Our work draws on the love of the craft and the life lessons that are a natural result of a rigorous and non-competitive creative process.
These are the building blocks to our unique artistic and educational philosophy.
Embracing Failure... to get to Success
Dare to fail. Each year the faces that stare back at me look more and more terrified when I tell them that failure is an intrinsic part of the creative process. Fear of failure paralyzes our children, and it is that fear which will cripple our kids on their path toward success as adults. More on Embracing Failure >>
Finding Comfort with Abiguity
Our kids don’t have to spend a minute wondering what that lyric is that they just can’t remember.....or who wrote that book....or which actor was in that movie. They don’t ever have to pronounce a word wrong out loud because they can look up the audio file and avoid the embarrassment of being "wrong." They never have to wait for tomorrow to look it up. They don’t even have to wait an hour. Or a minute. More on Finding Comfort with Ambiguity >>
Convergent and Divergent Thinking
In every PGT class and rehearsal, we provide opportunities for idea generation. We ask our students to create original ideas, and embellish on them. We push them past their first choice, and remind them that their best idea might be their second, or third, or eighth...but they will never find it if they aren’t brave enough to stray from the safety of their first! More on Convergent and Divergent Thinking >>
Creating Community and Cultivating Diversity
One of the things I love about my job is that I get to constantly learn from my students. Last year, one of my kids, Jake Stiel (PGT ’17) sent me a David Brooks column - he said that when he read it, he thought about PGT, and he thought I would find it interesting. Which I did. In the piece, David Brooks distinguishes between what he calls Thick and Thin Communities. More on Creating Community >>
At The Play Group Theatre, we use our class and rehearsal time to explore points of view that are different from our own. We intentionally cast our young actors in roles that are in total contrast to their own experiences and personalities. We challenge our students - and staff - every day with creative experiences that make us think new thoughts, and feel new feelings, and explore new ideas and places and people. More on Practicing Empathy >>
Why We Never Double Cast
It is a typical youth theatre trick: double, triple, even quadruple casting. And what could be better – you get not one, but four chances to get cast as Belle! And of course, that’s the reasoning behind it - but casting happiness (and its reverse, casting disappointment) is fleeting, a super temporary state of being, and what remains is the artistic and educational experience.... which is exactly what suffers under the double casting model.
We are sometimes asked why we don't announce show titles in advance. The fast answer is: Because we are still choosing the right challenges for the actors enrolled in that season. At PGT, the kids come first - then the shows.
The PGT community is a fun and friendly family of students, staff, parents and alumni. Anyone passing through One No. Broadway finds themself welcomed into the net of open arms and is suddenly in it for life.
There is a longstanding PGT tradition of announcing show titles at callbacks (...except when we don't >>). It sounds crazy, right? That means you're auditioning for shows.....and you don't even know what the shows are! It SOUNDS crazy, but PGT students and staff agree that it is a really great tradition... for so many artistic, educational, and fun community-building reasons.
When you arrive for your audition, you will be auditioning for the season - much like a rep company. You are signing on to be part of a theatrical experience and to be part of a company of actors who will be cast in one of several shows that we produce each season.
Meanwhile, the PGT staff heads into the season with a list of shows that we are considering for production. As we watch auditions, we narrow down the exciting list of shows that we are thinking about, ultimately choosing those that we believe will best feature our young actors, while also challenging them in new and exciting ways. Our goal is always to be artistically and educationally mindful of where our students are, collectively and individually, in their creative journey, and then do all we can to meet them there… and propel them forward. Show selection is a huge part of that process.
Since we are choosing our shows to fit our actors, rather than trying to squeeze the actors who happen to register into pre-selected shows, we end up with the right shows, for the right actors...each and every season. Because we aren't locked into a pre-announced show title, we are able to adjust our show selection for age, gender, and skill set of the full group of actors we are working with each season. Not enough dancing boys? Take West Side Story off the list. No sopranos this season? Secret Garden has to go. Save them for another time.
At the same time, we are able to feature and challenge our students in new ways each season, never resigning them to what they already do well. So "non-singers" get parts in musicals all the time, and thus become better singers. And great singers will get cast in a Shakespeare play, and through that experience learn the skills of text analysis.
