An interview with Julie Ganey

Did you know that Lifeline Theatre provides free theatre education to over 500 students in 6 Rogers Park elementary schools every year? To continue offering this program  throughout the 2013-14 season, we’ve launched our Back To School Campaign to raise $7,000 by December 1st.  As part of this campaign, Alex Kyger (Lifeline’s Development Director) interviewed some of the folks involved in this behind-the-scenes work that Lifeline does. Today, Alex presents an interview with one of our teaching artists, Julie Ganey.



About Julie Ganey
Julie has worked as an actress, teacher, and writer in Chicago for over 20 years, and has been an educator with Lifeline since 2008. Through Wavelength, an award-winning comedy ensemble that performs for educators nationwide, she has created and led workshops for teachers all over the country on communication skills, bridging conflict, and improvisation. Her bullying prevention program, Stand Up On the Schoolyard, has been presented to students and educators within the Chicago Public School system and across the country. Julie has served as Outreach Director at Next Theatre, where she has led community members in the creation of civic-based theatre projects that explore social issues, and she is currently a program creator and instructor for American Girl Place.

Q: How long have you been a teaching artist?

A: I’ve been a teaching artist for about 18 years at a lot of different places. I’ve been teaching with Lifeline since five years ago and it quickly became what I think of as my home base for teaching. A lot of that has to do with the fact that I live in Rogers Park and I have done a lot of community work in Rogers Park. I was so thrilled to get into the neighborhood schools.

I went to the Theatre School of DePaul and studied acting and performance; I still perform quite often. But to tell you the truth, when I graduated from college, the commercial world was not a great fit for me. I also knew that as an actress, I didn’t want to look back at the end of my career and realize I had only performed. I’m so grateful that I’ve stumbled into teaching and being a teaching artist because I feel like it really is a meaningful connection that I’ve made with the kids I’ve worked with. It makes a difference for them.

I come from a family of teachers, so I’m not surprised that I found being a teaching artist fulfilling. And for me there’s a big difference between being an acting teacher and being a teaching artist. I’ve never had an enormous interest in teaching actors how to act. But I do love the idea of interfacing with the community and introducing the idea to people that theatre skills are something that you can improve on and that can improve your life. They’re skills that can improve your learning and improve how well you read.

Q: Can you tell me about a specific class or memory that has stuck with you?

A: Last fall, another teaching artist and I were teaching two second grade classes at the same school. From the beginning, one was ready to do a full-fledged show. They were all in. You only had to show them how to do something once and they were on it. But the other group had a lot of struggles in and out of the classroom. It was the sort of classroom you go into where you worry about a couple of the kids. However, the improvement we saw over our time together in the most basic things – from being able to speak up to being able to stop and listen to someone else – was enormous. When we left that class, they had all sorts of new skills and different ways of working with each other. Collaboration is a higher-order thinking skill. It takes practice and support; and that’s why we introduce the concept of ensemble the first day of the residency. You never know the kind of impact what you’re doing is going to have.

Q: What has surprised you most about working in Lifeline’s residencies?

A: That so much of what we do is new information to teachers. I’m surprised that they say, “I never thought of using that exercise with vocabulary.” So I’ve been surprised at the impact that our program has on what teachers think they can do in the classroom. And I have been surprised and pleased at the cumulative affect it has on the students. I have worked with several second graders that had worked with me in Kindergarten as well. And what I’m seeing is the effect of working with these students and then coming back the next year and the year after that. It stays with them.

I was also surprised by the impact of the adaptation project, which is relatively new. I think it’s a great skill for students to understand what adaptation is. What we create is not a polished production, but we are taking a book and turning it into something that’s on its feet. And that requires a lot of decisions to be made. For example, “how should we convey that he’s a giant?” And I’ll say, “Yes, you could put him on a chair, but what else could you do?” Or they’ll say, “I really like this part of the story.” And I have to say, “I like that part, too, but is it necessary in telling this story?”

The project forces them to really mine information from a piece of literature. For example, I’ll say, “Let’s look at the character of Joe. Go back and look at everything Joe says and everything people say about Joe. Let’s come up with five adjectives to describe Joe.” And it can be hard for them. But once they got into it they started to see how everything that’s said in the text is a clue. And I felt they had never looked at literature that way before: taking fictional text and going through and pulling out the clues.

Q: When your friends or family find out you are a teaching artist, what do they say?

A: They say, “that sounds like so much fun.” And I say, “it is!” They often say, “well, I know it’s really hard being a teacher.” And I explain that it’s a lovely brand of teaching to be a teaching artist because you come in and you’re a guest artist for a period of time. People do ask, “don’t you have students that are too shy or don’t want to do it?” Yes, we have students who are shy and, yes, we have students who don’t want to do it at first. But it is the rare student who is not on board and engaged after a couple of classes.


Q: What do you wish other people knew about Lifeline?

A: The number one thing that I’m always talking to people about is the very high quality of the youth programming here. Yes, the in-school residencies, but also the extremely high quality of the KidSeries productions that we do. I think they are the best productions that are done in the city; and at a price where you can afford to bring your family. The attention to detail in terms of the theatrical experience for a kid and the emotional experience and understanding what a kid is going to take away. There is attention to detail in areas that I don’t see from other theatres. I think Lifeline is a very special theatre for young people.

Q: Are there any specific adaptation projects that you would like to share?

A: This fifth grade class we had was struggling to pick the book they wanted to adapt. So, Jenifer and I came up with the idea of doing Rikki Tikki Tavi,  a Rudyard Kipling short story from The Jungle Book. The class did not want to do Rikki Tikki Tavi. So, I had to say, “Well, let’s read it. Can I read it to you?” And as I’m reading it I’m thinking to myself, “They’re not going to want to do this. They are going to think this is too childish for them.” But before I could finish reading it they were jumping up and down, yelling, “I want to be the Mongoose! I want to be the cobra!” And so we did an adaptation of it. The commitment that fifth grade class had to being snakes. I was amazed at how they took ownership of it and it really took a life of its own. I just couldn’t picture these kids being committed snakes, but they were. That experience surprised me. But I have things surprise me all the time in these residencies.