Move, Change, Inspire: An Interview with Linette Smith | By Nikita-Kiran Singh

Education Visionaries in Edmonton Part II

Education Visionaries in Edmonton is a series of interviews conducted with educators whose passion for their work, dedication to their students, and desire for innovation are invaluable to the growth of Edmontonians and our city as a whole.  By conveying multiple perspectives from leaders in a diverse array of educational fields, The Wanderer hopes to illustrate the intrinsically valuable nature of learning, and celebrate the admirable art of teaching.

A brilliant artist with a Masters in Theatre for Youth, Linette Smith is the Department Head of Fine Arts at Strathcona High School where she teaches drama, dance and musical theatre.  Additionally, she coaches five Improv teams, runs the Cappies Critic team, and participates in the school’s Arts Travel Club, which will be traveling to London during spring break.  A recipient of the Prime Minister’s Excellence in Teaching Award, it is evident that Ms. Smith has a deep passion for arts education; she never stops taking arts classes herself and loves discussing her explorations of theatre and movement.  Ms. Smith ended her interview by telling me, “That’s my job!  It’s the best job in the world.  I don’t even call it a job – it’s what I love to do.”  What Ms. Smith loves to do – fostering an appreciation for the arts – is essential in cultivating the human aspect of our society today.

Nikita: What inspired you to become a fine arts teacher, and what role did your educators play in that decision?

Ms. Smith: I had great teachers, and I had challenging teachers.  When I say challenging, I had teachers that I felt probably could have pushed me more in the arts, and didn’t do that, and then I had teachers who pushed me really hard.  I think one of the most influential people in my life is my ballet teacher, Deane Marr – she runs Marr-Mac.  I actually went back to her when I was doing my Master’s a few years ago, and thanked her for inspiring me to be disciplined, and to work hard, and to understand what hard work meant, but also the love of art, the love of shapes and bodies and how things move in space, and that sense of creation from the work and never to quit.  Part of my drive of going to university to be a teacher was that I wanted students to understand that art is as valid as mathematics, and science, and everything else that is core.  I’ve even gone as far as ask my school to say it’s “arts core,” it’s not “options.”  I had that conversation today!  So, definitely it’s that blend of really great teachers, and I don’t want to say bad teachers, because they weren’t bad teachers, but they didn’t necessarily make me find that sense of me in the work and the work in me.  I knew there was a passion for me to change that, to be the catalyst for some people to make that change.

Nikita: What do you feel are the most valuable qualities in an educator?

Ms. Smith: I think that as an educator, you need to always be learning, and that sounds really cliché, but I firmly believe it.  The world is changing, so we absolutely need to know what is going on in society.  In theatre, I take classes all the time.  I can’t stop learning, because if I do, then I lose the passion for it, and what right do I have to be in a classroom if I don’t love learning?  Then we’re really powerful for our students because we believe in it, we believe in the learning, believe in the knowledge and the education.  We adapt to a variety of students coming from a million different places when they come to our classrooms.  And then I believe that teachers should be experts.  I don’t call myself an expert – I aspire to be an expert – but I believe that you have to have this absolute craving and passion for the information that you’re teaching, so that you are not afraid of that learning, and you’re not afraid of digging deeper into the work.  Read everything that happens to enrich that, so that you are aspiring to be closer to that expert, but I don’t think we’ll ever be experts, because then the work is done.

Nikita: It is often suggested that the arts and fine arts in particular should be subjected to budget cuts before fields such as the sciences.  What do you think is the educational value unique to fine arts?

Ms. Smith: There’s a long list.  Besides empowerment and confidence, the creative problem solving that artists have, and the sense of adapting, the creative ensemble feel so that when you walk into any room, you can work with the people within the room, and create something that changes people.  The fearlessness, the risk taking, the problem solving that can be logical or illogical, and not being afraid that it’s wrong in the moment.  I think it takes an artist’s vision in order to approach creative problem solving and so I feel it is as integral as the sciences in our society, in our world, in our universe, and it is as important because we need to develop our whole selves.  It pushes that development of care for humankind, the risk of humankind, and the creation of that sense of, “I know what it’s like to the other; I know what it’s like to walk to that edge, look over it, and not be afraid of it.  Or, if I’m afraid of it, I’m still going to go for it.”

I think of a play that a man by the name of David Diamond did when Bolivia privatized water; he created this piece in Vancouver called Thirsty.  It was one actor/dancer, and by the end of the piece where she was embodying the stage, you’re dying of thirst.  After that piece, 90 minutes of movement, I’m thirsty, so why did that woman change me?  So then you can have a conversation about what it means to be thirsty, and privatize water, and what we need to do in countries like Bolivia.  It was amazing.

Nikita: You are known for your amazing musical productions.  What is the collaborative and artistic process like, and what do you hope students learn from that process?

Ms. Smith: We look at the production as a class.  So, the way into the work is not just learn your part, rehearse, and then you’re done.  We want students to actually feel what it’s like to be encompassing and understanding the role.  I think when we look at the dramaturgical aspect of how they get into the work, they believe in the work, and this sense of team and family is created.  We also play a lot, because they’re called plays, so there’s that sense of play and sharing.  I remind them: you’ve got to fail, and enjoy the failure, because you’ll learn from it.  It’s not failing the course; it’s “That moment didn’t work.  Why didn’t it work?  Let’s look at it.”  I always say to my students, you can’t teach trust; you can give someone your trust but you can’t teach it.  You can support them and you can not judge them and you can care for them in this space, but we don’t talk about trust.

