Behind every great theatrical performance at Prairie, there is a talented crew of Tech Theatre students putting the pieces together.

By Rachel Shuster | Arts, Student Life, Upper School

Hammer: check. Paintbrush: check. Table saw: check.

Not exactly your typical school supply list, but these are the tools Prairie students use as part of their Tech Theatre courses.

Upper School students can sign up for one of two Theatre Workshop classes as part of Prairie’s Performing Arts curriculum. Unlike more traditional courses, the objective is not pass/fail — it’s getting the job done. Grades are based on completion, rather than assigned by the letter. Students’ “assignments” are tasks listed on a whiteboard at the beginning of the class period, big and small to-do’s needed to complete construction on the sets for various school productions. And the classroom doesn’t consist of desks and chairs. Sometimes, it’s a speakeasy, or a forest of Truffula Trees. This fall, it’s a small island off the coast of Greece, the backdrop for the Upper School’s spring production of Mamma Mia!

As Technical Theatre Director, former Prairie student Ben Wagner oversees all of the Workshop courses. He says the work his students do is the epitome of “hands-on learning.”

“Literally, if you don’t put your hands on anything here, you aren’t going to get anything out of the class,” Wagner explains.

His favorite part of teaching these courses?

“It’s a different way to interact with students. Showing them how to use a circular saw is different than teaching them about derivatives,” Wagner describes. “It builds a certain kind of rapport that you can’t get in a classroom because it puts everyone on the same team, rather than a ‘leader-follower’ relationship.”

For most of the school day, Melissa Flynn is in one of those traditional classrooms, teaching Upper School math. She sneaks away to the Jack Mitchell to co-teach Workshop classes with Wagner.

“It’s also really low-stakes,” she describes. “If students aren’t comfortable doing something, they don’t have to do it on the first day. They start where they’re at. Everyone is learning at their own pace.”

But the pace moves fast. With two musicals on the Performing Arts calendar each school year, students have a full slate of work to do in a condensed amount of time. This year, first semester Tech Theatre students got their hands dirty putting together the set for the Middle School’s performance of Seussical, Jr.; almost immediately after the curtain closed, it was on to building the base of a two-story building that would form the centerpiece of the set for Mamma, Mia!

Class periods aren’t necessarily “structured” (pun intended). Wagner and Flynn list out to-do’s on a whiteboard backstage; when students arrive, they pick an assignment and go to work. During class, both instructors circulate to supervise and teach, where needed. If students don’t get their task done in the class period, they can pick it up the next day — or someone else can collaborate to finish it.

Wagner says there’s value in having Workshop as a class during the school day, rather than kids signing up for Crew as a co-curricular after school: it’s almost like a modern-day, 2.0 version of what schools used to call “home economics.”

“It’s like a weirdly specialized job class,'” he explains. “You might never need to build any of this stuff, but you also might. The kids are learning how to use a level, how to use a drill — the skills they’re learning are super transferrable to real life.”

And students make real, visible progress in their skill levels. Some come to Workshop having never handled a power tool, and others are seasoned pros, able to handle more advanced tasks.

Sophomore Riley Larsen is one of those students who got up to speed quick. He’s taken the course every semester of his US career at Prairie so far, and as such, his instructors not only trust him with more involved projects — they trust him to show his younger classmates the ropes.

“It’s my class where I can relax,” Larsen says. “Mr. Wagner and Ms. Flynn keep things really laid-back, but it’s still a productive class. They keep things light, joking with us while we get things done.”

Larsen plans to work this summer building sunroofs, where he’ll be able to hone the skills he’s developed in Tech Theatre even further. And experiences like his are what keep Flynn and Wagner teaching the course.

“Students don’t have to take this class, it’s not a graduation requirement,” Wagner says. “They’re here because they want to be, which is really cool and fun to be around.”