Bringing Theater Into the Art Room (Ep. 355)

In today’s episode, Tim welcomes elementary art teacher Ishel Brimhall to the show to talk about how she utilizes her theater experiences in the art room. Listen as they discuss the connections between the performing and visual arts, how theater activities can benefit our art students, and specific projects that have helped Ishel’s students find success. Full episode transcript below.

Resources and Links


Tim: Welcome to Art Ed Radio, the podcast for art teachers. This show is produced by the Art of Education University, and I’m your host, Tim Bogatz.

We have a new guest today, Ishel Brimhall, who has been contributing to AOEU in a variety of ways lately. You can see some of her articles on the website. She’s done some art-making that you can find on Instagram and the recording on YouTube. And now she’s going to be joining us on the podcast. One of her articles just published with a topic that was really interesting. The article is called Three Ways to Incorporate Theater Techniques in Your Art Room. I am not a theater person, but I appreciate all of the theater kids who have come through my art room, and they have talents that are very foreign to me.

But I love having them, and I love thinking about how a lot of those techniques, a lot of those ideas from theater, can be incorporated into art teaching and what we do in our classrooms. And, like I said, the article that Ishel put together has some cool ideas that I think are worth talking about, and that’s what we’re going to do today. So let me welcome on Ishel now. All right. Ishel Brimhall is joining me now for the first time. Ishel, welcome to the show. How are you?

Ishel: I am great. Thank you so much for having me. Hello. I am very excited to be here.

Tim: Awesome. We are thrilled to have you here. I guess to start. Since you haven’t been on the show before, can you tell us just a little bit about yourself and about your teaching?

Ishel: Absolutely. So, well, first of all, this is my very first podcast ever.

Tim: Yes.

Ishel: Is so exciting.

Tim: Yes, it’s exciting.

Ishel: It’s a new experience, and I hope to do more. This is already so nice and cozy and fun.

Tim: Love it.

Ishel: So my name is Ishel. I’m an elementary school art teacher. I am originally from Virginia Beach, Virginia, on the East coast. And currently, though, I work in Salt Lake City, Utah. So I work at an arts academy where students, my elementary students, get art, music, and STEAM classes multiple times a week. So I’m currently full-time there, and I teach about 300 students or so. And a major part of my job is integration. So I do a lot of integrating of all of the arts as well as every aspect of my student’s curriculum in our projects.

Tim: That’s awesome. That sounds like a great position. Yeah, sounds really interesting. Really good for the kids. So love all of that. Now, I wanted to have you on today, you wrote a great article about theater and just sort of how different theater exercises, different ideas from theater can get kids moving and how you can, like you said, integrate some of those ideas into the art room.

But before we dive into that too much, can you maybe just talk about your own experience with theater and maybe what kind of skills overlap between what you used to do as a, quote-unquote, theater kid and what you do now as a teacher?

Ishel: Theater kid. I love that. Were you also a theater kid?

Tim: I was not a theater kid, but-

Ishel: Were you in music kid?

Tim: I was a music and art kid.

Ishel: Okay.

Tim: And then once I got to teaching high school and those sort of, I don’t know if you want to call them cliques, but those names still existed. Everybody’s still… However many years on, we still have our theater kids, and our band kids and whatever other groups they might be a part of.

Ishel: Oh yes, the band kids. Theater kids are always friends with the band kids though.
I always felt that. There was some comradery there that everyone hated both of us. No, when I was just a kid, I’ve always been very, very extroverted and enthusiastic, or as my siblings and parents call it, very dramatic. And so I definitely was always very pulled towards movies and acting and pretending something is different when it’s not.

So I remember being in theater camps when I was young as a kid, but then in high school, I was in plays and a musical for our high school theater production. And then I kind of got into dance a little bit more. I was one of the main dancers in the production, and I just loved it. So I did a lot of dancing, but I felt as though dance and theater and visual arts have always kind of been intertwined together. So that’s my theater kid background.

Tim: No, I like it. And I think you’re talking about dance and movement and all of that sort of stuff. One of the ideas in your article what I thought was really good was when you talked about getting kids up and moving, getting them active with posing for figure drawing.

And so I guess two-part question. Why is that so interesting for kids? Why is that so good for them to get up and get active and get posing? And then also after you do those figure drawing poses, what kind of artworks are you doing after that? What kind of things can be developed after those figure drawings?

