At School Without Walls, A Theatre Without Limits
As the old adage goes, “Those who can’t do, teach.”
However, this is not quite the case for Tyler Herman, the 23-year-old theatre instructor of Washington’s acclaimed magnet school, School Without Walls.
Referred to by students and faculty as “Walls,” the institution is well recognized as the best public high school in the District, and one of the best in the region. Established in 1971, SWW is of a certain Montessorian ilk, helping students to expand their education beyond the classroom “Walls” and turn the nation’s capital into an equal player in their intellectual cultivation. With a student body of less than 500, the students are afforded plenty of individual attention to help shape their futures.
Backed by new principal Richard Trogisch and Chancellor Michelle Rhee, the school has recently been restructuring itself to achieve higher academic standards in an ever-expanding, open-ended classroom environment. The new building, in the Foggy Bottom neighborhood, forgoes lockers to keep the school looking less like an institution, and more like a welcoming environment for children to learn.
SWW has a partnership with The George Washington University to provide classes free of charge for qualifying juniors and seniors. The newly established GW Early College Program offers students the opportunity to achieve an Associates Degree in Liberal Arts while they’re still in high school, granting them access to all the educational amenities that GW has to offer. The school’s Gilder Lehrman Initiative funds historic field trips around the region with visiting historians serving as guest lecturers and seminar leaders.
The list of student electives — of which they are free to take plenty — rivals some colleges, and there are mandatory internships within the city for graduating seniors.
Yet, as of last November, there was no theatre department. Enter Herman.
A recent graduate of Cornell, Herman came back to the area, having grown up in Silver Spring. With a degree in theatre and dance, and a minor in music, he didn’t have much intention to teach upon graduation. “I wanted to be an artist,” he says.
Picking up small work in a number of local theatres, he began instructing youth theatre programs part-time at Round House Theatre and other local high schools. “I had heard a lot of horror stories about public schools,” says Herman. “Students are unruly and uninterested.” But when Walls approached him to take on a position in their theatre program’s maiden voyage, he was surprised at what he found.
“A 99 percent graduation rate, and a 95 percent college-bound rate,” he exclaims. “These kids are smart. And they want to learn.”
Still, Herman maintained that he didn’t want to simply be a teacher. He laid out his objective in starting the theatre program as a working actor. “I’m big on creating work,” he says. “I am a working actor in this town, so I want to bring it around to the community, create a mindset of not just fun, but a career.”
Herman’s mission is to use the school’s fresh program as a way to reach out to the community, producing relevant work with as much input from the students as possible. The productions are not just for the public, but are inspired from within the public.
As SWW’s first main-stage production, Herman chose Molière’s “The Miser,” a satirical comedy about a rich moneylender and his children who wish to escape his penny-pinching household (allude away, my fellow metropolitans).
However, the copy Herman had was a translation from the 1950s (Molière was French), which, according to Herman, “Felt stuffy, not very timely or relevant.” So Herman, fluent in French, took it upon himself to re-translate the show, change a few characters around, put in a song and dance break, and fill in plot holes from the original script.
The style of theatre is actor driven, the leads played their own instruments, most being members of the high school band. Herman even decided to have the students play their own songs, which they began improvising onstage, creating a different theatre experience every night. In many sections of the new text, Herman would merely write down framework and recommendations, then had the students “Create their own moment.”
“They made the show their own by crafting the characters they were creating, making it genuinely funny for them and the audience every night. Taking ownership of the theatre … I come in with my ideas, and they take it and do their own thing, and sometimes it’s even better. So, encouraging that creativity has become a huge part of the process.”
He wants his students to tell their own stories. “I don’t want to create high school-level work,” he says. “I want to create real work that’s done by high school students.” Herman is now looking to get certified as a teacher — no teaching degree, just to be clear, but a vocation degree.
As far as his own work is concerned, he is working through the summer with Young Playwrites Theatre, Shakespeare Theatre Company, Arena Stage, and Round House Theatre. He will soon be appearing in “In Faction of Fools” with Welders Theatre Company.
A year out of school, and Herman is entrenched in theatre. He is beginning the framework of a winter festival at SWW with work primarily written by his students. A Shakespeare drama in the fall, a musical in the spring, all while working on his own theatre projects outside the classroom.
If the old adage had come about with Herman in mind, it would surely read a little differently: “Those who teach, do.”