by David Hennessey
Learning and Doing
Education: we are committed to developing ourselves and our audiences through continual growth, questioning and the perpetuation of best practices artistically and administratively.
— From the Commonweal’s list of core values
Here at the Commonweal we’ve done a lot of staff assessment with Strength Finders, an inventory of how each of us compare on a list of 34 different strengths. My top strength is “Developer” which means I love watching and helping people learn to develop their skills. I suppose this is not surprising since my mother and two older brothers were all teachers at one time.
They say that most of us use a combination of our top 10 or 12 strengths most of the time, but when we’re under severe stress, we’re likely to only use our top three. A few years ago, my colleagues saw an example of this when, after a doctor visit, I found myself with little warning at Olmstead Hospital in Rochester preparing for an emergency appendectomy.
I notified the company by calling Adrienne Sweeney. It so happened that we had two student interns at the time who were going to present their one-night performance project that evening. She was surprised that my biggest concern was to make sure the students knew I really wanted to be at their show if I could, but I just couldn’t get out of having surgery that night. I was quite serious in emphasizing this, much to the later amusement of other ensemble members. When under stress, my Developer comes out loud and clear.
One reason I joined the Commonweal as a resident member is its commitment to education. I saw it as a place where “everyone has something to learn and everyone has something to contribute.” That philosophy has always appealed to me.
At the Commonweal we all have chances to expand our repertoire of contributions and skills. Here are a few examples: I’ve done some costume design, under the mentorship of Costumer Janis Martin, who in turn did her first set design on our stage; Scott Dixon has developed his playwriting and director skills here, and Adrienne Sweeney debuted last year as a director on our stage; and Stef Dickens started here as a student and is now actor, Managing Director and Director of Development.
Because we have so much experience in developing artist/administrators, we formalized that training into a curriculum in 2008. Each year, our Apprenticeship Program brings students with theatre arts degrees here for 10 months. During that time they have one or more artistic responsibilities and they meet weekly for three months each with our Marketing, Development and Production Teams. That gives them a complete overview of all the skills needed to run a successful non-profit theatre.
This culminates each March in the apprentice capstone project: they decide what play they want to perform, pick the director, design the sets and costumes, and do the publicity. They have a budget to adhere to and have access to help from the ensemble, if they ask for it. The resulting productions have all been well received by audiences and have been fun to watch.
Our oldest educational program is the student matinee series for grades seven through 12, which we started in 1991. One of the things I like best about it are the classroom visits we make to the schools attending each performance. One or two actors talk about the theatre and the show, giving the students a personal connection to the cast. This is in keeping with our tradition of giving our audiences a chance to know us offstage as well as on.
At the other end of the age spectrum are Road Scholar (formerly Elderhostel) programs, which I coordinate. Each spring and fall 10 to 20 lifelong learners stay at the Cottage House Inn and participate in classes about the production, design and performances of our plays. While they’re here, we also provide classes from community members on various aspects of the region such as Norwegian heritage, Amish ways, rural living, visual arts, and civic engagement. Road Scholar is one our most gratifying programs because the participants bring a lifetime of experience to the questions they ask.
This is my fifteenth year at the Commonweal, and the reason I’ve stayed is the chance it’s given me to develop my own skills and watch others develop theirs. This is quite different from the usual world of professional theatre where people free-lance from job to job. I’ve done that, and it has its own advantages and opportunities, but this environment suits me best. It’s my artistic home.