Jack Finnegan has plenty of experience in Ketchikan's theater and arts community.
Finnegan is First City Players' education coordinator and a host of the Ketchikan Area Arts and Humanities Council's Stories at Latitude 56 storytelling events.
Tongass School of Arts and Sciences teacher Melanie Cornwall reached out to FCP in hopes that someone might be willing to take on a residency at TSAS.
"Instead of having an in-house art teacher, we decided to go with an artist in residency program, and so every year, we get to pick a handful of artists of various different art forms to come in and work with the kids," Cornwall told the Daily News by phone on Monday. "And so we reached out to First City Players, ... theater being one of the fine arts."
Finnegan stepped into the role.
Speaking to the Daily News by phone recently, Finnegan said it's not the first time he's worked with district students. He noted that, in the past, he's also worked with Ketchikan High School students during unit of study focusing on translating literature to film.
"But this extended 20-day residency at TSAS has been more ambitious than others I've been able to pursue in recent years," he said.
The residency began in February and will end next week.
As TSAS' artist in residence, Finnegan has been spending an hour a week with different grade level students at the school, all the way from the pre-kindergarteners to sixth graders. Through games, activities and exercises, he's been working to build their theater and performance skills.
"I think especially in light of emerging — I hope we're emerging from — this pandemic, I think the fact that they get to do something, even if it's only for 30 to 45 minutes, that usually begins with silliness (is good)," Finnegan said. "I'm a big fan of loosening up the group and the room with just a bunch of fun, goofy movement and sound, which usually turns into some form of group mimicry where we're just following each other. And that just seems to loosen the kids up a little bit."
Games and movement are a big part of learning for the kids. The concepts that Finnegan works with the students to develop also target communication skills.
"It helps shake loose this notion that 'While I'm at school, (I've) just got to focus on work,'" Finnegan said. "And then beyond that, once we get them warmed up and having fun and maybe giggling a little bit, we're able to do some work on focus and communication and how to establish even the most basic relationship — 'I'm passing this bit of information to you. I'm throwing this gesture in your direction.'"
And from there, we get into the more complex notions of building character and building scenes and building theater," he continued. "And so for these kids who I think have had a couple of really unpredictable years, it's nice to have something in the school setting that is a departure from what they're used to seeing on the day-to-day."
For some of the older students, Finnegan hopes there might be a chance to produce a small in-class scene or a reader's theater event to wrap up his residency. The older students have been starting to work on "building blocks of scenes," as well as character study, Finnegan said.
Working with the students in a classroom setting — which differs from the after-school setting in which he teaches students in FCP's StarPath program — has its own challenges, he said.
"I mean for me, the challenge is especially on certain days where I work with multiple age groups and jumping from one age group to another is a challenge for me sometimes."
The task has grown Finnegan's respect for teachers.
"Not because they are bad kids or are tough or difficult, but because being a kid is difficult and then having a group of kids who are navigating their own world, their own lives and their own problems in their own social setting, and being the overseer, not only for all of that social engagement but also supplying education (is difficult)," Finnegan said.
Cornwall said all the students — from pre-kindergarten through sixth-grade — have been enjoying the lessons.
"And I walk by the classrooms when he's with our older students, and everyone's super engaged and just loves to come and tell me about their lessons afterwards, which is fun," Cornwall said.