investing in drama and performing arts

This post is written by Lexi Earl. 

During my trip to Uxbridge High School Amy Walker, the drama teacher, was keen to show me their new performing arts building . This new space was opened in September. It features a large drama studio with long blackout curtains that has a wall of moveable windows that fold out to become an outdoor theatre, complete with lighting and sound; and a wing for music students to practice and attend lessons in. The building is aptly named the Orsino Building and features his famous quote from Twelfth Night, “if music be the food of love, play on”.

It is an impressive space indoors, where drama students can rehearse their productions, but it is even more exciting when you imagine the outdoor theatre full of people enjoying a play. Amy explained that they intend to put on a production in the space in the summer term when (hopefully) the weather will be pleasant.

I thought it was quite surprising (but very inspiring) for a school to build a space actively promoting drama and performing arts, given all the negativity nationally that surrounds arts education. I asked the students in Year 12 and 13 their thoughts about how the school values art and it was clear that they also saw the theatre and new spaces as proof that the school supported their work.

I’ve been here since Year 7 and between Year 7 and 8 there were a whole load of new drama teachers who came in and they’re the ones who teach here now, and since then I’ve noticed that drama was taken a lot more seriously and it became a more fleshed out department. Drama is taken very seriously by the department and thereby by the rest of the school because the stuff that is put on in drama like school productions; I have people who don’t take drama and have never taken drama, say that was really good, that was really amazing.

It’s the facilities as well. When I was back in Year 7 you had two little classrooms and they weren’t really good for drama at all and this building opened, the activities studio and the learning zone upstairs; and we’ve now got the Orsino Building which of course has the outside stage and the massive room in there, as well with state of the art lighting systems. It shows how keen not just of course the drama department are, but the rest of the school are to help improve not so much the facilities but also the perception of performing arts. Because if they show that the school cares then certain students are going to show that they already care and they might be more keen to get into it.

I then asked them what they thought the perception of drama and performing arts was within the school.

It’s a lot more accepted than what it was, five or six years ago. I think like back in Year 7 and Year 8 when we used to go round and you didn’t want to admit it. It was just oh I do drama and I like acting, but you never admitted it, whereas now loads of people come up to me and they know I do performing arts. You can be more open if you like acting or enjoy performing arts, because the school shows they’re invested in that.

At A-level, pretty much any performance that we spend a long period of time on, we like people – our friends – to come in and watch it. That helps with the perception because people realise it’s not just hours of playing drama games or pretending to be a tree; all those stereotypes about drama, because wow!, you’ve been working on a performance for five months and it was really good. I definitely think that helps.

The school’s investment in a performing arts space has clearly sent a signal to the students about the value of drama and performing arts, and this in turn, has boosted their confidence and willingness to share their passion with others. It was reassuring to see this valuing of arts, at a time when so much of what we read about arts education is negative.

 

“we are such stuff as dreams are made of”

This post is written by Lexi Earl, on her trip to Canterbury High School in Kent.

Imagine, if you will, walking along a coastal path. The seagulls are calling above you. The sky is blue and the sun warms your back. The sea crashes nearby, giving you glimpses of blue, green, aquamarine. Then you turn a corner and there, in front of you is a woodland sprite. A small creature dressed all in black with a red and orange tutu around its waist. Then, hark!, a wigwam, from where emerges a child that reminds you wholly of a lost boy from Peter Pan. Then you stumble upon a small boat with a cloud above it. It could be the Swallow that took the children to the island. Another small child passes you in a dark cape, carrying a staff – a young Gandalf, perhaps. There are others in white with blue ribbons, some in silver dresses. What on earth is going on?

You could be mistaken for thinking you had fallen through a rabbit hole and landed in a wonder-never-land, had you come upon this scene. I certainly felt I had stumbled into another world, one filled with sprites and spirits, queens, dukes, and bears. But in fact, I was simply near the beach at Folkestone to see a production of The Tempest. This particular performance was put on by a group of local Kent primary and secondary schools, as part of a Royal Shakespeare Company sharing event.

