People talk a lot about how valuable an experience it is for kids to participate in team sports at school, to learn life lessons like how to work with others toward a common goal, to win and lose gracefully, to pick oneself up after a loss and start again. But what about kids who aren’t athletically gifted or particularly competitive? Where do they go to find themselves, to find their people? For some, getting involved in theater is the key.
That was certainly true for New Paltz natives Hannah Fox and Kristen Masson-Diedhiou, who became friends in the 1980s as “core members” of the New Paltz Youth Theater, run by Steve and Carole Ford through the Arts Community from 1976 to 1992. “They lit the fire, 35 years ago,” says Fox. “We were both involved in it from seventh to 12th grades.” “It was such an empowering experience,” says Masson-Diedhiou. Both girls came back to New Paltz after college to become involved with the Youth Theater again.
Masson-Diedhiou, daughter of a New Paltz High School English teacher, went to Antioch University to obtain her Masters in Education, and now teaches fifth grade at J. Watson Baily Middle School in the Kingston Central School District. Fox is the offspring of Playback Theatre founders Jonathan Fox and Jo Salas, so it seems almost an inevitability that she would end up becoming the chair of the Dance and Theatre Department at Manhattanville College. She regularly uses techniques that she learned from the Fords in her own teaching practice, and even wrote a book titled Zoomy Zoomy: Improv Games and Exercises for Groups (Tusitala Publishing, 2010) that incorporates many of their ideas. “It’s really cool to be able to play for a living,” says Fox.
But for both young women, the rewards of spending their tween and teen years involved in the New Paltz Youth Theater went far beyond acquiring skills that would serve them well in their careers. “Being in a theater company creates community,” says Fox. “It builds confidence. It enabled me to find my own voice.”
“Kids who weren’t necessarily friends in school came together and made connections,” recalls Masson-Diedhiou. “Middle-schoolers can be mean — but not in theater class!”
Now, the longtime friends are realizing a longtime dream: They have initiated a series of theater workshops on the Arts Community model under the name Akimbo Theatre Class. The first 90-minute session began last Friday evening at Roost Studios at 69 Main Street, and the series will run through July 1. Tuition for the full series costs $150; rolling enrollments are still being accepted.
Akimbo, in its first iteration, is geared toward middle-school girls, ages 11 to 14: the same age at which the New Paltz Youth Theater first grabbed hold of Masson-Diedhiou and Fox. Their plan is to expand the program to include both co-ed classes and series aimed at high-schoolers; but for now, they feel that the need is most critical among tween girls. “Middle-school girls especially crave to feel connected,” notes Masson-Diedhiou. “We wanted to give them a safe place to express themselves.”
“We want them to be able to tell their stories in a free environment, and realize that they’re not alone with their experiences,” adds Fox, making it clear that Playback Theatre’s personal storytelling approach is part of the skillset that the two friends will be passing on to their students. “They’ll be doing improv, scenes, monologue-building, some Playback. They play each other’s stories, write their own monologues, create their own scenes based on issues in their lives.”
Nine students have signed up so far. “In the first class, we talked about the Fool, who is a figure who is celebrated in theater,” Fox explains. “In seventh to ninth grade, there’s a lot of pressure to be cool. We say, ‘Don’t be cool; be a Fool!’ We want them to know that this is a place where you can take a risk, and people will support them. In improv, you need to say yes. It’s okay to feel silly. There’s no right or wrong.” Both women feel that theater exercises are a useful antidote to the bullying and social ostracism that is so common in this age group. “If young girls are not feeling adequate, this is a place where they can connect with their self-worth and say, ‘I matter,’” says Fox. “Theater is about being seen and heard!”
Classes begin with physical and vocal warmups, then move on to circle games, says Masson-Diedhiou. “We want to bring the theater class out onto the street and observe how people walk,” says Fox, noting that doing street theater was a regular part of Carole and Steve Ford’s approach to learning improv and other stage skills.
The two teachers hope to have a webpage up soon as the first class evolves into a full program. But in the meantime, interested parties can contact them by calling Kristen Masson-Diedhiou at (845) 663-8400 or e-mailing Hannah Fox at firstname.lastname@example.org.