Alla Ilyasova Q+A
Alla Ilyasova is a master teacher – especially of Child’s Play NY’s pre-k and K-2 classes and camps. She is a Russian-born theater artist with an impressive pedigree of training: her MFA from the Actors Studio in playwriting, and subsequent professional work has informed the way she helps our students to devise their own work. Alla’s own plays have been produced at the New York International Fringe Festival, and she assisted in translating Chekov’s plays for Classic Stage Company. Alla has a decade of experience working as a preschool teacher and has been a teaching artist with Child’s Play NY since 2015. We were lucky enough to check in with her and learned about her favorite games, techniques and kid lit!
What was your training like as an actor and/or playwright?
I have an MFA from Actors Studio Drama School, a program based on the Stanislavski Method technique. Though my writing classes were limited to those of us on playwriting and directing tracks (these classes consisted of quite a bit of solitary work and small-group feedback), I was required to take acting, and encouraged to take movement and voice classes (the Linklater progression is something I still use as a warm-up for performances). I learned the importance of preparation and the value of relaxation. I realized how much I love not only creating my own stories, but telling the stories of others. I met people who’ve been my collaborators since I graduated eight years ago. It’s been an absolute gift.
How do you see the acting teachers’ job when working with kids as young as three?
Teaching acting to preschoolers is a whole lot different than teaching it to older children. Some of my students have never been in a class setting. Others, have never been away from their parents. These little ones are still figuring out how to collaborate. They may need to be reminded that everyone can have a turn with the sparkly superhero cape, they may want their hand held as they go hunting for dragons, and they will (most definitely) choose creating their own stories over reciting someone else’s lines. So instead of focusing on rehearsing and performing for audiences (something that most of the older kids find thrilling), we focus on being brave, trying new things, sharing ideas, and having fun with friends.
What are some or your favorite theater games to play with kids?
Sneaky Tag is my absolute favorite. There’s nothing like watching children revel in their new-found courage after overcoming a fear… and what’s scarier than a mean old Witch, a hungry Shark, or a fiery Dragon? Sneaky Tag victories are glorious. I wouldn’t trade them for anything. Some of my other favorites are Walk Around, Taxi, I Got You Something, Red Light Green Light, and Hey, Guess What.
Tell us about you and clowning! What can we learn from getting in touch with our own clown?
For the past year, I’ve been discovering my clown. It has been some of the most rewarding theatre-making and human-being I’ve experienced as an adult. “Clown” is a self at its most playful, most vulnerable, most honest, and most compelling. It’s the part of ourselves that we’ve packed up in boxes, stowed away on shelves, and only visit on the rarest occasions… usually around children or on very crowded trains. Clowns live every moment of their silly lives in all seriousness. They laugh when something is funny. They cry when something is sad. They’re free. I wholeheartedly believe that everyone can benefit from getting to know and getting to love their clown.
Any memorable quotes from kids you’ve taught that have stuck with you?
Me trying to explain things to a five-year-old: “Peter Pan is about two worlds – the real world and Neverland, where Peter lives.”
A five-year-old trying to explain things to me: “Sometimes, I’m not sure if this world is the real world.”
What are your top 5 favorite children’s books or authors and why do you love them?
There are so many great books for little ones nowadays. I’m discovering favorites all the time. The five authors I enjoy reading to children are Todd Parr (for making it okay to be different), Leo Lionni (for making it okay to be yourself), Julia Donaldson (for making it fun to make stuff up), Dr. Seuss (for making the world rhyme), and Eric Carle (for making the world colorful). The five books I enjoyed reading as a child are The Little Prince, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, and Blue Flamingo’s Children (a story I hope to translate from its original Russian sometime soon).
You’ve worked with a lot of “in-home”groups over the years where families choose to customize a class experience for their child, tailored to their interests, schedule and group of friends. What are some of the benefits of this kind of experience and also what are some things you’d like families to know as they consider hosting.
In-home classes are extremely helpful for children who love imaginary play and storytelling, but may be too shy for large group settings. Instead of having to find their voice in a room full of strangers, these kids get to stretch their creative muscles in a familiar place with a small circle of friends (there’s usually a couple of newcomers, which still gives everyone a chance to practice meeting new people). To help the little ones get the most out of our time together, I encourage their adults to either play, sing, and adventure along with us, or grab a snack in a room nearby. Speaking of rooms, these classes work most effectively in toy free spaces that allow us to sit on the floor and move around safely, play music, read out loud, and imagine to our hearts’ content.
Is there anything about your own experience of childhood that you can share that has made you so able to connect with the childhoods of others?
I was a shy but imaginative kid, and can still remember feeling unable to connect with others though I desperately wanted to. I was also a very fortunate kid… When I was in preschool, my sister taught me how to read, introducing me to the awesome power of storytelling. I would read books to my classmates and make up my own stories with them too. Through stories I understood how I could include others in a world of make-believe. It is what I’ve been doing ever since as both as a teacher and a theatre artist.
What do you like to do on your day off?
I like to spend my day creating good theatre with great friends!