Becky Huckle, of Canterbury High School, had invited me to come to the performance as I happened to be visiting the school in the same week. This was an event organized by Becky and Canterbury High as part of their role as a Lead Associate School in the RSC’s education programme, with support from the Marlowe Theatre.  Not only did they put on a version of The Tempest (involving 10 different schools and 10 different scenes) but they also organized workshops for students and teachers to participate in, ran rehearsals so the children could get a sense of the space on stage, and organized other productions for the children to watch. (The boat I thought might take us to the Swallows and Amazons’ island turned out to be its own stage, the cloud rained constantly upon the actor, who did his whole performance via mime).

The Tempest performance took place at the open-air amphitheatre on the coastal path. The half-moon stage was framed by the amphitheatre’s columns, the audience sat on raised seating, and was able to see ‘backstage’ because everything was open to the elements. There was grass underfoot, blue sky above and the occasional curious passer-by, who paused to watch.

Coastal amphitheatre

Each school was allocated a scene and was then given the opportunity to interpret and perform it however they wished. The whole play was performed in sequence, with schools appearing for their scene and then rejoining the audience afterwards. There were many scenes with multiple children playing the same character, other scenes where children switched roles, or echoed lines. There was clever use of ensemble so that more children could be involved in scenes with fewer characters. The children made use of very physical theatre, moving about the space in unison, using their bodies to depict the location (the sea, for example) or falling over to great comedic effect. There were clever sound effects – the sound of the wind created by spinning plastic tubes at high speed – and use of music – a flute playing or children singing. Behind us the sea crashed and swayed, transporting us to Prospero’s Island.

Becky Huckle explained that part of their choice of the amphitheatre was to give students the experience of a “non-traditional theatre location”. This choice of location really added to the atmosphere and joy of the production. One of the teachers I sat next to kept saying ‘that was brilliant’, after every scene. I have to agree. It was a truly magical experience.

 

 

 

 

beware the ides of March!

This post is written by Lexi Earl, on her trip to King Ethelbert School in Kent.

During my time at King Ethelbert School, near Margate in Kent, I got to observe a Year 7 English class. The class were studying Julius Caesar. The English Department had chosen Julius Caesar as the Year 7 Shakespeare text because they were also participating in a production of Julius Caesar at the Marlowe Theatre, as part of their work with the RSC.

The class I witnessed was focused on the scene where Caesar is murdered (Act 3, Scene 1). While the class moved their tables and chairs to the edges of the room, Loren Hooker, their class teacher, asked them to think about “what the soothsayer says to Julius Caesar” and “why this is important”. We then arranged ourselves in a circle and Loren asked the class what the soothsayer says. “He says, beware the ides of March”, answered a student. Loren asked when the ides of March are – March 15th and why this is important – because it is a prophecy. It foretells Caesar’s death. We then began a warm-up game.

Everyone gazes at the floor. As Loren counts to 3 we take steps forward. On 3, we all look up, trying to lock eyes with someone opposite and say clearly “beware the ides of March!” If you lock eyes with someone, both of you are out of the game and have to die ‘a dramatic death’. This game was a lot of fun. The children in class were very enthusiastic, belting out the line dramatically, and falling to the floor when they ‘died’. Loren varied the speed at which they said the lines, and the voices they used (there is much laughter when they have to speak as an old woman). Eventually she brings the game to a close and they reflect on the skills they have learnt – coordination, voice projection, eye contact.

The class then moves on to a Woosh! They continue sitting in their circle but now participate in a reenactment of Act 3 Scene 1 while their teacher narrates. Loren tells the class to pay attention to the status of their character – how would they hold themselves, what would their posture be like?

The teacher says there is a huge crowd cheering. She runs around the circle, pointing to a number of students as she does so. The students shout enthusiastically and raise their arms, some with fists clenched, pumping at the air or waving. Another student is chosen as Caesar – he walks past the crowd. The teacher calls freeze and the crowd become silent, frozen in their stance. She chooses a number of senators and a soothsayer (the girl comes to take her coat from the table). The soothsayer joins the crowd and the senators join Caesar in the middle. The soothsayer pulls her coat up over her face, so that it is like a witch’s cloak. The teacher explains that Caesar spots the soothsayer in the crowd and gestures them forward. The boy playing Caesar calls the girl-soothsayer forward with his hand. The teacher tells them the lines and they repeat them: “the ides of March are here” he says scornfully. “Aye Caesar, but not yet gone”, she replies. “What does this mean?” Loren asks the class. She explains that the soothsayer is warning that the day is not yet over.

