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Homegrown Kansas City educator tackles social issues through high school dramas

Each of the last seven years, students in Greg Shaw's drama classes presented original plays of social importance for students, residents, and other nearby cities.  This years play, "Snowflakes," focused on Autism.
Each of the last seven years, students in Greg Shaw's drama classes presented original plays of social importance for students, residents, and other nearby cities. This years play, "Snowflakes," focused on Autism.
Zach Fletcher and Courtesy of Pittsburg Community Schools USD 250

Kansas City metro native, Greg Shaw, received recognition recently from the Kansas National Education Association for his dedication and focus on bringing about social change through dramatic productions that illuminate situations not normally talked about in high schools.

Shaw, a graduate of Gardner Edgerton High School and the University of Kansas teaches high school drama at Pittsburg High School, Pittsburg, Kan. during the school year, but in summers “off” directs the local theater and returns to Kansas City to direct a show at Johnson County’s Theater in the Park. Shaw returned to the Kansas City area Saturday, April 26, on business and explained his program and its success.

Each year for the past seven years, Shaw includes one play of social significance to deal with problems faced by students. The original social awareness plays drew state and national attention, Shaw said.

"He is an outspoken advocate for protecting the rights of others," Rhonda White, high school counselor at PHS said. "He has produced plays with themes that represent the raw reality that faces our youth every day,” she said in an interview with the Joplin Globe newspaper.

White nominated Shaw for a Kansas National Education Association Human and Civil Rights Award. KNEA chose Shaw for the award, which was presented in mid-April in Topeka. Last fall, Shaw received the Character Education Partnership's National Award for Promising Practices. Shaw currently awaits news from another national nomination.

School violence drew Shaw’s attention when he produced the first high school play with social relevance. “Bang, Bang You're Dead” by William Mastrosimone wrote school violence in play form to Shaw’s students at PHS.

Also in 2008, “Phat Girls,” began the process of producing plays with social ramifications. The play, Shaw said concerned eating disorders. That was the beginning of a team approach with playwright Debbie Lamedman, who worked with Shaw and students to create original scripts on such topics as bullying dating violence, drug usage, and others, Shaw said.

The following years allow Shaw and his students to explore other social issues, custom written by Lamedman. In the following years the students studied and presented plays as follows: “Phat Girls” looked at eating disorders and body image in 2009; “Ignorance is Bliss--A Global Warning” explored Global Warming in 2010; “Everyday People” explained bullying in 2011; “Rx” exposed prescription drug abuse in 2012; “You Belong to Me” shined light on dating violence in 2013. “Snowflakes” targeted Autism and celebrating differences in 2014.

“In addition to the traditional social issue play (which is our spring show), we produced “Thirteen Reasons Why,” based on the New York Times best-selling novel, by Jay Asher, in the fall of 2013. This topic was teen suicide,” Shaw said.

According to Shaw, after the school produced “Phat Girls,” which was a play that Lamedman had previously published, she saw in an interview that said Shaw was looking for plays on specific topics. She contacted him, and during the discussion, she asked if he had ever considered commissioning a play.

“After several conversations, we developed a plan to commission a piece specifically for my rep theatre class and the topic was global warming. We were starting a recycling program in our school and students were becoming active in this topic, so it was timely and topical for us. Afterward, I found the process extremely beneficial to the students,” Shaw said.

“The idea that they are able to express themselves and Debbie would listen to their likes and dislikes, suggestions and omissions, and their views would be reflected in a final draft of the play was more valuable than receiving a script and putting on a previously written production. It requires them to do research, workshop the topic, develop characters in a much more in-depth manner prior to casting and performance,” he said.

The brainstorming for the next year's topic and plans are already under way as soon as students complete our spring social issue play. The entire process is over a year in development. This is done through our repertory theatre class, he said.

Shaw acknowledged that this effort requires help and support of the balance of the administration and faculty who, he said, have been very supportive. Administration and faculty have always shown support through their willingness to rearrange schedules and allow Shaw’s class to utilize resources in order that all of our district students are able to view these productions.

