for a false wall,” She says. “Students are painting, drawing, hammering, gripping and learning far, far more than they ever could sitting at a desk. They cross into other groups to gather opinions, share successes or problems and jigsaw each separate piece into one coherent product. Imagine, in this highly kinesthetic scenario, extension cords criss-crossing the floor. This is why cordless drills are not just a convenience in my shop; they are a necessity for safety and productivity.”

Lizzie McKee, a senior and student director for this production, started taking drama tech when she was a sophomore, so she knows well the hassle and safety issues of the old drills. She holds a new drill in one hand and grasps a much heavier, older drill in her other hand, shifting them to demonstrate the weight difference. She says she’s very excited about using the new equipment. “Ms. House has really shown me how to use power tools correctly and safely,” she adds.

House isn’t just an advocate for safety, she’s a huge proponent of the arts; and while some people may thing working with power tools isn’t an art, House begs to differ. “I love theatre because it is a combination of each and every type of art, from engineering and drafting to dancing and singing,” she says. “Technical theatre makes up everything that is on stage that is not acting and because of that is extremely inclusive. There is a place for everyone in technical theatre. If a student isn’t good with tools, he’ll be excellent at makeup. If she hates costumes, she’ll be a magician on the light board. If he just can’t make a microphone work, he’ll create the most amazing props imaginable. The diversity of the program teaches the three most important lessons that I want my students to learn: kindness, creativity, and autonomy.”

House loves watching her students revel in their creativity and accomplishments on her stage, and she loves seeing the confidence and critical thinking skills they gain in her classroom translate to their lives offstage.

“For many of my students, learning to use power tools in the shop equates to freedom. We learn and practice safety procedures, both general and tool-specific, before getting hands-on so that after safety procedures are clearly in place, my students have the privilege to use our tools daily,” she says. “They go from merely drilling pilot holes and driving screws in September to creating a full-stage set in October.

"They surprise themselves with how much they are able to accomplish in such a short amount of time. When they do it themselves, they see the inner-workings of things that seemed undoable or unobtainable before. They eat the whale one bite at a time: analyze materials needed, make measurements, cut, join, finish and texture. This practice allows them to break down other aspects of their lives the same way. If they can build a two-story mansion on stage by breaking it into pieces, then they can certainly apply for a difficult scholarship, write a term paper or do their own taxes. The confidence and willingness to take on challenges that they acquire through technical theatre truly changes their lives for the better. It’s a paradigm shift; big challenges are just a series of smaller, perfectly manageable challenges that art students have the confidence to take on without intimidation.”

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