Unlike other programs in the area, the Westchester School of Speech and Drama doesn’t just focus on staging plays and reciting lines. The school, run by Shahnaz Shroff, was founded in 2015 with the goal of taking some of the focus of the performing arts off the dramatic and putting more emphasis on the core skills it takes to perform.
“I was interested in bringing a different approach to a curriculum of drama and acting because most of the programs here in the Westchester area are focused on performance,” said Shroff. “I didn’t think there were enough opportunities for children to focus on public speaking or to develop themselves confidently in that way. I felt there was not enough attention placed to the kids who were shy and really needed to burst out of their shell and be able to speak in a classroom or speak with a bunch of friends.”
The classes, which take place once a week at Scarsdale Friends house at 133 Popham Road, are currently filled by 20 students, ages 8 to 18. The classes are specialized to meet the developmental stage of each student, said Shroff, and a special focus is put on public speaking, confidence building and communication skills.
Two of her students, 15-year-old Scarsdale High School sophomore Lydia Doherty and 14-year-old Edgemont High freshman Taylor Kenney have been prime examples of what Shroff hopes the program will eventually do for all her students. Because of their dedication to the program since its inception, both Doherty and Kenney have been named teaching assistants for the 2019-20 academic year. Both students were described by their teacher and parents as having been shy and soft spoken before starting at the Westchester School of Drama and Speech and both have blossomed socially through their participation in the class.
“[Taylor] was kind of a quiet kid when she started and that has changed,” said her father, Rob Kenney. “She has a really exuberant personality, people are constantly commenting about it, she’s constantly smiling, she’s very confident, and she was even elected to be captain of one of her sports teams.”
Amy Nadasdi, Lydia Doherty’s mother, reported much of the same, saying her daughter’s personality has been amplified since she began at the drama school.
“Scarsdale Middle School does a big public speaking program with a speech contest and Lydia wanted to participate… She really did so well both years, coming in as a finalist… able to memorize her pieces without any issues, she was not afraid to be on stage in front of a large audience,” said Nadasdi. “It’s helped in all her classes and she’s even been able to direct other people in Shakespeare units at school.”
The ability to take the skills learned while performing and transfer those to one’s everyday life is exactly what inspired Shroff to open the school in the first place. Shroff received an MFA in theater in 2003 from University of California, Davis and switched to a career in advertising soon thereafter. As she began to build her résumé, she realized she was often ahead of her peers simply due to her ability to speak well and draw from her theater experience.
“I really drew upon the skills I had picked up as an actress and as a graduate of the arts,” said Schroff. “I realized I was crawling ahead of my peers because of that acting, public speaking and having a voice. I wanted to bring that [same benefit] to a lot more children who were interested.”
Shroff focuses on three facets in the program: pure drama and acting, which is performance based and touches on recitation and expression; improv, which focuses on teaching students to speak on a topic without a script and to think on their feet; and leadership development, which she incorporates through development-tailored games and activities.
The typical class includes breathing, physical and vocal exercises and themed activities around reading, memorization and recitation, improvisational and group work, acting and directing activities and literary introductions and analysis of works like Shakespeare and other classical poetry. Through the use of theater games, scene work and guided lessons, Shroff’s goal is to engage kids in learning in a way that is digestible and enjoyable.
“It’s like a fun version of school,” said Doherty. “I’m so glad I’m able to be part of it and learn from the kids I help with. [Shroff] takes something that’s not as exciting like Shakespeare and turns it into something we all love and are laughing and having so much fun with.”
Doherty and Kenney are specifically designated as TAs to help the younger kids who might need some extra time understanding concepts and to serve as role models for doing the work and doing it well.
“I’ve always been impressed with their development over the past four years and I’ve been amazed at their level of commitment,” said Shroff. “Not only are they really wonderful in terms of their own craft and what they’ve made of themselves, but the two of them also have the ability to connect with all the other students in the class. They can demonstrate what I’m looking for and the kids can see someone do it and be excellent.”
Doherty and Kenney dedicate their time with other students to make sure they understand the material they’re working with and fully grasp the skills they’re developing. According to Doherty, those skills are not limited to speech giving and contests, but can also translate into everyday life.
“It improves speaking in all situations, like at school or talking with your family, or something more important like interviews or auditions. It prepares you for life really well. It’s a good way to come out of your shell,” Doherty said.
“I would describe it as a challenge, a really enjoyable challenge that helps you become more confident,” said Kenney. “It helped me with school, with becoming more comfortable speaking in front of any audience.”
Looking forward, the girls, though young, already see futures where their participation in the program will enhance their lives.
“I see myself as being someone who is able to give speeches, though I’m not sure exactly what job yet,” said Doherty. “Public speaking is something I find fun, and learning about something and being able to speak about it is so interesting and fascinating.”
Both sets of parents agreed and said they’ve seen the change from shy pre-teens to leaders in their social circles and classes. They credit Shroff for showing their families the skills and benefits the arts are able to provide.
“I always say that public speaking is a lifelong skill, that no matter what career these kids choose, whatever profession they go into, they may or may not use math, they may or may not refer to their history knowledge, but they’ll always need to know how to speak or present or even just talk to other groups of people,” said Nadasdi.
“There’s so many ways it’s going to help [Taylor] excel that we can’t even imagine all of them right now,” said Rob Kenney. “Over time their personalities change, they’re more confident, they’ll actually go up to adults after an event and talk to them and they are very comfortable. It’s a neat transformation.”