The right show will build on the skill set our young actors already possess, while providing opportunities to expand their abilities. In other words, we are always pushing our students to work on the edge of their skill set.
Which is why we don't announce a show first and meet the kids second. The kids come first.... they are at the center of our process.
One really great byproduct of this tradition has been that the kids remain open to shows, playwrights and composers they don't already know and they get excited to be in shows they haven't considered before. So we are expanding their theatrical repertoire, and their ideas of themselves as artists. They might not show up for an audition for Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson if we announce it in advance....but ask a cast member about that show. Life changing!
And another super fun Kid-First-Show-Second outcome: the moment when we announce our shows! Instead of reading it on the website alone in their rooms and then texting about it, our students are all together, in person, as a community. And you can see for yourself the excitement in the room: video >>
So....check back in on the big show announcement at call-backs!!! I promise, you won't be disappointed. In the meantime, to get a sense of the kind of wide-ranging plays and musicals PGT has been known to produce in the past, take a look at the gallery of our past productions!
Jill Abusch, Artistic Director
Why we will never double cast
It is a typical youth theatre trick: double, triple, even quadruple casting. And what could be better – you get not one, but four chances to get cast as Belle! And of course, that’s the reasoning behind it - the immediate and quick gratification of casting happiness. But casting happiness (and its reverse, casting disappointment) is fleeting, a super temporary state of being, and what remains is the artistic and educational experience….which is exactly what suffers under the double casting model.
Remember carbon paper? Remember what the copy looked like? You simply can’t make two (or three, or four) of something out of one simultaneous process and expect quality. And you certainly can’t make four of something as unique and different as an artistic experience and expect quality.
Here’s why we will never double cast at PGT:
Double, triple or quadruple casting breeds unhealthy comparisons and a competitive spirit among young artists who should be encouraging the development of one another’s unique creative voices.
Working on the same show with multiple casts simultaneously lends itself to a shallow, result-oriented process.
Casting multiple actors in certain roles but not others (typically, leads get double cast, while the ensemble remains constant) sends the message that only certain roles are important and worthy of being double cast, while others are not – and by extension the message is sent that only certain actors matter and others do not. That is a dangerous message to send, not only to those who believe they do not matter, but also to those who believe they matter more.
At PGT, instead of double casting and artificially creating four of the same lead role, we teach our students to approach every single role like a lead role, and we treat every single actor like a lead actor. To us, they are. We don’t need four Belles, we need one Belle and one Lady with Cane and one Chip and one Hat Seller and one Mrs. Potts and one Angry Villager. And each one is equally responsible for the success of our show.
I know that right now you are thinking: That’s fine, but I still want to be Belle. And I get that. So let’s step back and look past that knee-jerk response for a moment. After all, I hope that your goals for being part of a theatre company are bigger than any one show or any one part. I hope that you want to learn and grow and be part of a creative community that’s grounded in ideals that reach past casting happiness.
We produced Beauty and the Beast several years ago. One of our young actors, a girl who has an impressive PGT resume to say the least, could have easily been Mrs. Potts #3 or Belle #2 or Wardrobe #4 under the double casting model. In our production, she was Lady With Cane, a stipulated ensemble role in the script. Throughout the process, she did such incredible character work and made such fun and interesting choices, that I kept adding extra bits for Lady With Cane! Ultimately, each scene featured Lady With Cane and she became central to the storytelling in our version of Beauty and the Beast. The audience loved her - they all left the theatre talking about her! - and to this day we all call Beauty and the Beast, “Lady With Cane, The Musical.” She was totally and completely unforgettable.
This young actor made her role important – and so it was. Not because the playwright said it was, not because the world said it was….because she decided it was. It is our mission to give our young actors the tools to make their performance stand out regardless of their role, regardless of the number of lines they have to say.
Why be a carbon copy of Belle, when you can be Lady With Cane – and turn her into the part of your dreams.
To me, that is the much greater artistic - and life - lesson.