Ishel: I love that question. So the first part. Let’s see, moving your body. These theater techniques, I really see them as getting kids out of their chairs and kind of out of their heads a little bit and just more into their bodies. So in my article, I talk about how moving really wakes up the brain, which wakes up the rest of our entire nervous system and the whole body.

And I think I link an article around some academic research in my article that talks about how little children can’t sit for very long lectures. That’s very difficult for them.

Tim: Yes. Yes.

Ishel: I think it’s difficult for adults too.

Tim: I would agree with that, to be honest. Yeah.

Ishel: I don’t think anyone likes to sit for long stretches of time and just be sitting there. So kinesthetic movement is very beneficial, especially for little learners. And I also think that moving your body can create muscle memory. And if you’re doing… if you’re creating muscle memory in connection to information, it’ll help you retain that information for a longer period of time, which is great for learning, which is what we want all of our students to be doing in school is deep learning.

Tim: Yeah, absolutely.

Ishel: So getting up and moving in during a figure drawing lesson, for example. It is a fun one that I love to do with my students. They stand up out of their chair. They make a big pose with their whole body, and we have to do a gesture drawing of their pose. For me, this teaches a lot of things, which I can talk about later, but one of the big ones is for me, this inspires my students to use movement in their art later on.

So whether or not we do anything with the gesture drawings that they make. Usually, they just end up in our sketchbooks. They’re nice to look at. It’s a good exercise. But in the future, in their later art projects, they might be drawing a self… a pose of the… a self-portrait. And instead of drawing their portrait head on straight across or totally to the side, like an Egyptian profile drawing, they might decide instead, “Oh, I remember this project where we moved around. Maybe I’ll have my arm up, or maybe, I’ll choose a different expressive pose to add movement into my artwork later.” Something like that.

Tim: No, I like that a lot. They’re being dramatic, just like you would want them to be, right.

Ishel: Exactly.

Tim: Doing those more dramatic poses. And I was just going to share too. I used to do something similar with my elementary school kids. Way back when I taught elementary, we would do those gesture drawings. I usually brought in sports equipment because kids felt a little more natural, but-

Ishel: Oh wow.

Tim: … I think I liked the theater idea better, just dramatic poses. But nevertheless, I would do gesture drawing, and then we would look at Keith Haring stuff and try and get just simplified figures doing actions and things like that. And that was always fun. But I love the idea of-

Ishel: Yes, tons of movement.

Tim: Yeah. But I love the idea of just thinking about movement, thinking about better poses, more dramatic poses, and how that can continue on throughout the year. So anyway, thank you. That gives me a lot to consider, a lot to think about.

Ishel: Well, the sports idea is fantastic. Did you bring in footballs and a golf club or a baseball bat?

Tim: Yeah, just whatever crap was sitting around my garage, and then-

Ishel: Just grab it.

Tim: … just pick whatever they had and do a sports pose.

Ishel: That’s so interesting. In our classes, we would have a student stand up, and we would tell them a pose. And a lot of the times, it was, pretend you’re a hockey player.

Tim: Oh, nice.

Ishel: Or pretend you are… Because in sport, I mean, sport makes movement cool for a lot of my students who-

Tim: Absolutely.

Ishel: … think dance is silly. You know what I mean?

Tim: Right. Yeah.

Ishel: That’s a great connection.

Tim: Okay, cool. See, I love this. We’re brainstorming. We’re coming up with new ideas here!

Ishel: I’m making a new lesson right now. Let me write this all down.

Tim: Exactly. Okay. Another idea that you had in your article that I thought was really cool, kind of intrigued me was the artist monologue. So can you explain for everybody what that is and what your kids learn from doing artist monologues?

Ishel: Absolutely. So the artist monologue I talk about it in my article. I definitely did not come up with this great idea. It’s been around since I was in elementary school. And basically, you create a short, or however long you want it to be, monologue that tells a little story, a little background information about a chosen artist. So for my students, I give them a very long list of all different types of artists. I even tell them, “If you find an artist that you like, go ahead and research them and bring information.” But with my list, I kind of have it on a PowerPoint so they can easily find… get some ideas.