We also have an amazing team.  We connect to the community because we bring artists in to work with our students, so it becomes a whole journey that they go on with every show.  This year we’re doing In the Heights, so we’re doing hip-hop boot camp and taking Spanish class because how do you honour the playwright, Lin-Manuel Miranda, and his language and the way he wrote it if you don’t understand what he’s saying?  The expectation I think is bigger and bolder maybe, but by the end the students feel like they’ve really created something, and they own that.  Directors always say, “Opening night is your play,” but it really is, because they have owned the process, they own their parts.  They understand what that character wants to eat for breakfast, why that character loves the way they do, and the language and the rhythm of that character.

Nikita: Drama involves the difficult task of embodying a different persona.  How do you facilitate the process of your students getting into character for the roles they play?

Ms. Smith: I use Laban/Bartenieff techniques, which are movement techniques, of how a character moves in the space.  We talk about time, space and energy as a dancer would.  It’s that sense of how much time does that person take to speak?  How much time does it take for them to move across the room?  How much weight is in their body as they move?  How much lightness do they have?  Are they bound?  Are they free?  So we actually look at the physical of the character first, which is an interesting thing.  Then we layer the vocals, and everything from the historical time period of the character, and then the given circumstances of what you’re saying, and what happened right before that moment that you said it.  So all of those really dissect who that character can be.  Often amateurs will want to sit around and talk about their character.  I say, “Just try it.”  I feel like if they understand how the character is physically, and how it sits with them, then the voice can follow, so that embodiment is true embodiment because it is in the body.  There are times when we take Stanislavski’s system, the method technique, where you can make the subconscious choice, but I find that we layer that in much later.

Nikita: Do you have any particularly memorable experiences related to teaching?

Ms. Smith: We were working on NextFest, the festival the Theatre Network at the Roxy does every year for students.  At the end of rehearsal, I had this student who wasn’t leaving.  And I asked, “Is everything okay?”  And this student said, “I’ve been kicked out of my house; I have nowhere to go.”  I thought, “Oh gosh, okay.  Rehearsal’s done, I’ve got to get home, but this kid has nowhere to go.”  So, I phoned my principal and said, “I’m taking this student to our house, he’s staying in our spare room, and he’s going to sleep here tonight until we find out he has a place to live.”  And my principal said, “Okay, call me when you get there,” because this is so against protocol!

So, my husband and I made this young grade ten student supper and he was just shaking, and so nervous, and my husband went out and bought him a toothbrush.  And I was so nervous; I didn’t sleep the whole night!  Anyway, the next day we found out you can fast track and get a student in this program with the shelter, where they have a place to live.  So we got him this apartment, and groceries, and all this stuff.  Anyway, the long story short of it is, that happened in grade ten and all through grade eleven and twelve, he supported himself, and he never gave up on drama.  Upon graduation he entered the musical theatre program at Grant MacEwan; this is all on his own.  He graduated from Grant MacEwan, and now is in Toronto.  He’s doing commercials, and he’s doing T.V. shows, and he’s making films, and he’s had this amazing career.

I think this is what a theatre community can do.  I feel like kids, when they really can create and they can really open up, are not afraid to say, “I need help,” or “Are you the one that can help me?”  And it probably allowed him to get through high school, and then see it as something that really could expand his whole life, and now he’s doing really well.  It was that sense of, that was the right place, and these are the right people, and I trust these people.  I asked, “Why did you tell me?”  He said, “Because I trust you.  I feel like you’re honest with me, and I knew you could help me.”  Again, you can’t teach trust; you give it.  There are so many great stories too of kids who have found their voice; they’ve been able to say something that they weren’t able to say before.  And I don’t ever want it to be drama therapy, but I love that it’s a safe place where kids can take risk, and really be who they think they should be in the world.

Nikita: What is your main objective as a teacher?

Ms. Smith: I want students, even if they’re not going to be working in the arts, to understand the value of the arts.  I talk to my students who are performers about their main job, which is to change the audience.  They don’t use the word acting, but you’re doing for the audience and you’re being and you change them.  If as an arts educator I can give them all of the skills and the tools and the passion and the drive to understand how to change their audience, then I’ve done my job.  And that’s everything from giving them the huge, rich history of what theatre is, and why we move the way we move, and the choices that are made, and who the brilliant playwrights are, then and now.  But if they feel empowered to change their audience, that’s my main thing.

Nikita:  What was the best advice you were given as a student, and what message would you like to send out to any student?

Ms. Smith: One thing I heard from Luigi, who’s a jazz proponent of the ’50s, ’60s, ’70s, is always be moving.  And I took that as always be moving, always be inspired, always be inspiring.  Feel blood pumping through your veins, what drives you.  Don’t be afraid to let things bounce off you, and you’ve got to be taking stuff in in order to put stuff out.  If you’re moving and you’re driving, then you’re changing.


Photo Credit: Uwe Welz

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