The class continues in this manner. There is a funny moment when the teacher says to an enthusiastic student, “you’re not stabbing anyone unless you’re sensible!” She continues, “I realize that is an unusual thing for a teacher to say” as the class laugh. Finally, Caesar lies dead on the classroom floor. “Et tu, Brutus”, he whispers.

KES LH class

Once that scene is done, the class rewinds briefly to the beginning of the play and the soothsayer’s initial warning. The students form two rows down the centre of the class and one child volunteers to be Caesar. Loren explains he is going to walk between the lines. The lines are the crowd and will stand and cheer. Loren says she will walk up and down the lines and tap someone on the shoulder – that person is then the soothsayer and must get in front of Caesar and say to him “beware the ides of March”. Caesar begins his regal walk down the lines and the children cheer enthusiastically – they shout and cheer loudly, some jumping up and down saying “It’s Caesar! It’s Caesar!” The Caesar-child shakes hands with people in the crowd as he goes along. The teacher taps a girl and she moves in front of Caesar and says the line but Caesar just dismisses her, doesn’t even really see her. Loren asks the class to freeze and explains what happened – Caesar was so caught up in being Caesar he didn’t even see the soothsayer! They repeat the scene and Loren chooses a different girl who jumps boldly in front of Caesar and says “beware the ides of March”.

After this Loren asks the Caesar-child what it felt like walking up and down. “It’s like I’ve had a birthday or something and everyone is congratulating me on becoming 12 or something!” She then asks the class how they felt, being the crowd – “someone with all the power is in front of me. It’s like oh my god.”

The class clearly understood the status and power held by different characters in these scenes, and how these change over time in the play. The opportunity for reflection also encouraged them to vocalise how it felt to play different characters, further enhancing their understanding of the play.

 

 

 

 

 

 

self-expression and reflection

This post is written by Lexi Earl on her visit to Ark St Albans Academy in Birmingham.

On my visit to Ark St Albans Academy I had an inspiring talk with a group of Year 13s. I was struck by the way the students talked about how involvement in creative activities had taught them how to reflect on their own lives and places in the world.

St Albans has worked with the RSC, who guide schools on rehearsal room approaches to study Shakespeare, in Drama and/or English. The Y13s I spoke with had benefited from these approaches to teaching Shakespeare in their English classes. They had also taken advantage of work experience with the RSC that had been offered through their school. But what became clear is that these experiences were not limited to understanding Shakespeare; they affected how students were able to understand the world, and express their opinions about it.

The students said that learning to express oneself and one’s opinions is an important skill, particularly in the current political climate.

[…] but even before he [Donald Trump] came in, it was still corrupt and you know it’s just going to get worse by the end cause of the way the system’s set up and everything. So if you have these young adults not knowing how to express themselves, not knowing how to go on 

Not knowing how to deal with it, the only focus in life is get good grades, get good grades, go to uni, get good grades, go to uni. For what?

Especially growing up in the inner city as well. I think it’s really important to get self-expression otherwise you can get dragged into so much stuff which I think people like us have so narrowly escaped.

And the thing is when you look back on you’re like whoa

The students linked the ability to express oneself with the ability to evaluate your actions, and the way you react to situations. They reflected in particular on life in the inner city, and the way people from disadvantaged backgrounds are not necessarily given the opportunity to develop this reflective skill.

I feel as though it also stems from like the fact that you’re not really evaluating, not, not given the chance and not evaluating why it is you do what you do. And through art you do that. Through art you look around. […] They need that art because it allows you to stand back and look back and think why am I doing, why because to be honest they’ve probably realised the first most important thing that, not the most important thing but that why am I going to uni and they’re probably like well there’s no point.

And art is definitely a way in which they can [express themselves]

This understanding of art as a form of self-expression became even more apt when one of the students talked about her own goal to represent people that are not necessarily often featured in the arts – people who come from particular religions, or backgrounds. The student argued that promoting art and self-expression was hugely important in changing the way ordinary people can relate to art.

And also the art that is promoted is probably art that comes from middle-class society where it’s art that represents white people in really heroic roles. You know it’s not for the main stream people which is like one of the forms of art that I try to do is like representation like painting Muslim women who aren’t depicted in art at all. And like to stamp their place in history to be honest. But that’s you need more artists who can portray a lifestyle that we live so that there is representation out there as those people can relate and if the art isn’t promoted then that’s just not going to happen.