Jill Abusch, Artistic Director
Empathy is on a rapid decline in our world, thanks to many factors. Study after study tells us that this is so. (A 2011 study found a 48% decline in empathic concern among college students in just ten years, as well as a 34% decline in perspective taking) But we don’t need the studies to tell us what we know to be true - we all feel it as we move through our daily interactions. And so do our children. It is affecting them profoundly in person and online, and will affect them well into the future. There is no doubt that an empathy deficit today will follow our children well into adulthood.
But the study of theatre during childhood is a proven antidote to this epidemic. While we don’t know which of our children will be world-travelers and which will be stay-at-home-parents (and which will manage to be both!) we do know that every single one of them needs to practice empathy now. Daily. Consistently. They need to practice empathy as children, in order to be expert practitioners as adults. And so we open up their world view by letting them look through another’s eyes, literally walk in another’s shoes and talk in another’s voice.
We give them a script, providing them with someone else’s words to say, and then we engage in lengthy discussion about what is motivating those words. At PGT, it is never just words on a page. It is always about the thought process behind the words…and the walk … and the gesture. And so, in order to participate our students grow to understand how other people think, and feel.
We require our kids to make eye contact with one another. We have a “phone bucket” where they deposit their gadgets upon a arrival. PGT is an unplugged experience - and so our students really look at each other. And when kids look at each other, they see each other. Nobody is invisible. Nobody gets overlooked.
At The Play Group Theatre, we use our class and rehearsal time to explore points of view that are different from our own. We intentionally cast our young actors in roles that are in total contrast to their own experiences and personalities. We challenge our students - and staff - every day with creative experiences that make us think new thoughts, and feel new feelings, and explore new ideas and places and people.
We define acting as: creating truth within imaginary circumstances, which requires two important skills of our young actors. Imagining circumstances asks them to look outward from themselves, to use what they understand about the world around them to imagine what they do not yet know - that is, to use empathic skills to develop a rich imaginary world in which to place their character. Creating truth asks them to look inward, to learn more about themselves in order to develop the character they will play - that is, to develop a sense of empathy for themselves, which they can then share generously and confidently with others as they grow.
At PGT, we exercise our empathy every single day because when we don’t, it atrophies. And eventually, it goes away entirely. And without empathy, we can’t make art. And because a world without empathy is not a world we want our children to inherit.
EMBRACING FAILURE... TO GET TO SUCCESS
Dare to fail. Each year the faces that stare back at me look more and more terrified when I tell them that failure is an intrinsic part of the creative process. Fear of failure paralyzes our children, and it is that fear which will cripple our kids on their path toward success as adults.
Regardless of whether our students go on to become actors or teachers or entrepreneurs, we want them to BE safe, but never play it safe. We want to prepare them to take creative, academic and emotional risks, and to create pathways for their colleagues to do the same. But in order to do that as adults, out in the world and in the workplace, they have to stretch those muscles during their childhood. They have to learn how to fail, and how to allow others to do the same.
And so, we provide opportunities for active experimentation and exploration, for every voice to be heard and listened to, and for mistakes to be a welcomed part of the creative process. We tell our students that if they aren’t failing frequently in rehearsal, THEN they are rehearsing wrong. We help them catch themselves when they are holding back. We help them push through the fear of putting it all on the line. We call them out when they are guarded and protecting themselves. We remind them: they need to fail in order to create.
Because, while failing itself may not be a creative act, opening themselves up to failure can lead them to their greatest creative accomplishments. As Sir Ken Robinson, Author and Arts Education Advisor, says "if you’re not prepared to be wrong, you’ll never come up with anything original."
Dare to fail. That’s the deal we make with our kids at PGT. Be brave enough to fail. Fail a million times in rehearsal. You are safe with your cast and staff. Try something so new or wacky or way out there, that you actually just might fail. Get it wrong. Like, so, so, so wrong. Struggle and fail in rehearsal. It is our job to lift you up. We are a team. That is what the creative process is all about. If you let yourself fail in the process, you will soar to heights unimagined when we put the pieces together. Our deal with our students is this: if you are brave enough to fail throughout the process, we will never, ever let you fail in front of an audience. Of course, the truth is, one takes care of the other. The emotional safety of the process, the freedom to fail, the teamwork, and the discoveries that come from that process are all the safeguards our kids need to ensure their success. They are safeguarding themselves. They are ensuring their own success. And how powerful is that?
