Changing Lives with Art

(Photos by Cliff Hollis)

Patch Clark lives in a world of puppets, play and pure fun.
That’s her description. But there’s method to what looks like child’s play.
Her work educating future teachers and working with children has taken her
around the world, including three weeks in Iraq this summer.


By Jeannine Manning Hutson
ECU News Services

First, there’s her name. Yes, she’s called Patch by everyone on campus—from her students to the director of the School of Theatre and Dance. Traditionally, Patch is an Irish nickname; and it’s also a great combination of her given first name, Patricia, and her maiden name Atchison.

Born into an Irish-American family, she moved around the world following her father’s military assignments. She lived in at least eight places before she graduated from high school in northern Virginia. Clark remembers where her siblings were born by the military base: her brother, Fort Benning, Ga.; her middle sister, Fort Leavenworth, Kan.; her youngest sister, Heidelberg, Germany.

Clark spoke German first because of her German nursemaid and the woman’s daughter, whom Clark played with as a toddler.

After tours of duty in Barcelona, Spain and Paris, Clark’s father, whom she describes as “a soldier dedicated to keeping peace,” was stationed at the Pentagon. “Because we moved every three years, theater and dance were an easy way for me to make new friends,” says Clark, who took her first dance lessons at age 5.

She remembers childhood productions in the family’s backyard. Her mother made a stage backdrop from old curtains. Her brother collected the admission charge—one dime. And Clark was the director, actor, dancer and curtain-puller. Describing those productions makes her smile.

When the family moved back to the States, the drama teacher at Clark’s high school in northern Virginia got her involved in their productions. It was a perfect fit for the petite actress with a wide smile and expressive eyes.

She went on to earn her bachelor of fine arts degree in theater education and her master of fine arts in theatre arts–performance, both from Virginia Commonwealth University.

After graduating, she interned with the Children’s Theatre of Richmond and taught in high school and summer programs for school children of all ages.

While teaching at VCU and Longwood College, she spotted a listing for a job at ECU. “It was the only job that I applied for that year,” she says. “I came down and fell in love with everything.”

The program has grown dramatically since she began in 1994 with three students majoring in theater education. “We keep it steady around 20 to keep the program manageable for the number of students out there doing their student teaching,” she says.

Patch Clark classTaking the show on the road

At ECU, Clark oversees the Bachelor of Fine Arts degree programs in Theatre Education and Theatre for Youth, both in the School of Theatre and Dance. And she’s very good at it, according to John Shearin, director of the School of Theatre and Dance. “She is one of our most productive faculty members in the terms of the quality and quantity of her work,” he says.

The work she does with theater education and theater for youth is invaluable outreach to the community and to the region, he says. “Not only does she direct two main stage productions that occur in Wright Auditorium, but she’s also been going on the road with each of these shows for the last several years,” he says. First, the group performed at the Turnage Theater in Washington, which has since closed. Then staff at the Marine Corps Air Base Cherry Point expressed interest, so the group now serves military children on the base.

Shearin points out that productions cannot be elaborate. The set and the actors take the show to their audiences. “In conjunction with the theatre for youth concentration, she has small productions that fit basically inside a van and a car. We take them out to schools in the region that are underserved in the arts so the students who can’t come to us, we can get out and go to them. It’s a very valuable outreach that reaches thousands of children, not hundreds, but thousands,” he says.

The theatre for youth degree at ECU grew from a need and request to serve the region.

Years ago, the theatre education program produced Storybook Theatre performances at Barnes & Noble in Greenville to promote Arts Smart productions on campus. “And then schools asked us to come and do plays, and that eventually grew into the concentration area—theatre for youth. Now we tour three or four schools per semester and perform on the main stage at Wright Auditorium and Cherry Point,” she says. This year’s productions are The Hobbit and Fantastic Mr. Fox.

During the spring 2011 semester, more than 3,000 school children in Pitt and Beaufort counties were exposed to theater arts and literary programs through their “on-the-road” productions.

The theatre education and theatre for youth are somewhat overlapping, Shearin says, but are separate programs because of the educational method courses for the licensure for teachers.

One of Clark’s responsibilities to take students who arrive at ECU with a love of theater and working with young people and train them to teach. “Theatre Education majors come in and they’ve had a really good or a really poor experience. They want to be just like their theater teacher in high school or not like their theater teacher in high school,” she says. “They love theater and they have a dedication to teaching.”

Through the program, they take design, production and education courses. When they graduate, they are licensed to teach kindergarten through 12th grade. “They learn how to create a lesson plan, think through that process of what is the focus of this part of what I’m teaching, how do I reach the students, and how do I get them as excited about it as I am?” she says.

Clark realizes that some might consider the arts as “extras” for today’s school children where end-of-grade tests and academic growth are studied and debated.

But arts education is essential, she says. “It’s vital to a child’s growth and development just in terms of the thought process as they are developing critical and creative thinking skills. If they go into science, they need to have creative and critical thinking skills. If they go into medicine, they have to have creative and critical thinking skills. In any area of life, they need those thinking skills to go forward in life.”

And kids learn to express themselves in a positive way by working in a group. “It’s a collaborative art, so working together to create something is a huge opportunity to develop those life skills in business or fields other than theater. They discover talents that they didn’t know that they had,” she says.