These students’ experiences with the RSC, and the way they have learnt to express their opinions, has enabled them to reflect on their places in the world. They identified the ways that creative school subjects can help people understand the world, and told me that this has ultimately, enabled and emboldened them to express their opinions.

They were a truly inspiring group of young people and I left my visit feeling a little bit better about the state of the world.

empathising and understanding the character

This post is written by Lexi Earl on her experiences at Minsthorpe Community College.

On my visit to Minsthorpe Community College in west Yorkshire, I was able to observe a Year Seven English lesson on Much Ado about Nothing. The lesson made use of the rehearsal room approaches encouraged by the RSC. The lesson took place in the centre of the class, with students moving around, forming and reforming groups, and sitting on the floor.

ST classroom2

Sal Thompson, the teacher, began the lesson by drawing the students’ attention to the board. This had the phrase ‘dramatic irony’ displayed on it. She asked the class if they knew the phrase. Sal explained that dramatic irony occurs when the audience knows something that the actors on stage do not, and this can lead to conflict or to humour. It is done deliberately by the playwright to achieve a particular effect.

The students then began a warm-up activity called ‘Zip, Zap, Boing!’ They had to pass an invisible ball of energy around a circle, calling either zip, zap or boing depending on where they were sending it. (Zip sends it right or left, zap is across the circle, and boing is a header or tummy throw). The students were soon laughing, looks of panic crossing their faces when they unexpectedly received the energy ball before they had decided what to do with it, and making eye contact with the receiver. They performed the activity in two separate groups. When they were all done, Sal brought them back together and asked them to reflect on the point of the exercise. They realized that by performing the activity in two separate groups, they had to concentrate harder and focus their attention on the game, because they were more likely to receive the ball.

They then participated in an activity called ‘Bomb and Shield’. The students walked around the room and had to find an ally by giving them a wink or a clear stare. They were not allowed to talk or touch each other, simply walk at a normal pace but had to make eye contact with their ally. Then, they had to decide on an enemy but not reveal whom they had chosen. Finally, the students had to continue walking but move so that their ally was between themselves and their enemy. They did this enthusiastically with much jollying and an increased pace in their walking. Soon laughter was breaking out. Sal then asked them to freeze, and resume a neutral position. She asked them to reflect on their activity.

“The end bit was hard trying to keep the enemy and ally cause the enemy didn’t know”, one said. “Is that dramatic irony Miss? Cause they didn’t know”, another asked. “Fantasic X-, that’s a slip for you because you’ve used what you’ve done and applied it to the vocab. Now, how can we apply this to how Beatrice is feeling?”

The class then focused on two extracts from the play. The first was from Act 3, Scene 1, where Beatrice overhears her friends talking about her, and the second from Act 2, Scene 3 where Benedick overhears his friends talking about him. The students were divided into groups. One student had to be Beatrice and stay silent whilst the rest preformed the lines. The students who were Beatrice were asked how they felt about the experience.

“It’s quite hurtful because you thought they were your friends”.

“You really want to speak out for yourself but can’t”.

“It got on my nerves cause if it were me I’d want to shout.”

They performed the reading again but this time Beatrice could respond to the audience. Once they’d all had time to say the lines, the group reformed to talk about the scene.

They then focused on the scene with Benedick and his friends. Once again, one of the students played Benedick and the rest were his friends, with their backs turned towards him. Benedick was allowed to respond whenever he would like and they read the scene through.

They discussed the scene. Sal asked what they thought Benedick thought of his friends. She tells them to think of what is being said – Benedick’s friends are not criticizing him the way Beatrice’s do. Rather, they highlight how Beatrice is secretly in love with Benedick. They make Beatrice sound lovely but also desperate.

“Why does Benedick speak but not Beatrice?” Sal asked the students. “Men are more confident and like the leaders”, a student answers. They go on to talk about the patriarchal nature of the Elizabethan era, how women had to respect men and couldn’t use their voices in the same way.

Molly Morgan, an NQT at the school, also used this approach to teach these scenes. When I spoke to Molly the following day she explained why such an approach is useful when dealing with complex texts.