CONVERGENT AND DIVERGENT THINKING
It is hard to know when you look at a 9, 10, or 11 year old who will become a film maker and who will become a financial executive. But it doesn’t really matter. Because both will need to become expert at both divergent and convergent thinking. They will need to be imaginative, of course, but they will also need to be intensely curious researchers, and absolutely tenaciously organized in order to put the ideas that they will generate into action. And so at PGT, we not only exercise the imagination, but we harness it. We foster artistic excellence that is matched by a fierce work ethic, so that ideas come to fruition in front of an audience. We work our bodies and our voices as instruments of expression because, as we tell our students, you might be making the best choice in the world, but it doesn’t do anyone any good if they can’t hear you in the last row! We teach our students that it starts with the imagination, but it cannot end there.
In every PGT class and rehearsal, we provide opportunities for idea generation. We ask our students to create original ideas, and embellish on them. We push them past their first choice, and remind them that their best idea might be their second, or third, or eighth…but they will never find it if they aren’t brave enough to stray from the safety of their first! We encourage them to see the scene and one another from a variety of points of view, and to be courageous, daring and adventuresome in the way they approach the creative process. We remind our students that seeing the world through a unique and original lens is what makes them an artist, and we help them cultivate an individual perspective and a singular artistic voice. We foster an environment of creative risk taking, and keep the ground fertile for invention and experimentation. We remind our students that they don’t have to KNOW anything….PGT is a place where they can DISCOVER everything.
Simultaneously, we know that creative curiosity has to be channeled. Our actors can’t run with all eight ideas, they have to pick one! And while they can create a wonderfully rich backstory for their character, it will not resonate with their audience at all if they don’t do the physical, vocal and emotional work to translate that information beyond their own mind. And so a great deal of time at PGT is spent on the technical and organizational aspects of bringing our creative work to life - from the time management skills that allow our students to juggle rehearsals with their school responsibilities, to the rigors of text analysis and character development that are the platforms upon which our young actors build their theatrical lives.
We are teaching our young actors to be both creative beings and technically proficient performers. We are cultivating the imagination while we are fostering the skills that will allow our kids to deliver those ideas to their audience….now, and in the future, regardless of what they go on to do as adults.
FINDING COMFORT WITH AMBIGUITY
Don’t get me started on the challenges facing the “iphone generation” - how having that little device in their pockets has changed the way our kids think, socialize, and articulate. Our kids don’t have to spend a minute wondering what that lyric is that they just can’t remember.....or who wrote that book....or which actor was in that movie. They don’t ever have to pronounce a word wrong out loud because they can look up the audio file and avoid the embarrassment of being "wrong." They can check every answer without ever going to a library, or walking to a bookshelf. They never have to wait for tomorrow to look it up. They don’t even have to wait an hour. Or a minute.
And this fits comfortably and tidily within their text-book centered lives, where there is almost always a right answer, and a wrong answer. And there are consequences for getting the wrong answer. And each year, those consequences seem to be given more and more weight in their young lives. This generation is obsessed with getting it "right."
But in the creative process, there is no text book and there is no google. And, let me tell you, that is a pretty uncomfortable place for our kids when they first arrive on the stage! But oh my goodness, it is so important. Because no matter what our kids go on to do as adults, they will need to find a way to be comfortable with ambiguity in their work and in their lives. When our kids pick their heads up out of their text books, they will find there isn’t always a right way and a wrong way, and the answers can’t always be looked up on Google.
And so, much of our process is about making a choice from among many right choices, and finding confidence even when there is uncertainty. While we can rule out several possible "wrong" ways, (jazz hands would be out of place in The Crucible, and you wouldn’t choose to insert Pinter pauses in You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown) there are often a multitude of "right" ways. And our students’ own ideas, insights, feelings, and thoughts have to be their guide in figuring out which right way is right for them. AT PGT, our classes and rehearsals cultivate a comfort with not knowing for sure, with not being told the answer, with carving a path that is distinctly yours even while others carve a different path.
