All of my life, I have believed in the power of arts education. I know that we develop empathy and understanding through the arts. We strengthen our all-important, intuitive right brains. We learn specific and tangible skills that benefit every aspect of our lives. As an artist instructor, I have taught calligraphy, writing and theatre arts and in each discipline, I’ve witnessed a tangible difference toward making the world a better place.
I’ve worked in theatre arts education in Ottawa for over twenty years. In 2013, I began the Ottawa Children’s Theatre with four classes on Saturdays at The Avalon Theatre on Bank Street. We had 28 students. In 2017, the school found a wonderful home at Carleton Dominion Chalmers Centre. Over the years enrolment grew, we expanded our role as representative for Trinity College London, we learned how to teach online during the pandemic, then bounced back from the pandemic and celebrated live performances. This past spring we had 211 students, ranging in age from 5 – 17, in 25 different classes. A few of those students have been with us since 2013, many were with us pre-pandemic, and all are now part of the wonderful OCT family.
Through it all, I have had tremendous support. I have come to know parents, students, and instructors and to develop friendships that have deeply enriched my life. I have watched young people grow, solve problems, and thrive as they embrace the world of drama. It has been enormously gratifying, and I am deeply proud of everything OCT has accomplished.
But these years have been busy for me personally, aside from OCT. Over the course of the last eight years, I produced a play that went on to be produced at The National Arts Centre (Up to Low), I did an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults, I published three novels and have another three books under contract. And I have happily entered the world of grandparenthood.
I’ve decided it is now time for me to pass along the torch at Ottawa Children’s Theatre and focus on my family, my books and my garden.
I have worked with Nick Miller for 18 years. When I was Artistic Director of The Ottawa School of Speech & Drama, Nick was one of the first new artists I hired. He came to OSSD with exciting ideas about drama, clowning, improvisation, and circus skills. Over the years I have deeply valued his collaborative spirit, generosity and creativity. As I began to look for a successor to the work that I have done, I realized that Nick was the perfect person to take on this role. He has already had a tremendous impact on the development of OCT, and I am thrilled to announce that he will be taking over the reins. While it is very hard to leave, I know I am leaving OCT in wonderful hands.
This is not “retirement” as some people label it. It is a new phase. It’s been a great run and now it’s time to exit this particular stage.
…the really exciting and unexpected benefit is that not only can our students come from all over the world –– we have students from Europe and across North America –– but our instructors aren’t tied to a location…
Recently, I was asked to do an interview with theHumm. theHumm is a great journal, both in print and online, that is dedicated to the arts in the Ottawa Valley. The questions that they asked gave me a chance to think about the process that we’ve gone through at OCT to make our conversion to online programming. Below is a transcript of the interview, but you can also read it online at: https://mailchi.mp/thehumm/h9si4v29uh-2052385?e=fb3712bb99
Dramatically Different: an interview with Amanda West Lewis
theHumm is reaching out to members of our Ottawa Valley community to ask how they are finding ways to use their gifts and skills in these challenging times. Today’s subject is Amanda West Lewis — actor, author, and founder of The Ottawa Children’s Theatre (OCT). We contacted her to find out how the OCT is rising to the challenge of providing creative instruction to kids during this time of social distancing.
theHumm: You live in Brooke Valley but have been active in the Ottawa youth theatre scene for many years now. Are you finally getting to work from home? If so, what have you enjoyed about it, and what are you missing?
I’ve been lucky to have Brooke Valley as my base for the last 30 years. But I’ve also lived in Ottawa off and on, which has allowed me to be part of the vibrant arts community in that city. For the past six years running The Ottawa Children’s Theatre, I’ve worked from home during the week then gone to Ottawa to work in the studios with the kids on the weekends. It’s really been the best of all possible worlds.
Now, with isolation, my schedule is basically the same, except that everything happens from my Brooke studio. I’m not travelling anywhere. I love that I’ve lowered my environmental footprint and that I have a bit more time to get into my garden.
But I do miss being in the same physical space with people – I miss the spontaneity and energy that is generated by the live space. Before Covid, we had twenty-seven classes happening every weekend. The studios buzzed with energy! I loved seeing what all of the different groups were doing. There is nothing more inspiring than watching kids create and share their stories! But now that the courses are taking place on virtually platforms, I don’t get a chance to pop in and watch what others are doing. I’m excited by the classes I am teaching, but there is that sad moment when I hit “end meeting for all” button, and everyone disappears.
