Michelle Swantes: Poetry Alive!

Feb 24, 2015 by

An Interview with Michelle Swantes: Poetry Alive!

Michael F. Shaughnessy – 

1) Michelle, first of all, what is your exact title and what would you say you do at Poetry Alive?

My title is Artistic Director. As such, I am responsible for developing and enhancing our programming offerings.

I write our four original shows each season. This involves months of research and development in seeking out the best quality works that have dramatic possibility. I also do historical research involving biographical information on the author, and study the work’s contextual and educational merit.

I work to see that each individually-tailored show is thoughtful, covers a wide-range of relevant subject matter, represents the classical and contemporary work of international authors, and is, above all, entertaining. If people aren’t enjoying the story that you are telling them, they won’t listen.

I also personally audition, interview, and hire our actors. It is important to us to work with creative artists who bring their own set of skills, life experiences and passion to their work. These elements are what bring the text to life. Each team of actors will bring their own special flavor to the work, and it is always exciting to develop the shows in rehearsal.

I then rehearse each team of actors individually. During this time, we discuss historical and biographical context, different poetry formats, and symbolic meaning. I block the shows. This means that I add movement, dramatic pacing, verbal emphasis and emotional interaction to the poems. I work with the actors to shape and tighten their performances to achieve greater meaning from the text, to elucidate its dramatic structure, and to make it an interactive learning experience for our audiences.

The rest of the year, I will go out on the road to perform as an Artist-in-Residence internationally, speak and perform at educational conferences, and work administratively.

2) How long has Poetry Alive been in existence ? And how many gigs do you do a year?

We are pleased to be celebrating our 30th anniversary this year. Over the years, we have reached over 10 million audience members worldwide. We perform during the standard American, nine-month school year, and also do summer programming and professional development.

3) How many people are in your troupe?

Our teams consist of two actors each, and we typically have five full-time teams travelling throughout the year. In addition, we also have a number of part-time acting teams.

4) Obviously, you have an affinity for poetry – But do the schools support your endeavors?

We have the pleasure of working with many passionate educators who understand how language development, empathy, creative problem solving, leadership skills and wisdom can be gained through exposure to dramatic poetry. They work very hard to fill gaps in the education that their students receive. They are tireless advocates for balanced education that includes an emphasis on the arts. They fully understand that arts programming, like dramatic poetry, can create powerful cognitive connections, empower students, and improve students’ overall academic performance in all areas of study.

The teachers that do this type of work inspire us every day.

5) I think poetry is a thing of beauty – like art, and music- but are the schools encouraging poetry?

There certainly are schools that encourage poetry. However, many times explaining the value of poetry can be an uphill battle. This can be particularly true of educators that are working against ever-restrictive testing schedules, tight budgets and a strong emphasis on the “plain and practical value” of education.

The irony is, poetry, like all fine arts, IS practical. Many recent studies have emphasized the connections between the arts and overall academic performance.

One example of this would be a study done by Professor Catterall at the University of California, Los Angeles. He is quoted as saying, “Notions that the arts are frivolous add-ons to a serious curriculum couldn’t be further from the truth.” His research suggested that the arts benefitted students academically in numerous ways. Namely, that drama, “Helps with understanding social relationships, complex issues and emotions; improves concentrated thought and story comprehension.” He also stated that “Multi-arts” (a combination of art forms), “Helps with reading, verbal and math skills; improves the ability to collaborate and higher-order thinking skills.”

We include numerous art forms in our Poetry Alive! programming and have seen the benefits in students of all ages and abilities, including students on the autism spectrum or with other special needs.

The thing that I love most about what we do, is that the students are so busy enjoying themselves they don’t even realize how much they are learning and growing. I especially love how this particular type of learning activity places them in the driver’s seat of their own learning experience.

6) Is there a most requested poem? (During Christmas, I am asked to read “T’was the Night Before Christmas” many, many times.)

We get a number of requests at different seasons. However, many favorite requests over the years include, “The Raven” by Edgar Allan Poe, “Jabberwocky” by Lewis Carroll, and the all-American favorite, “Casey at the Bat,” by Ernest Lawrence Thayer.

7) Do you have a web site where people can get more information?

We certainly do. Please check us out at Poetryalive.com. You can also find us on Facebook and Twitter at PoetryAlive.

8) What have I neglected to ask?

Do I love what I do?

A resounding yes! I am grateful for my work every single day. Being able to interact with so many wonderful educators and students, to see how creativity empowers and inspires, and to see how poetry truly “lifts the veil from the hidden beauty of the world,” is truly joyful and fulfilling work, indeed.

Thank you again, Michael, for this opportunity to discuss Poetry Alive. I really appreciate it. Please let me know if you have any further questions.

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