At the heart of our work at PGT is Stella Adler’s teaching: "Your talent lies in your choice." A gorgeous singing voice or honed dance technique are tools - and they can be important tools for communicating your ideas! But they aren’t your talent. Your talent is in HOW you choose to sing, dance, or interpret a character...or even walk across the stage. Your talent is in your unique thought process BEHIND the song and dance. And in order to access that thought process, you’re going to have to unlock that right/wrong mentality. It is a roadblock to your talent.
A student told me recently that at her first PGT rehearsal, she remembers asking a question about her staging, and my answer was “make a choice, let’s see if it works.” It was the first time she can remember being asked in an educational or creative setting to make a choice. Her life had been dictated by right vs. wrong, and PGT had just opened up the idea of many rights for her.
Ambiguity is part of the creative process, and it is part of every path our children will take through adulthood: the answers aren’t always black and white, in the world of law, medicine, politics, or parenthood any more than in the world of theatre. And so we use the creative process to lean into those feelings that our kids don’t really get to experience anymore. Make a choice, and run with it! Nobody can make it for you - it is yours to make. It may not be THE right answer, but it is YOUR right answer.... and that makes it right.
CREATING COMMUNITY AND CULTIVATING DIVERSITY
One of the things I love about my job is that I get to constantly learn from my students. Last year, one of my kids, Jake Stiel (PGT ’17) sent me a David Brooks column - he said that when he read it, he thought about PGT, and he thought I would find it interesting. Which I did. In the piece, David Brooks distinguishes between what he calls Thick and Thin Communities.
Thin organizations, he says, you pass through with scarcely a memory.
But some leave a mark on you.
These thick communities seem to share common characteristics.
A thick institution is not one that people use instrumentally, for example to earn a degree.
A thick institution becomes part of a person’s identity and engages the whole person: head, hands, heart, and soul.
Such institutions have a set of collective rituals.
Members of such organizations often like to tell and re-tell an origin story about themselves. Many experience a moment when they nearly failed and they celebrate the heroes who saved them.
They incorporate music into daily life, because it is hard not to become bonded with someone you have sung and danced with.
They have a common ideal, and a shared goal. An intimacy and identity borne out of a common love.
They often posses an idiosyncratic local culture. When you meet a graduate you know it, and when they meet each other, even decades hence, they know they have something important in common.
These communities often have a distinct jargon - phrases that are spoken inside the culture and might be misunderstood outside it;
People are members so they can collectively serve the same higher good.
Thick institutions have a different moral ecology. People tend to like the version of themselves that is called forth by such places.
Angela Duckworth, the psychologist who's been talking so much about grit lately, chimed in too. She said: "Thick cultures are the crucible of character."
I want to thank PGTers past, present,and future. Because together, we have created a thick community. And the character of all the children who have performed on The Play Group Theatre stage over the last 20+ years, including those who we are about to send out into the world as our newest graduates, and the character of our ridiculously magnificent alumni who are scattered around the world but still call, and write, and come back year after year to visit us here at 1 No Bro, are testament to that. And we are grateful to be a part of it.
When our beloved Jonah Dreskin (PGT ’08) died in 2009, it felt like mere moments before a group of parents arrived with food at our house, knowing that, in addition to going to shiva at the Dreskins, the kids would all need a place to be together 24/7. A satellite shiva for a community of grieving children, with an on-call parent shuttle to take Aiden (PGT ’12), Jonah's brother, from one house to the other, as he needed. A thick community.
Just this past New Years, one of our newest PGT directors Brett Radke, ended up at the same party as Ross Baum (PGT ’08). Ross had everyone draw an angel card, inscribed with a one-word message, a prediction for the year ahead.....a ritual, Ross explained, that he learned during his first PGT show from his director Stephie, and one that he has taken into his adulthood....and has now, all these years later, passed right back to a current member of the PGT staff! A thick community.
The Hendricks family, with both '06 and '09 graduates has, over the years, described certain experiences as "so PGT" and recently finally explained that what they really mean when they say this, is these are the times that they feel deeply connected to others…present… in the moment… part of something bigger than themselves. Singing is often involved! And now I understand that PGT is their framework for recognizing when they encounter another Thick Community.