I also miss talking to parents. We were very much an extended family, all dedicated to giving the children and youth the best experience we could. I miss those personal interactions.
You and your team of instructors have been busy pivoting from live classes to “LIVE Online” classes. What can people expect from this new format?
I’m working with the same core team of dedicated instructors that I’ve worked with for many years. We’ve developed a really strong curriculum that is both fun and teaches specific skills. None of that has changed. Converting to online has meant we’ve made the class sizes smaller so that we can focus on each child as an individual. We’re making sure to take time to listen to each child’s needs.
We’re running Musical Theatre, Drama, Acting, Improvisation and Writing camps this summer. We’ve designed the camps to be really interactive. There is a lot of physical and vocal activity. There is a lot of ensemble and shared work. Even the breaks keep kids occupied ––we’ve designed off-screen breaks where campers do theatre crafts. No one is just sitting and watching.
How has the technology been treating you? Have there been unexpected benefits, or major challenges you and your team have had to overcome?
The great advantage of teaching drama from home has been how personal it is. I have weekly Zoom meetings with my instructors, and it’s made us really close. We are sharing all of the joys and frustrations of our lives in isolation, as well as brainstorming how to teach drama online. It’s pushed us to be really creative problem-solvers. Also, the virtual medium is more intimate –– we’re talking to each other from our homes, with our art on the walls, our books on our bookshelves, and our pets, children, and partners in the background.
Some of this immediacy carries over to our relationships with students. You need to be attentive at all times when you are teaching online. There isn’t a moment of downtime. So the classes take on a different kind of bonding.
But the really exciting and unexpected benefit is that not only can our students come from all over the world –– we have students from Europe and across North America –– but our instructors aren’t tied to a location. I have some fabulous actors, writers and composers from New York City teaching for us this summer! They are inspiring all of us with their talent, passion and commitment.
The technological challenge in Lanark County, however, is bandwidth. I get my internet via a satellite and as those of us who live in the country know, it isn’t exactly a consistent signal. I cross my fingers every day that there won’t be a storm while I’m teaching. I’ve also had to make a decision to buy a new computer. I’ve been working on a 10-year old laptop which was fine for admin but not the best for online teaching!
Why is it important to try and keep young people engaged in artistic activities and pursuits even when we can’t physically get together?
Oh, my goodness, where do I start? Drama is all about communication. We work with language and gesture. We work with our voices, bodies and our minds to tell our stories. Is there anything more important for young people than the ability to communicate their ideas, fears, hopes and dreams? Especially now, when their voices are diminished because of isolation, young people need the opportunity to be seen by someone who isn’t a parent or teacher. Someone who can hear them and give them tools to express themselves. Someone who can help them to keep their heart and mind open.
Do you think that both children and adults will continue to perform (and watch others perform) while we are not allowed to gather in person?
I think that stories are more important than ever. I think we will always need to watch and listen to other people’s stories. Through story, we come to understand who we are. Story gives us a way to put the puzzle pieces of life into some kind of coherent whole. And I think that people will always need to share their stories, as they have done since the beginning of human times. We became a story telling species the moment we created language, the moment that we understood the concept of time, of birth and of death. I don’t think that isolation will stop that. In fact, I think the need has been exponentially increased.
What are you personally most concerned about at this time?
I’m concerned about the children who have fallen through the cracks. There are countless children who have no access to computers, let alone the kinds of opportunities I am talking about. When we were on site, I was able to give scholarships and bursaries to kids of need. But now? Who is looking after those children? Who is enriching their lives? There are so many children whose isolation is a nightmare. They are falling behind socially and academically. It is taking a terrible toll on their formative years.
There is a huge disparity between people in terms of how they are able to navigate the pandemic. This inequality in society will, I think, become even more apparent as we transition to the next phase, whatever that phase is.
What are you optimistic about in terms of what happens to the arts during and after the pandemic?
As I’ve said, I think the arts are necessary to give people the skills to understand and appreciate the world around them. I’m incredibly moved by what artists are doing online right now – the kinds of things that are being shared are powerful testaments to the resilience and empathy of human beings.
We are going to have huge challenges coming out of the pandemic. We won’t be going back to the way things used to be. Covid and the deep inequalities of our society require us to make major changes. Re-imagining our lives is not going to be easy. But I think that the arts will give us a voice to build that new world.
