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Sunday, February 17, 2013

Creating the “AHA” Moments in Teaching Theatre: A Conversation with Hallie Kirk Dizdarevic


Hallie Dizdarevic working with a Newcomers at Shawnee class.
Photo courtesy of Walden Theatre.

By Keith Waits

Entire contents, Copyright © 2013 Keith Waits. All rights reserved.

As Hallie Kirk Dizdarevic describes her recent experience at Shawnee High School, she moves objects on her desk to the side, leaning in closer, so there will be no impediment to the telling of her tale. We have been talking for almost two hours about her family, her acting, but mostly about her role as a theatre arts educator for Walden Theatre. But now that the interview is ending and she can relax a bit, she is eager to bend my ear about what she describes as a “golden moment” for her. Her eyes shine with excitement as she explains how as a part of a program entitled “Connecting Cultures Through Drama” – developed with her outreach counterpart at Walden, Melinda Crecelius – she used an exercise in word association to achieve a breakthrough in understanding between the regular Academy @ Shawnee students and the Newcomer Academy at Shawnee, made up of ESL students, immigrants from other countries. Forcing young people to see how they were viewed by others allowed a deeper understanding of their own identities and fostered a greater appreciation of the people in the other group.

The example illustrates the difference between teaching theatre arts in a conservatory setting, as she does with students enrolled at Walden Theatre, and using theatre games and improvisation techniques to reinforce the JCPS core curriculum, which is the outreach program that occupies the rest of her time as a theatre arts educator. Another experience she shares involves watching students at Knight Middle School take to the “stage” to perform in three-minute plays about the American Revolution. “They were literally running away from us to avoid having to ‘perform’ for three minutes in front of their peers,” she remembers, even going so far as to intentionally incur detention, a tactic which backfired when school administrators pulled them back into the assignment. At the end, Ms. Dizdarevic exclaims, the kids took great pride in being able to say, “I DID that! I wasn’t going do that…I was afraid of it… but I DID it!”

Although her own pride in teaching is clearly evident, Hallie Dizdarevic never aspired to such a role. Her father, Michael Kirk, is a noted visual artist and JCPS teacher who developed the visual arts magnet program at DuPont Manual High School. Yet he never pushed his daughter to follow in his footsteps and even once advised her against a teaching career. He did encourage her in her choice to pursue a life on the stage, a choice inspired by her grandmother, Christine Johnson Smith, who had great success as an opera singer in New York City and San Francisco. Ms. Smith originated the role of Nettie in the1945 Broadway premiere of Carousel, a part written for her by Richard Rogers and Oscar Hammerstein. “I used to curl up in her lap for hours listening to her tell stories about her career.” Because Ms. Smith had retired from the stage years before she was born, Hallie never saw her grandmother perform professionally. “But she was always performing, a real diva in the best sense.” 

Christine Johnson Smith. Photo-Playbill.com.
Her grandmother traveled to NYC with $25 to audition for NBC radio. Going for broke, she spent $23 on a new hat so as to look her best, and then found herself performing on the air that very night. She worked with Toscanini at NBC and found ample work with various opera companies in and out of New York. But it was after she won the Metropolitan Opera Auditions of the Air in 1943 that she became something of a star. “It was like 'American Idol,' a live singing competition broadcast all around the country, "and it was a big deal,” says Dizdarevic. Yet, only a few short years after the success of Carousel, Christine Johnson retired to Owensboro, Kentucky, to raise a family.

As an object lesson, her grandmother’s journey follows the stereotype of leaving a small town to find fame and fortune in the Big City. So it makes sense that Hallie never imagined settling down for a theatre career in Louisville, certain, as were so many, that New York City, Chicago or another larger metropolitan area would provide greater opportunities. Yet working with Walden Theatre (where she had been a student herself), Blue Apple Players and The Alley Theater all compelled her to take root once again in her hometown. She counts the teaching artists she worked with during this period as highly influential on her approach to teaching: “The most valuable learning experiences I’ve had were in the field, working with [tallying the names on her fingers] Charlie Sexton, Barrett Cooper, Heather Burns, Gina Cisto, Scott Davis – they trained me as a teacher, not to mention the dozens of JCPS teachers that I’ve been involved with.”

It is an impressive list, featuring individuals from Walden Theatre, Blue Apple Players; as well as Savage Rose Classical Theatre and The Alley Theater – two companies where she has frequently worked as an actor. She is, in fact, an Artistic Associate at Savage Rose, where she most recently was a member of an ensemble in a much-talked about production of Aristophanes’ Lysistrata. Such a varied resumé is typical of any life in theatre. But that ability to move between groups and feel welcome on so many stages is perhaps essential for any individual trying to build a career in Louisville. That Hallie Dizdarevic succeeds at distinguishing herself as actor, teacher and director in equal measure is a case study in keeping such talent in town.

For her latest challenge, her first production as a director in the Walden Theatre regular season line-up, Hallie returns to material she worked in as a student. “Alec Volz (Walden Theatre Associate Artistic Director) and I were spit balling ideas for the next season, and we were reminiscing about what a wonderful time we all had with Quilters when he directed it several seasons ago. Alec said maybe since it had been 10 years, it might be time to revisit it.” Because of the complex music and vocal harmonies, she called upon Louisville actor and musician Scott Anthony to be Music Director. “I’ve given Scott a lot of rehearsal time, and it has really paid off!” She is particularly inspired by the Quilters script (by Barbara Damashek and Molly Newman) because of its straightforward perspective on women’s issues. “Other than The Vagina Monologues, I can’t think of another show that is so ‘up front’ about the range of experiences in a woman’s life: menstruation, childbirth, it gets into everything. I’m excited!”
 
Quilters runs February 28-March 8 at Walden Theatre

1123 Payne Street
Louisville, KY 40204
502-589-0085


  

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