And after a recent PGT benefit, when the class of ’18 honored the class of ’08 for the ten year anniversary of their PGT graduation, they each couldn’t get over the other. The class of '18 told me how amazing the class of '08 is! And the class of '08 kept saying that the class of '18 is so much better than they ever were! We are our best selves when we are teaching them....and they are their best selves when they are together. And that is how we really know we are a thick community. We have all left a mark on one another.
And now it is up to us to make sure that the Class of 2028, ten years from now, can stand on the PGT stage too, and take their place within that unique moral ecology.
We've been giving more and more scholarships every year. We are partnering with local organizations to ensure that our stages reflect the true diversity of our wider community. We are mindfully creating seasons that include diverse stories and characters. And now, through our Generations Fund, we are specifically focusing on a collective investment in longevity. It is knowing that your scene partner will be here again next season, and the one after that. It is looking up to the seniors together when you are in 6th grade, spending hours imagining what your senior show might be...only to blink and suddenly find that it is your turn, and you are auditioning for your senior show - together....and then coming back years later to see a new crop of PGTers play your parts when PGT produces it again!! It is the way our class of '18 looks at each other when they nail that tricky harmony…. and the way our class of '08 looks at each other when they get on stage and sing together, again, ten years after their have tearfully taken their final PGT bow.
All of our kids need a cohort - they need each other consistently to be that true crucible of character. Which is why we must not only provide equal access, but we must also provide equivalent experiences. Through the Barbara Whitman Scholarship Fund and the Generations Fund, we are reaching so many kids in our wider community, and welcoming them through the Play Group Theatre doors.
Working together to provide equal access and equivalent experiences for all children regardless of financial means. A thick community.
Our Philosophy Continues
And whatever our students go on to do in the world, they will need to find a way to be comfortable with ambiguity in their work, and in their lives. And so, much of our process is about making a choice from among many possible right choices, and to find confidence even when there is uncertainty. While we can rule out several possible wrong ways, there are often a multitude of right ways waiting to be found.
And regardless of what career path they take, we want our students to BE safe, but never play it safe. And so, in the theatre, we provide opportunities for active experimentation, and exploration. We tell our students that if they aren’t failing frequently in rehearsal, THEN they are rehearsing wrong. Because while failing itself may not be a creative act, opening yourself up to failure can lead you to your greatest creative accomplishments.
And while empathy is on a rapid decline in our world, thanks to many factors, the study of theatre is a proven antidote to the epidemic. So our students practice empathy now, daily, consistently, in order to become expert practitioners as adults. We may not know exactly what our children will go on to DO when they are grown, but we do know what they will all be: citizens of the world. As performers, we open up their world view, by letting them look through another’s eyes, literally walk in another’s shoes and talk in another’s voice. We ask - no we require that our kids make eye contact with one another. And when kids look at each other, they see each other - nobody is invisible.
That is why arts education is not an extra. It is an imperative. And it is why PGT is dedicated to helping children and teens in our community become the creative collaborators that make a positive difference in the world - today and tomorrow.
Every once in a while, in a “Kids Come First” planning process, a show comes along that begs us to announce the title ahead of auditions: The casting model is such that we confidently KNOW it will fit into our season regardless of what our age/gender/vocal range/type breakdown looks like. The content is both challenging, and super exciting for students and staff alike. And, in some cases, it is a newly released title and we just might be one of the first in the area to be producing the show, giving our actors the opportunity to work on brand new material that they haven’t previously encountered!! And all of that is just so exciting, we might have trouble keeping it to ourselves!
Sometimes a show is just such a perfect PGT fit in so many ways, that we know in advance it NEEDS to be part of our season - and in our Kids Come First approach, in those moments we choose to share the news with you!
So, sometimes we break with tradition! It doesn’t happen often…but when it does, do not fear! You get the best of both worlds - we sneak peak one of our shows….and still leave you guessing about the other two!!
And, you never know if THIS will be the season when we’ll just, you know, tell you what show we’re doing! At PGT, there are surprises at every turn.