So they choose an artist, and they have to write down, they have to research five facts and hand write them on some paper. They have to rehearse saying these facts to themselves or in a group. They have to stand or I ask a lot of… There’s some adaptations, which I’m sure we’ll talk about. But they usually stand up in front of the class or a group or just me and present as if they were this artist.

So they can be Van Gogh, or they are Frida Kahlo and telling us about her life in Mexico, or they’re Yayoi Kusama and explaining how she gets inspired to make all of her billions of dots on her art pieces. It’s very fun to see young students stand how they think this artist would stand.

Tim: Okay.

Ishel: Or sit. Sometimes they choose to sit if they’re maybe an older artist. Sometimes they even collect things around the art room. Like, “Can I borrow this paintbrush, or can I hurry and make a mini painting that looks like their art to-”

Tim: Oh, yeah.

Ishel: “… to be as a prop.” I love seeing that creativity, kind of… those juices flowing after they’ve done their research. But this exercise plays a lot with body language is a big one.

Tim: Mm-hmm.

Ishel: Facial expressions. I tell them they’re not a robot. They’re almost in a wax museum. And we even have done it before where we make a red button, and we press it, and then they come alive and start talking to us, and then the lights dim, and they go back to their pose.

Tim: Nice.

Ishel: I mean, some of the students will really go far with it. Some of them walk around the room. They interact with students. It can get really fun.

Tim: Yeah, that sounds really cool. I like a lot of those ideas, and yeah, I’m sure you have some good coaching, some good ideas for them when they’re talking about that, which I also want to chat about in a little bit. But I keep thinking about just sort of your job integrating all these different subjects together. And it seems to me like there are a lot of connections between visual and performing arts.

I mean, we all know they’re there. But I guess where do you see those connections? You have experience in theater. You have experience in art. What kinds of valuable connections do you see, and how can you encourage those as you are developing lessons as you’re teaching kids? And I guess I have lots of questions here, but how do you help-

Ishel: I love it.

Tim: … your kids? How do you help your students see those connections as well?

Ishel: Absolutely. This is definitely, I mean, the goal of every teacher to have their students come to that connection on their own or facilitate the path to get them to say, “Oh, I get it. This makes sense in here and in this.” So one thing I love to do in collaboration with my music and STEAM teacher is we like to pick three or four words that have meaning in art, science, engineering, and music, and theater, and dance.

And so some of those words are collaboration or observation or layering was even one or composition. Where in engineering, they talked about how do you compose a blueprint. In music, you compose a song. In dance, you choreograph and compose an entire dance. And then in art composition is the entire… the way that everything is laid out.

Tim: Mm-hmm.

Ishel: And so we like to find these words that can kind of overlap and just bring a literary connection, I guess, between all of the arts. But I feel like as though that leads students into finding other connections. So a big one I see between visual arts and theater is observation. I talk about this a lot with my students. I talk about the importance of observing and sitting and watching and catching onto things that some other people might not notice about a painting or a sculpture.

And I see that as the same with theater. The way that actors and actresses learn is by observation, picking up on small emotional inflections that other people might not notice. Choosing to make specific choices at a certain time. I mean, that’s creativity, which blends between all of these things together. A lot of fun connections you can make and create with drama and theater and the visual arts.

Tim: Yeah, that’s really cool. I love all of those ideas and love that advice. I think that that’s a great plan. I really appreciate anytime kids can pick up on the subtleties of things and really appreciate beyond the base level.

And I love that you have kids actively looking for that. One last question for you. Just thinking about all of these theater things and how you can bring them into your classroom. So I guess last question would be like what is your advice for working with kids who are introverted or shy or don’t want to get up in front of the class for an artist monologue?

Ishel: Right.

Tim: These are kids who probably aren’t ever going to be a theater kid or not going to love getting up in front of people. But what can you tell them or what can you show them or teach them to help kind of calm their fears, get them in front of people, kind of ease their anxiety when they are giving a presentation or talking in front of a crowd?

Ishel: Absolutely. This is something that even as an extroverted and ready-to-perform child, I definitely felt the same anxiety and nervousness, and a little bit of discomfort when it was my turn to present something all alone in front of a class or even a group. It can be hard. And I think very good teachers are good at managing emotions and picking up on small things like a student’s discomfort or a little bit of… sensing that they’re feeling a little bit of stress.

