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Ms. Landon on Theater, VAPA Plans

Janet Landon is the head of the Theater Department at WISH Academy. She has worked at WISH for four years, and in education for 30. She started as a substitute teacher and has even served in administrative positions. She has hopes to strengthen WISH’s up-and-coming theater program and recently received a $53,000 grant from the Ahmanson Foundation, an organization focused on the arts and youth engagement. The Aviary’s Hannah Benveniste sat down with her to ask her about her past experiences, her hopes for the theater program, and the student productions she is most proud of.

Why did you choose to go into theater education?  

I was a professional actress, but was not satisfied with my life as an artist and was looking for another way to contribute and have employment.

I started substitute teaching and I found that I really enjoyed it. My mother was a teacher as well, and so I swore I’d never be one. I found that I actually did enjoy it. And then, as I started teaching, I found I was always bringing theater into it, because it always brings me so much joy. And I find it’s a great way to create community. And so, as time went on, there were opportunities to teach electives in theater, which seemed a really good fit for me. And that’s how it happened.  

Performers pose during the March 2023 production of WISH's first original musical, Dream Big
Performers pose during the March 2023 production of WISH’s first original musical, Dream Big, at the Morgan-Wixson Theatre in Santa Monica

What’s your favorite part of running/directing a student play?  

I think my favorite part is when the company of actors creates that community together of support and encouragement and excitement around what they’re doing. 

What is something you’ve learned at previous jobs that has helped you in your current role? 

As a waitress, I learned how to multitask—quickly. As a paralegal, I learned how to work quietly by myself. What’s a little interesting about that is, for me, one of the favorite things that I did as a paralegal was to summarize depositions. Because depositions are like plays. [Depositions] are the interviewing of the different people involved in the lawsuit. And so they read like a script.  And so it was a very natural thing for me to do.

As a matter of fact, I would sort of reverse that question and say, “What has theater allowed me to do in all the different jobs I’ve had?”

Being able to analyze things, being able to find ways to include a lot of different people. I would say, collaborating in a joyful way. It’s taught me how to organize, how to be disciplined. It’s taught me to be empathetic.  

What is something you’ve learned from your time working at the WISH Theater Program? 

In the recent last couple of years, I think the thing about WISH that’s been the most challenging was the pandemic and teaching theater online. And then even coming back to the school after the pandemic when we couldn’t have [an] audience with us inside. So, finding ways for students to be able to perform for an audience within all these limitations was a huge challenge for me as an artist and as a teacher. And so it has taught me how really adaptable I am and how creative I can be and how much students really need to perform in order to get better, which is why it’s been really slow to grow this program because I really lost several years there of getting the students to perform live. Those who did do the best are those who have performed live prior to coming to WISH. I’ve just been able to build on their existing experiences. It’s been very difficult [because] a lot of the seniors that I have right now, I had as freshmen online.

What are you most proud of that the VAPA program has done?

The musical. 100%. And that came about because, in auditioning students for the musical, there wasn’t a musical that I knew that matched the talent, abilities, and interests of the students that I had. And that led me to create an original piece that I was able to collaborate on with students. I mean, Mira’s the one who came up with the idea for this sort of Wizard of Oz concept to the story. And I was able to use my extensive knowledge of songs to create this jukebox musical that really featured the students in ways that were joyful for them and utilized their specific talents.

I felt I was the luckiest teacher on campus because I left every single Friday with a huge smile on my face, just happy as all get out because that was the day that everybody rehearsed together. So I went home every weekend with my heart full for three months there. That was really just the best.  

Let’s talk about the Ahmanson Foundation grant. How do you think that will change the theater program?

It’s hard to say. I really was intentional around the things that I put into the grant so that those things, those items, would be useful across both the community school as well as the academy. Although the grant was for the academy, specifically, my mindset was about items that would serve both schools. Because it is of course the vision, I believe, of the school to have its own school site with both schools on it at some point.

The items that I got were things that I have run across in my four years here that were really glaringly absent from us being able to have a spectacle aspect to our performances, with sets and so forth. So I got 28 pieces of sets, with doors and platforms and flats and stuff so that we’re not relying on recycling Westchester’s or recycling Orville Wright’s or anything like that. [Now] we have our own. 

I also got risers because I feel very strongly about choirs being able to perform on risers, and we have three choirs. They need to learn how to perform on risers. That’s where the sound really becomes so much better. 

And then I got a lot of lighting and sound because we were really in a deficit in that department. Although, I know Mr. Sky has fixed the lighting [in the auditorium], I don’t know how long we’re going to be able to use that space and to what capacity. And so this gives us the flexibility of using the social hall more extensively for performance, which is likely. 

Then another item I ended up getting that was pricey was a stage. That way we can do performances outside. So the kids have already come up with a really clever way to do some Shakespeare outside in the spring for a performance. I liked the idea of an open house Back to School [Night], the band being able to perform on a stage outside welcoming families to the school—or at any event, for that matter.

Students performing for WISH Elementary classes
VAPA students perform an adaptation of Sleeping Beauty at WISH Elementary School in September

Before we conclude, why should people join the VAPA program? Why go to theater productions?

Well, there was a really great article in the New York Times [four] months ago about how so many of our leaders right now were involved in the VAPA programs at their schools. Because it takes creativity, a sense of presence, and being able to speak to people to be a good leader. And being able to work collaboratively with people in a creative way to solve big problems is something that you learn in theater more than any other art form.

I also think it’s been proven that theater is the only way that people have learned empathy, because you get into the mindset of a character; you walk in the shoes of another person. And so it forces you into another person’s perspective, which then carries over into your life. The thing about art and music [is] they are both things that can be done by yourself. Theater, you can’t do by yourself. You have to do [it] with other people and you have to have an audience. It’s required.

I come from a family of lawyers, and all of them have referenced in a case at one time or another, some theater experience that they had. They have had that experience where they know what it’s like to be false, to be true, to be human, and they can use all of that to influence other people. I just think that the skills you learn [in theater] are not things that are easy to grade, but they’re really important life skills.  

Thank you so much. Is there anything else you’d like to talk about? 

I hope that there is a way to encourage the WISH community audiences to attend and support the artists at their school in the same way they do their athletes. I hope that, and I expect that—because what I see in this community is all-encompassing support. And so I hope we can really grow that.

~ Ms. Landon with Hannah Benveniste

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