If we’re doing any reading, I usually do it actively. I just find they engage better with it. Only one pupil can read at a time. So if only one pupil’s reading, everybody else is not listening usually. And in a lower set, most of the time if they can’t blatantly understand the language, if it’s not obvious what somebody is saying then they’re just not going to try and focus on it. Which is understandable. If somebody were reading Shakespeare to me, out loud with no tone or expression it’d be hard to understand, definitely. You need that expression and I think that’s something that the Year Seven’s are getting better at.

She went on to explain: If we were reading that as a whole class, they would probably be saying ‘what does this mean?’ ‘what does this mean?’ ‘what does that word mean?’ continuously throughout the reading. Whereas if you say, because they can’t all shout at you at once, cause you’re not even present within the room as far as they’re concerned, they’re in their own little bubble. So any vocabulary they don’t 100% understand, they just put into context and work out.

MM classroom3

In both classes the students seemed to have grasped the idea of dramatic irony, and the ways in which Beatrice and Benedick were being tricked by their friends. What is more, the students clearly enjoyed being able to perform the lines and participate in the class, making the whole process of learning fun and accessible.

rehearsal room practice

performing-artsSt Mary’s College in Hull has an impressive proscenium theatre and an ambitious programme of productions. Director of Performance, Neil Wood, has worked in musical theatre professionally and he draws on this background in his approach to teaching:

I always say to my students right at the beginning that when they walk through the doors of my classroom they are walking into a rehearsal studio and they are very much young actors. We will be creating theatre together and I expect them to be evaluative actors who can look back and also comment on other peoples work in a supportive environment. So I very much treat the classroom as a studio space.

The productions are led by students often as part of their courses, supported by staff, but with considerable responsibility for all the different aspects of production. In one term there might be a musical production, a play, a dance performance and a talent show alongside the school’s existing commitment to a programme of work as an RSC Associate School and in partnership with Hull Truck Theatre. Senior management support the work fully and see it as integral to the ethos of the school:

I think it sits very comfortably with our spiritual ethos because spirituality isnt something that is only linked with religion. It is about the discovery of self. I am always struck by the self-esteem that goes with acting and performing. I sometimes think I see therapy in art and design and, in acting. I see therapy in the escape of taking on a role and the ability to be someone else and to explore their nature. The curriculum should provide as many kinds of opportunities for that kind of spiritual experience and that kind of self-discovery.

Deputy Head, Damian Walmsley

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The TALE research team are currently analysing the data we have collected from the first year of visits and it’s very interesting to see what the students themselves say about what they learn when they take part in professional productions. The focus group of twenty four students we interviewed suggested they developed a wide range of skills:

  1. Communication
  2. Independence
  3. Active engagement
  4. Responsibility
  5. Confidence
  6. Self-reliance
  7. Dealing with pressure.
  8. Courage
  9. Creativity
  10. Dedication
  11. Interpretation
  12. Social skills
  13. Thinking on your feet
  14. Portraying the right image
  15. Self-expression
  16. Being proud of who you are
  17. Trial and error
  18. Persistence
  19. Being able to give and take constructive criticism
  20. Determination

img_3970Students often talk about pushing themselves to perform and the way this their increases confidence and as these year 10 students suggests, it is not always easy:

Some people used to run off if they were asked to go on stage whereas now, they might not love doing it, but they will volunteer.

In drama, even if you don’t feel confident, you get up on that stage and forget about everything and express yourself.

As the students go on to suggest:

You can’t take anything back when you are doing this kind of thing [live performance].

So much of what they do involves taking risks, but they have a clear sense of the value this has to their own development:

In drama you learn to exploit yourself and embody your ideas. You perform in real life.

I asked Neil how the RSC Associate School programme fitted with his approach to teaching:

I’ve always had this view of my classroom being a rehearsal space but to go along and work with a worldwide leading company and find that is what they were trying to do too…they were trying to bring Shakespeare into the classroom as a rehearsal room practice. And with the very first CPD we did that unlocked Shakespeare for me and I suddenly had these ways of unlocking texts.

Clearly this student, who said he previously did not like Shakespeare, has also found new ways to think about the plays:

I loved reading it. He has so many different ways like there’s a battle and they’ll be a comedy section in it. That’s why I love it because I want to think about why he did that.

