DCPA Director of Education Allison Watrous, far left, recently was chosen to teach an Intro to Theatre course at the International College of Beijing.
The opening scene of Tennessee Williams’ Orpheus Descending features a group of women gossiping, something Allison Watrous, the DCPA’s Director of Education, struggled recently to explain to her Chinese students. She tried many different ways to explain the word “gossip,” only to be met with blank stares. But after one student translated it on her phone, the meaning clicked for everyone.
It was a new, beautiful moment for Watrous. And for three weeks this winter, her classroom in Beijing was full of beautiful moments.
Watrous was chosen to teach an Intro to Theatre course at the International College of Beijing, an honor not given to many professors. Although not every student aspires to be an actor, Watrous believes the arts are a valuable part of anyone’s education. And she would know. She was a DCPA Teaching Artist for 17 years before being named the DCPA’s new Director of Education in 2014, overseeing classes for more than 65,000 students of all ages every year.
“I think it’s important for education because it’s about human skills. We can learn to empathize and how to communicate with other people,” Watrous said. “And in terms of job force and job leadership, theatre teaches public speaking, communication skills, collaboration, creativity and critical thinking. Those are skills that transfer across any job.”
Watrous is a Wheat Ridge native and a graduate of the Denver Center’s former National Theatre Conservatory masters program. She won a 2015 True West Award in recognition of the breadth of impact she has on the live of young Coloradans.
Teaching the three-week class in China happened through her role as an adjunct professor for the University of Colorado at Denver. Watrous teaches one class every semester there. This semester, she is teaching the same Intro to Theatre course that she led in China during her visit, which spanned Dec. 20-Jan. 14.
The course usually takes 15 weeks, but because Watrous was only in China for three weeks, she taught the equivalent of four classes each day. She described it as intensive and fast-paced, but said her students were amazing and handled it well. That all 40 of her students are bilingual made it easier for her. But there were still a few misunderstandings along the way.
“They needed their own word to really understand what I meant,” she said. “There were many moments like that, in terms of figuring out how to have something make sense. They also had times where they just needed to process it with each other through Chinese.”
Although she didn’t have to worry about the language barrier, there were other things she was nervous about for the trip. She worried her class wouldn’t be embraced, and that she would be unable to form real relationships with each student in such a limited time frame. But she was nervous for naught.
Watrous credits planning. Before she left, faculty members who had previously taught in China told her the students were often quiet, but having them write down their questions helped spark conversations. So she built that into her curriculum.
“It’s not culturally familiar for them to just raise their hand and be a part of a discussion,” she said. “So they needed a format that would work for them in order to ask or respond to questions, and it ultimately worked.”
Greek mythology still serves as something of a universal language, and Watrous’ entire Chinese class devised original work based on the myth of Persephone for their final projects. And they all performed, which took them out of their more reserved comfort zones.
Outside of teaching, Watrous found time for sightseeing. One of her favorite excursions was seeing the Terracotta Warriors, a collection of sculptures built by the first Qin Emperor of China, buried with him for protection in the afterlife. She also traveled with other faculty to Harbin for one of the largest ice festivals in the world. She joked that her big Colorado coat couldn’t keep her warm in the minus-12 degree weather there. And then there was, of course, karaoke.
Pictured above right: Allison Watrous’ 2015 True West Award. Right: Posing at Terra Cotta.)
It’s not the American, sing-your-heart-out karaoke Americans are accustomed to in bars. Watrous raved about how popular karaoke is in China. She said it takes place in private booths inside a large building where people sing with friends. Although Beijing doesn’t have much of a live theatre culture like the U.S., the city does have have the Beijing Opera, a famous ballet company and a variety of live music venues. To connect the content from her theatre class to her students’ lives, Watrous had to draw on different moments they had experienced.
“They said they had a production of Rent come into town. So we had a lot of discussion around if anyone had seen it or what they heard about it,” Watrous said. “Karaoke was another connective tissue I used in the room because they all love to sing. I think it’s an interesting part of their culture in terms of artistry.”
While in Beijing, Watrous also managed her directing responsibilities back home. She was in the middle of directing Denver School of the Arts’ student production of Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia, a play challenging enough on its own without adding nearly 7,000 miles and a 15-hour time difference. Thankfully, Watrous’ actors were on Christmas break for two of the weeks she was in China. Her technical director helped during the third week by taking them into tech rehearsals, sending videos to Watrous for her to review.
Watrous said her experience in China opened her eyes to a new way of engaging with students. What she normally does in an American classroom was completely different from the way she eventually ran classroom in China. She learned to be more present in her classes and with her students, which she said was a valuable lesson.
“It was awesome having the opportunity to teach and be fully immersed in a different culture,” she said. “It was a really amazing challenge, and also such a huge gift.”
About the Author: Olivia Jansen
DCPA NewsCenter intern Olivia Jansen, right, is a junior at Wartburg College in Waverly, Iowa, where she is studying multimedia journalism. She is from Johnsburg, Ill. Read her previous profiles of Denver actors Karen Slack and Paige Price here, and Stage Manager Rachel Ducat here.
(Pictured below: Photos from the Lama Temple in Beijing, and the Outdoor Ice Festival in Harbin, China. Photos provided by Allison Watrous.)