We’ve just finished our first week of Online Spring Semester classes at The Ottawa Children’s Theatre. What a whirlwind! In the past 3 weeks we’ve designed new programming, got it up online, offered it and filled it! There are 183 creative and energized children aged 3 – 18 taking drama classes, acting classes, musical theatre, writing for theatre, theatre criticism and more.
I’m learning so much! It’s been really exciting to see which of our drama exercises translate onto the Zoom medium. The artist/instructors are doing warmups: breathing, articulation and resonance. We’re playing “Pass the Face,” “What am I Doing?”and the “Tableau Game.” We’re teaching dance moves, character development, scene studies and vocal techniques. We’re re-imagining our spaces and creating individual set designs. Most importantly we’re laughing, and we’re moved to tears by the power of theatre.
It isn’t all working perfectly. Sometimes the internet goes down. Sometimes someone gets accidentally shut out in the waiting room. Devices behave differently and sometimes in mysterious ways. The time delay makes teaching singing really challenging! We miss being together and miss the way that we were able to create stories with our bodies and voices in the same space.
But we’re doing this together – artist/instructors and students – helping each other. Our students have great ideas. They are getting to know each other and to trust this new way of working. We are all learning and playing, experimenting and discovering.
“Theatre people are trained to be flexible, resourceful and resilient. We know how to improvise when our scene partner forgets her lines, know how to step in when the leading man breaks his leg … The show, indeed, must go on …”
It’s been a while since I’ve written a blog. My life fluctuates between my role as the Artistic Director of The Ottawa Children’s Theatre, and my life as a working writer. I get confused sometimes on how much I should, or shouldn’t, mix my worlds. But right now, in the midst of self-isolation, I am trying to work on wearing multiple hats at the same time. So with that understanding, I am going to publish my Ottawa Children’t Theatre blogs here, on my Stepping off the Treadmill site. Granted, OCT can be a bit of a treadmill for me, but it’s my treadmill and it is decorated just how I would want a treadmill to look.
For those of you who don’t know that part of my world, here’s a taste of the transitions that have encouraged me to dig deep and find a new approach to my creativity.
On March 16, when I realized that we had to postpone, or perhaps cancel, our studio classes, I wanted to curl into a ball and stick my fingers in my ears. We’d just finished fabulous open house presentations and were looking forward to a spring with the highest enrolment ever. My immediate response to the Covid crisis was that I wanted to give up.
“Well, you could do that mom,” said my eldest son, “OR you could get together with your instructors and see if they have any ideas.”
And thus, our first Zoom instructor meeting took place and OCT Online was born.
Theatre people are trained to be flexible, resourceful and resilient. We know how to improvise when our scene partner forgets her lines, know how to step in when the leading man breaks his leg, know how to give our best performances in the middle of a snowstorm with only two people in the audience. The show, indeed, must go on, and we spend our lives training for these moments. So, it should have come as no surprise to me that our instructors were ready to leap in with new ideas and new approaches.
None of us had ever taught online before, but within a week, we had 11 trial classes up and running. The stipulation was that they had to be interactive. I thought that it was important that kids stuck at home in isolation see familiar faces, sing familiar songs and do familiar drama games. We basically approached our Zoom studios as we do our on-site studios. We soon discovered that we could “Pass the Face” from Zoom window to Zoom window; we could throw and catch imaginary balls; we could meet everyone’s pets and stuffties and act out animal scenes; we could write and perform monologues; we could teach choreography, songs, scene study and improvisation. In short, we could run our regular drama classes, albeit with new ways of working.
This week, we’ve launched 30 online courses filled with dramatic fun. We’ve adapted existing courses and created entirely new ones. In the space of 3 weeks, we’ve reinvented our business. And best yet, we’re still able to continue to work with our students!
Our online classes will have the same qualities that you’ve come to expect from Ottawa Children’s Theatre –– professionalism, empathy and creativity. But we’ll have something else, too: a renewed excitement about the value of drama skills to teach adaptability. We and our students are the proof.
It has been two years since Tim and I started off on our “Gap Year for Grown Ups”, two years since I began this blog. At the time, I thought I was taking a year’s leave of absence from my job. An unstructured year of travel was bracketed, I thought, by structure. I had a job, I’d be away for a year, I would go back to the job. As far as life changing adventures go it felt relatively safe.