Despite the challenges schools currently face in relation to the government position on arts education, the leadership team at St Mary’s are confident that they know what will best support the learning and success of their students:

2017 is a huge opportunity for us in terms of the cultural agenda and I hope that we take it to heart as a school and I really hope the city does as well.

Deputy Head, Damian Walmsley

We look forward to catching up with staff and students at St Mary’s and to hearing more about their experiences of being part of the UK City of Culture later in the year.

 

it’s a different kind of hard work

hwIn this post Anton Franks reflects on his visit to one of the RSC partnership schools:

Arriving at Ark Helenswood Academy lower school site on a sunny June morning in Hastings, I am met by Niall Whitehead, a drama teacher and the Director of Performing Arts in the school. He’s a very busy man – overseeing drama, dance, music and PE and teaching, spending his days whizzing between Helenswood’s two sites and the Sixth Form Centre, located at a neighbouring boys’ school. Walking with him down the corridor to his office, I’m struck by wall displays of performing arts projects. Niall is involved as a lead teacher in RSC’s LPN, but has in the past participated in Shakespeare Schools Festival. He’s impressed by the high quality of the RSC’s education work and believes it has real benefits for the students. It emerges that Niall is also a founder and key member of Hastings and Rother Arts Education Network (HRAEN). During the summer vacation, Niall also runs a youth theatre group, devising and performing theatre at a local centre, The Stables.

Before rushing off to another site, Niall introduces me to two Year 9 students, Ellie and Sirsha, who’ve arrived to escort me on a tour of the school, before I meet again with Niall at lunchtime. The girls are articulate and animated as they guide me swiftly around corridors, peering into classrooms and skating past wall displays, many of dance performances presented in and out of school.

The girls tell me that the school offers A-levels in both Dance and Drama – not many schools do that. In Year 7, they had Dance, Drama and Music lessons every week. Since Year 8, though, the performing arts are on a half-termly rotation, with one lesson of each every two weeks. Ellie and Sirsha are clear that ‘behaviour in drama and dance is much better’ than in other lessons. ‘It’s much more about group work and you really have to concentrate on what you’re making, with no room to switch off and dream that you have in other lessons,’ they tell me. Later, in a group discussion, a Year 11 student echoes this point, ‘It’s a different kind of hard work… It’s equally hard work but because you’re having fun you don’t feel it’.

hw1

The discipline of working creatively with others comes up in discussions with students, because ‘you have to rely on each other much more.’ Lessons in the performing arts, they think, ‘are very different from academic lessons. They [teachers] really encourage you to be creative.’ And the opportunities to exchange and trade ideas and to work towards an artistic product in performing arts lessons is valued by the students – ‘You bounce ideas off each other… everyone brings something. It’s more that you’re working together towards a common goal, rather than relying on one another.’ How working in the performing arts is different from other lessons arises pretty quickly in discussion with Sixth Formers, too. Performing arts lessons are ‘Somewhere you can let go, in normal lessons you’re very restricted in what you do. You can express yourself in an arts lesson.’

Returning to the conversation with Ellie, she is enthusiastic about doing Shakespeare in drama. In English it’s ‘hard to understand, but easier to understand and work with in drama.’ (Niall tells me later that Ellie was involved with the Shakespeare Schools Festival that he was leading on in Hastings when she was at primary school in Year 6. He thinks it’s a main reason why she so wanted to come to Helenswood.) Talking with a group of Year 10 girls the following day, one tells me, ‘It was nice to do it for ourselves, because in English you’re given the exact interpretation and analysis, and you have to get the right answer. But in drama we brought our own ideas and our physicality, and characters’. Another chips in, ‘If you’ve performed it and become that character, then you understand them more.’ Getting inside the mind and skin of a character is also something that arises in discussion with Sixth Formers – ‘There’s an element of almost psychology… finding out and understanding why people should act in certain ways…’

hw

All in all, it becomes clear over the course of my visit that performing arts teachers and students at Helenswood make vibrant contributions to the cultural life of the area. In the past year alone, for example, they’ve been involved in 1066 anniversary and in the opening of the newly refurbished Hastings pier. Elaine Vanner later shows me a YouTube video of her A-level Dance group dancing on the pier with a group of construction workers in a piece they choreographed, performed and filmed in a single day.

Through work in dance and drama with the teachers in the Performing Arts faculty, Helenswood appears to have become quite a ‘hub’ institution for the performing arts in Hastings