Along with the performance and development stages of productions, students also interact with the authors. The combined staff efforts have never been more evident than the willingness of the administration to assist in facilitating bringing Debbie Lamedman and Jay Asher to Pittsburg High School this year, Shaw said. Lamedman was present for the world premiere of “Snowflakes” and Jay Asher attended opening night at “Thirteen Reasons Why.” Both authors gave assemblies and small group discussions to students and to the community. Shaw said.

“Our students have always been extremely receptive to our products and I believe that it is because we focus on using timely topics and age consistent language (colloquialisms, slang, mild curse words). This is sometimes a challenge for adults, but our administration and faculty has come to appreciate the need to use language and situations that are from a student perspective,” he said.

Attendance at the performances could not be better, Shaw said.

“Currently, we perform four or five times at Memorial Auditorium in Pittsburg, Kan. We do a Wednesday night world premiere public performance. We do two performances Thursday for students and two performances on Friday for students. All are free of charge. We send personal invitations and topic previews to all South East Kansas Schools. Generally 3-4,000 students will attend these performances,” he said.

To date, the shows have not traveled. Shaw said that they concentrated on bringing students to the area facility. In the past few years, conversations have started about taking our productions to other schools, and that conversation continues. There are many logistics that have to be worked out and funding secured to make that a reality, but one that we would like to investigate further, he said.

Success comes through reactions Shaw and his students receive from each topic. He cites several success stories that went beyond his expectations.

“Every play we have done has elicited students contacting counselors, or having meaningful private conversations with various teachers. We offer talk back sessions with each performance and area professional to help with questions or concerns depending on topic. Teachers are provided additional information on resources to make available to students or where to find more information. For example, with the most recent play, we brought in specialists in autism from SEK-CAPs that work with students and people with autism. Depending on the topic we will include resources such as law enforcement, treatment centers, safe house, etc. and counselors are always on sight,” he said.

“Phat Girls” and “You Belong to Me” also generated responses unexpected and unsolicited, he said.

“After ‘Phat Girls’, we had a student who, unbeknownst to any of her peers, was in the middle of treatment for an eating disorder. And one of her treatment steps was to tell her story in a public forum. She asked permission to speak to students of repertory theatre, feeling they had more perspective on the topic. She gave a one hour, all-inclusive discussion on her personal experience. During ‘You Belong to Me,’ through research in preparing for the production, a student came to the realization that they were in an abusive relationship and was directed to seek help.

Although the aforementioned plays have generated positive responses, Shaw noted one play that just did not play well to the high school audience, “Ignorance is Bliss--A Global Warning.”

“Even though a good piece of theatre, it was too ‘global.’ The topic was too large and did not affect the students in our hallways on a daily basis. It did not require a personal investment from the majority of students.”

With “Snowflakes” ending April 25, the process has begun for the next topic, Shaw said. Students have discussed several ideas. Among them are: Some topics we have discussed are: socioeconomic differences within a school and the tension that creates; cliques, activities, social, religious, etc; teen alcohol abuse; social media assault/ hatebook/sexting; and teen sexuality.

“As a high school program, our initial thoughts are to do a topic important to high school students. However, we find that most of the time, these are important to a wide range of ages,” Shaw said. “The dating violence play was one we encouraged 7th grade and older (not elementary) to view the play. The bullying play, we felt the original script was appropriate for 6th grade and up, but because we know that bullying is one of the most important topics we can do for all ages, we asked Debbie to help us with an elementary school version of that topic. We produced two versions of this play. The elementary focused on verbal and physical bullying that might happen in an elementary school. The middle and high school version included verbal and physical bullying, but also included sexual orientation and social media.”

With this year’s play ended, Shaw now prepares for next year’s production, the end of the year activities, his directing of the summer theater program for the city of Pittsburg, and his July 4 show, “HONK!” at Kansas City’s The Theater in the Park.