But travel changes a person and time waits for no man – to use two well-worn clichés. The organization that I was absent from altered so much in my year away that my job became unrecognizable. Life on the road brought me into a different understanding of myself and who, perhaps, I wanted to be. I could not go back to where I’d been before. I began looking for a different treadmill.
Some of the lessons that I have learned in the year since we’ve been home have been harsh. Job hunting when you are a woman of a certain age is painful and soul sucking. “A lifetime of experience” became a negative phrase. The matter of an income weighed heavily as did the lack of independence and personal status. As I frantically tried to step back onto a treadmill, any treadmill, every foray made me question what on earth I was doing.
Set against my anxiety has been my continued freedom. Remaining off the treadmill has given me a chance to be more accessible to family, friends and community. I’ve had time to do a couple of meaningful volunteer projects. I’ve been back in my calligraphy studio, remembering how much I love the shape of letters. I was able to travel to Mexico to visit my mother. I had time to go on a pilgrimage to California with my father’s ashes. I’ve made sure to begin each day with a calm walk down country roads.
Most excitingly, I’ve written a book that will be published this fall — September 17: A Novel. I hadn’t expected that to happen but that’s the great thing about being in freefall – you just don’t know what you’ll find.
“…Alice had not a moment to think about stopping herself before she found herself falling down what seemed to be a very deep well.
Either the well was very deep, or she fell very slowly, for she had plenty of time as she went down to look about her, and to wonder what was going to happen next. First she tried to look down and make out what she was coming to, but it was too dark to see anything; then she looked at the sides of the well, and noticed that they were filled with cupboards and bookshelves; here and there she saw maps and pictures hung upon pegs…” (Alice in Wonderland)
While I was looking around me, I discovered a story that needed to be written. Like Alice, it came from a picture that I saw on a wall, a picture of a group of 5 little boys, grinning from ear to ear, wearing oversized sailor’s uniforms and waving from the deck of a ship. They had just been rescued after spending 8 days on a lifeboat in the Atlantic. The picture led me to the story, and into writing a novel.
September 17: A Novel is based on true events. It follows a group of children who are being evacuated from England to Canada during the Second World War on The SS City of Benares. Told from the perspective of the children, it is a story about their dreams of a life across the ocean, a life free from bombs, free from fires and death, free from food rationing. When their ship is torpedoed in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, it becomes a story of adventure, survival, loss and incredible bravery. September 17 is published by Red Deer Press. A portion of the proceeds from the book will be donated to Save the Children, and I am looking forward to working to help them raise funds for their worthy efforts on behalf of children. I’ll be having book launches in Toronto and Ottawa this October and I hope you’ll join me if you are around.
Travelling was very much an Alice in Wonderland adventure for me. But since I have been home, those boys have helped my temperament to become more like Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz than Alice.
“What have you learned, Dorothy?”
“I think that it wasn’t enough just to want to see Uncle Henry and Auntie Em, and it’s that if I ever go looking for my heart’s desire again l won’t look any further than my own backyard. Because if it isn’t there l never really lost it to begin with.” (The Wizard of Oz, MGM 1937)
I’ve spent this year paying attention to my own backyard, literally and figuratively. I’ve also been connecting with friends in the theatre community, with the result that I’ve got funding to work at Theatre Direct in Toronto this fall. I’ll be involved with two of their new projects – theatre for the very young (toddlers) and theatre for children with autism spectrum disorder. The latter will pick up on the work that I previously did in Ottawa, and I’m thrilled to be working with Jacqueline Russell from Chicago Children’s Theatre again. It is an exciting and rewarding area for me to be focusing on.
I’m working with Jan Irwin and Easy Avenue Productions to develop a new theatre piece based on Brian Doyle’s book Up to Low. The Ottawa Children’s Theatre is also going to offer acting classes for kids aged 5 – 15. I’ve got a stellar line up of teachers for the fall, and, I’ve partnered with the Acting Company to operate out of the newly renovated Avalon Theatre in Ottawa’s Glebe. It’s an exciting new venture.
So it would seem that I have accepted that I am not getting back on the treadmill any time soon. To be fair, I’ve lived most of my life as a freelance artist. Working for someone else, for a steady pay cheque with benefits, turns out to have been an aberration. While there are things about that job that I miss terribly, I know I am on the right path. So I am celebrating the 2nd anniversary of this blog fully off the treadmill.