Jump in with Both Feet: My Path to Teaching

by Jay Duckworth
Jay Duckworth teaching at the USITT Props Lab
Jay Duckworth teaching at the USITT Props Lab
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I have always thought that theater and education go hand in hand. The first time I ever saw a play was in grade school. It was about a king who wanted to see how his kingdom was doing so he pretended to be a peasant and visited his village. The two people I remember him encountering was a man who put on his pants both legs at the same time by jumping as high as he could and landing inside them. This won him golden awards as the highest jumper in the kingdom. The second person was a doctor who, no matter what was wrong with you, wrapped your head with bandages. At the end of the end of the play, the king told us how he learned that people did things differently (pants guy) and even if it’s strange to you, this gives them a unique talent. He also learned that that each problem needs its own solution (doctor), and the same answer doesn’t necessarily work for all people’s problems.

A lot of our first involvements in theater was in the school play or school musical. It was a cool escape for me. Some of my friends did it because a girl they liked was doing the show. English classes had us reading plays for the first time. James Shapiro’s book, Shakespeare in America, showed that the only two books that were guaranteed to be in a frontier schoolhouse or home was the Bible and the complete works of Shakespeare. 

Going back further, the first big community plays in Europe were the passion plays that were presented by the guilds where one was apprenticed to learn a trade; some of the only education some people had. Each guild played their own part—carpenters making sets, fullers making costumes, and so on. Going back to Greece, dialogue to the crowds was a good way of sharing information, but when it went from one person talking to another person on stage, that dialogue was the beginning of drama. It went from hearing one person’s point of view to listening to both sides of the story and thinking for yourself; putting yourself in either person’s shoes. It makes us less callous; it makes us think about another person’s motivations, and the situation that they are going through. 

I was lucky to get involved with the Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival (KCACTF) back in 2010 when I gave a workshop on making the body of King Pentheus from The Bacchae. Since it was the first time I had given a workshop, I definitely wanted to impress everyone. Props has always been relegated to the outskirts of theater arts. It’s no one person’s fault, it’s just hard to define what we do, so a lot of people just don’t know what props is all about. My mission has been to change that mindset. And who better to help change it, but the people learning about it. If I could define what props is and make it interesting, then people would want to learn more about it.

It All Started with a Dead Body
So instead of calling my workshop Props: The Construction of King Pentheus. I named it How to Make a Ripped up Dead Body. I even did an old carnival trick by asking people who were ‘sensitive to graphic images’, to please not attend. It’s not that I had graphic images—it was all foam and latex, but I knew that all I had to do was say ‘some people shouldn’t come’ and that triggers people into the thought “I have to go to this!”

That morning I was nervous and asked the person who would be evaluating my workshop, Rafael Jaen, how many people I should expect, and he thought, maybe 14 to 20 at the most. I went to the room early to set up everything, but they had moved the location of the room that I was to present in. The student coordinator took me downstairs to this big conference room where the staff were loading in more chairs because the room already had 60 people in it. I gave my presentation and Ronn Campbell, a theater professor at Columbia Basin College in Washington state, approached me afterwards and asked if I had an interest in doing the same presentation as a keynote next year at their regions KCACTF next year. So, a year later, I traveled out to Humboldt State University as a guest of USITT. 

While there I participated in a round of education for the tech students where all the schools had their students bring their work in to present to a panel of professionals and educators and have us give feedback and guidance to the students. Listening to the insight and feedback everyone was giving and seeing how they judged each student by that person’s level of competence, changed how I thought about work. The next day we finished adjudications and tallied the scores to present awards. That afternoon I gave my keynote presentation. When I got there, I asked someone on the line what this big crowd was in line for, since I couldn’t make it into where I was presenting because of the volume of people. They said they were all waiting for the doors to open for my keynote; I nearly pooped my pants. It wasn’t just tech people; it was actors, directors, and all kinds of educators. If you go and watch the video [it is on the YouTubes all the kids watch at bit.ly/SDSpeech], you can see how nervous I am at the beginning when I am introduced. 

I had changed the presentation up a little, so it covered a broader scope. It not only dealt with the body, but it also told about my journey from a speck of a town in Missouri to working at a major theatrical institution. Something happened to me over the year from my first presentation of this workshop to doing it the next year. I had lost my parents to a suicide pact. I won’t get into the details of their passing, but I will say I spoke to both of them every night before bed right up to the day they died. My father worked as a pipefitter and my mother was a gardener and an artist. I learned the building aspect of props from my father and I learned color theory and the art aspects from my mother. Coming into the 2011 KCACTF, I had a huge hole inside of me. My doctor said I should find a way to honor them—some kind of memorial; that would help give me closure. That week in Humboldt I felt like I found it. 

A New Path
All my life I had somehow been at the right place and the right time. I have worked with Arthur Laurents, Stephen Sondheim, Christopher Durang, Terrence McNally and designers like Hal Binkley, David Korins, John Lee Beatty, Anna Louizos, Susan Hilferty, and Jennifer Tipton and a list of actors that is an embarrassment of riches. I felt that my mission had changed. I felt that I was obligated to give back and share what I have learned to the next generations of artists. 

I kept getting invited to KCACTF and then USITT to be the keynote speaker for their Young Designer Awards. It was that year that I spoke it out into the universe. It was that year I said I wanted to teach. I asked around to test out the waters to see if I could keep the job at the Public but maybe teach classes as an adjunct. That’s when Graham Kindred, the head of BFA production & design at Pace University in NYC told me about an opening at Pace. Luckily, I am in my third year here and am seeing the students I have taught grow into great artists.

I approach teaching theater the same way theater taught me. Inside of us there is a king, or a queen, and they will advise us—if we sit still and listen deeply. But the two lessons they showed us that we must always remember is, a Band-Aid will not cure a cough, and people’s differences are not to be laughed at, but may in fact be their magical asset.