Learning Abilities: Dyslexic Students At The Gow School Conquer Macbeth

Nestled in the bucolic town of South Wales, New York, The Gow School is world-renowned for the education of young men with learning differences (specifically dyslexia). Having recently moved to the area, my wife and I became fond of the school when its director of development, Gayle Hutton, played violin at our wedding, and upon meeting the head of school, Brad Rogers.

After having been given a tour of the school and spending time with some of the students, we were terribly impressed by the quality of the program, the quality of the students, and level of the instructors. Having already discussed my “artistic” interests in theatrical lighting design, Rogers introduced me to Peter Weisenberger, English teacher and drama instructor. Between us and with Rogers’ support, we conceived the idea of bringing moving lights (Philips Vari-Lite fixtures, specifically) in for the Spring production of William Shakespeare’s Macbeth.

The school has a specialized mission: “The primary purpose of The Gow School is to maintain and operate an independent, not-for-profit school for the education of young men, grades 7 - 12, using a college preparatory curriculum with emphasis on the remediation of dyslexia and related language based learning difficulties through reconstructive language.” The students at Gow seem to have a few strengths because of their learning differences, but among their assets are spatial relations and working with their hands. The teachers at Gow inject many of their lessons with multi-sensory activities, or VAKT (visual, auditory, kinesthetic, and tactile). Weisenburger jumped at the opportunity to use these powerful theatrical tools to enhance the production and to give a few of his students the chance to use their strengths, learn a new skill, and to work with a professional lighting designer.

Gow is already on the forefront of mechanical education, as the facility has a lab program for seniors (and some juniors) designing and constructing “battlebots” for national competition. Given the students’ ability to excel in this area and their penchant for strong spatial relations, I believed that the combination of moving heads and the geometric nature of lighting design would be a great fit. After meeting my new assistant lighting designers and programmers, Hunt Tuetken (grade 11) and Norris Mead (grade 12), I could tell we were going to have a productive, successful, and interesting collaboration.

Six days before curtain, Tuetken, Mead, Weisenberger, and a number of cast members awaited the arrival of the rental gear from Buffalo’s Advanced Production Group. Three road cases with four Philips Vari-Lite VL2500 Spots and a Barco High End Systems Hog 3PC were rented to complement the existing rig of 11 6” Fresnels and four Altman Lighting 6x9 ellipsoidals.

Over the course of the next two days, all students participated in the rigging of the new equipment and learned a little about the instruments, their versatility, and what the role of a crew was during the process. With the VLs up and running and everything else focused, we were programming in no time.

Taking the lead, Tuetken took to the role of programming like a fish takes to water. After about five minutes of instruction, he grasped the idea of the multiple attributes and processes necessary for the interface between the Hog and the moving heads and conventional fixtures. Aside from a few instances of needing to prompt Tuetken to move the head in the opposite way (“your other stage left”), one would have never known that either of my able assistants possessed any learning differences whatsoever.

After working for the next few days together, we had written nearly 100 cues, with Tuetken and Mead adding artistic ideas (color, texture, beam angle, etc.) and easily grasping the complexities of live cues, moving cues, and repositioning cues. Following a dress rehearsal in which our cast was still tentative and worried about their lines, we embarked upon opening night.

Thursday, May 6, 2010 was not a remarkable day; we were a group of committed thespians intent on giving our audience a good show. Director Peter Weisenberger and I joked about the ongoing lore of “The Scottish Play” and made light of all the stories associated with uttering “Macbeth” in the performance space. A few chuckles and an hour and a half later, the curtain metaphorically rose and less than ten minutes into the show, a circuit-breaker blew, leaving us without control of sounds nor lighting and providing yet more non-scientific data supporting the theory that the curse of “The Scottish Play” is something more than lore.

With a high level of calm and professionalism, we quickly identified the problem, reset the circuit-breaker, and regained control of our equipment. The show must go on, and it did, and our team breathed a collective sigh of relief as bows were taken after a successful opening night.

Twenty-four hours later, we experienced a flawless closing night. The Gow students exited the Birnam Wood with their heads held high, having conquered Macbeth, moving lights, and further demonstrating that learning differences only make you different if you let them.
Watching the cast and crew interface with the lighting equipment and listening to their conversations with family, friends, and faculty, I am sure that this was a wonderful opportunity for their learning and development in theatre—an experience they will not soon forget. And just maybe, it will have inspired one of these superlative young men to aspire to be the next Bob Dickinson. Who knows?

Tuetken and Mead thrived. Here is what they said about the experience:

MB: How was your experience working with the lights?
Hunt Tuetken: Awesome experience—it was a great learning experience because I am a tactile learner. I learn by using my hands.
Norris Mead: It was fun because I had never thought I would work with theatrical lights.

MB: Do you think you have an advantage as a dyslexic student working with lighting design?
HT: Yes, and I don't think it is because I am dyslexic, but you were the creative engine behind the design.
NM: I don't know if it is because I am dyslexic, but I feel as though I am mechanically inclined, so I found it was easy.

MB: What part was the most fun?
NM: It was interesting working with professional equipment. I would definitely like to work with them again.
HT: The most fun was putting the show together—the cue-to-cue rehearsal—and seeing what exactly the lights are capable of. The lights did more than I thought they would do.

MB: Were your learning differences an obstacle in any way to the process of learning the programming?
NM: No.
HT: No [emphatically].

With our deepest appreciation to George Mask at Phillips Vari-Lite, High End Systems, APG Buffalo, and Live Design.

Marc D. Broidy is a lighting designer, among other professions, who volunteers with students at The Gow School. He has also worked with students at his alma mater, Pitzer College.

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