So I think that there are so many ways you can either prevent this or you can assist and adapt the lesson to fit their needs. So one way that I love to do is having students present with one partner. So there’s two students in a pair. They present to each other. They’re laughing a little bit. They’re giggling because it’s so funny and this is a fun activity. I’m speaking directly about the monologue.

Tim: Right.

Ishel: And then once we go from there, if they’re comfortable, I ask them to morph into another group. So they connect with another group, and now there’s four, and now the students can present in front of three people. And they always clap, and we talk about saying kind things like Bravo and Encore to boost our confidence.

Tim: Yeah.

Ishel: And at first, I think the students are like, “Oh, this is silly.” But they love cheering for their friends because they know when it’s their turn, they’ll receive the same excitement and enthusiasm back. So once we get to four students, sometimes I end the lesson there, and I say, “Good job presenting to all your peers.” But I do have them present to the teacher just so I can kind of check off their rubric and enjoy what they have to say. But sometimes students feel very confident after they’ve just done it two times, and this time was a group of four, so they could probably do it in front of a group of eight.

So then we morph again, and the groups just keep growing until we’ve reached either two groups of 15 kids or less than that, or we just decide to kind of do a [inaudible 00:19:50], everyone will share. And at this point with the whole class, I usually just ask, “Whoever is comfortable and excited to present, go ahead. The floor is yours, take it. But if not, be prepared to be an enthusiastic audience member,” which is just as important as presenting in front of everyone.

Now, there are some other things, like if a student has a physical barrier or perhaps a learning disability that doesn’t allow them to do the same exact monologue the same way as every other student. So what we’ve done in the past is to help these students we have a partner go up with them, or sometimes we’ve done the student in the middle with two students on the side kind of acting out the scene, or maybe they’re the backup characters in a way to the story.

Tim: Okay. Yeah.

Ishel: And that can create a lot of… That can calm the student’s fear about being up there alone. They’re almost the narrator at that point, and the other students are taking most of the attention. And I do other things like I have them perform at their desk if they don’t want to move away from their chair. We sometimes film. I have them come in the hall, and we film them doing their monologue, and then I show it as a video. A lot of students love that option because it’s easy to present in front of one person, but then everyone gets to see your movie.

Tim: You still get to be on the big screen.

Ishel: On the big projector screen. That is so right. So no matter what way or variety they want to present, I always do try and encourage students to get out of… Whatever is the circle of their comfort zone, try and step out of that just for a little bit. “And you’ll always be able to come back to your desk or your partner.” But I think it’s important to encourage students to stand up and present.

Tim: Yeah, I love it. I think that’s great advice. A lot of great ideas there for, like you said, getting kids a little bit outside of their comfort zone but really still helping them to find some success. So, all right. Well, Ishel, thank you so much for everything with this conversation. It’s been awesome talking to you. It’s been a great article, and we’ll make sure that we link everybody to that so they can check it out.

Ishel: Thank you. I’ve had so much fun. I love this. Podcasts are great.

Tim: Awesome. Well, we’ll have to have you back on again soon. Thank you.

Ishel: Fantastic. Thank you.

Tim: All right. That was an excellent conversation that I really enjoyed. We’ll have to invite Ishel back on the podcast again. I appreciate her ideas and strategies and suggestions that she shared throughout the discussion today. Like I said, she has a lot of good articles on tap, and you’ll be able to see those on the site in the coming months as they get published. Now, if you’re interested in more ideas having to do with theater or drama, and you’re interested in going deep into the archives with the Art of Ed, I have an article from way back, I think 2014, that I wrote about something called The Drama Notebook. It’s an old one, but it’s a fun read, and there’s still some good ideas in there.

So we’ll link to that in the show notes if you’re interested in digging it up. And more importantly, we’ll link to Ishel’s more current, more relevant article as well. So you can find that. But I think that will do it for us today. I appreciate you listening, and we’ll have some pretty good episodes coming up in the next couple of weeks, so please stay tuned. Art Ed Radio is produced by The Art of Education University with audio engineering from Michael Crocker. Thank you, as always, for listening, and we’ll talk to you again next week.

Magazine articles and podcasts are opinions of professional education contributors and do not necessarily represent the position of the Art of Education University (AOEU) or its academic offerings. Contributors use terms in the way they are most often talked about in the scope of their educational experiences.