And it might be a reason to stay out of trouble. “For a student who is having problems in school, the arts seem to reach out to them in a way that meets their needs,” she says. “Once a student is successful in one area, he comes to school and says I want to be in school because of this class then it begins to filter down to the other classes. Yes, you can succeed. Yes, there can be a positive reason for going to school.”

Outside the walls of Messick

Exposing children of all backgrounds to the arts is a calling for Clark. From drama camp at ECU for 96 children whose parents can afford a fee to children at an elementary school filled with free and reduced lunch recipients, they all need to be exposed to what theater and their imaginations can create.

Clark and her students use puppets, acting and writing to help children bring stories, such as El Tunche, El Tunche to life. That folk tale is from the jungle of Peru and stars Andy Anaconda, always a popular puppet with the young audience.

The Young Playwrights Program, funded by a two-year BB&T Leadership grant, encouraged children in elementary and high schools in Pitt and Beaufort counties to promote playwriting through creating their own plays, creative and dramatic movement, acting and improvising during the 2010-11 and 2011-12 school years.

“The key is finding where the children glow and offer them challenges,” she says. Books and puppets were used as “different types of motivators to help them create and write their own plays.”

“There’s something about puppets that speaks to children—no matter what the language. We use puppets as part of the workshops and performances. In workshops we use them to create dialogue,” she says.

One teacher wrote in her evaluation of the project that because of the high rate of economically disadvantaged students at her school, they “rarely would have the opportunity to go to the theater. Also, they would not have even understood the concept of writing a script for a play.
This project gives them the opportunity to become exposed to good writing, literature and acting.”

At Belvoir Elementary School in the Young Playwrights Program, some of the plays the children wrote were about food—going to the grocery store and having an angel come and buy the groceries.

And at the Beaufort Ed-Tech School, some of the plays were about being in foster care, being rejected and becoming wards of the state. And in their second year, their play was about being bullied and how that impacted their lives. “The great thing is when they act them out, it’s a way of purging and expressing to take something that was a challenge in life and creating art around it,” Clark says.

Creating a play allows the students to take control of the situation in their own way. “It brings to light the value of the arts in empathizing, expression and healing because invariably after they have performed the piece they are very proud and feel a success in having been able to tell their story in a positive way,” she says.

And whether the stage is in eastern North Carolina or in Iraq, where she was for three weeks this summer, Clark says she could see the pride in the students’ work and pride on the faces of their family members attending their final performances.

In Iraq, the theater arts students—high school and college age—worked to act out their own scenes. One young man wrote a playlet, The Orphan, based on his own experiences. The short play told the story of an orphan who had been left on the street to die, and the main character took bread and other leftovers from his family’s table to the street to feed the orphan. The orphan never wanted the older boy to leave him; he would hold out his arms for him and cry.

“The young man who was doing the scene said the hardest part was leaving him, and after the scene was performed in class, the young man went off into a corner and just sobbed,” Clark remembers. “It was a moment for him to emotionally feel the impact of the war and feel his connection to this child orphan, and to feel the enormity of the sadness that he had felt.”

Clark says the young man was delightful in class and happy to see the Americans, but “he had had sadness in his life. The kind of sadness that one never forgets…. You see an incredible number of children who have become old souls.”

Clark’s work with the YES Academy in Iraq this summer with fellow faculty member Greg Hurley and undergraduate student Bethany Bondurant (pictured in the photos above and at left) was filled with moments like the story of the orphan.

“Kirkuk (located in northern Iraq) is a volatile area. This is part of the hardships of wars, but the children also shared positives of their lives,” Clark says. “The Iraq children are just like our children. And their parents are people who love their children and were so grateful for an opportunity for them to participate in an enrichment activity,” she says.

Clark’s voice breaks as she talks about the children and their families. “It was a life-changing experience, and we fell in love with those kids. The children growing up in America need to know the children growing up in Iraq to create a different world together. One very different than what we’ve created as adults, and the only way that starts is if they begin to communicate.”

One way that Clark is trying to make the world a little smaller is by teaching children folk tales from around the world. While Clark was in Duhok, Iraq, with the YES Academy, the children and teachers there taught Clark and Bondurant a Kurdish folk tale, The Little Mouse, the Little Bird and the Fox. “And the American children learned that folk tale as part of drama camp,” Clark says. “We took stories from around the world to Iraq.”

Clark has been collecting international folk tales for years. And recently, ECU’s Global Classroom has allowed theater arts students to connect with fellow college students from Russia, Peru and Beijing.

“ECU students link with English majors in other countries, sharing stories and folk tales. The students speak and email with their partners. This year we’re linking with Japan and Mexico,” she says.

The Storybook Theatre troupe performed folk tales in May as part of the Global Partners in Education Conference. “We had people from around the world who saw what we do with their global stories in the schools,” she says.

“We’re trying to promote a global awareness through Storybook Theatre,” she says, noting that new technology such as Skype makes the world seem a little smaller.

“Our goal is to try to work through the stereotypes of different cultures and to inform about different cultures…and the one link was the stories from each of the countries. All countries and cultures have stories that reflect their values and reflect their cultural heritage,” she says.

Providing art to the region

Sitting in her office surrounded by framed playbills from almost two decades at ECU, Clark talks about the importance of the arts in children’s education and ECU’s role in providing that to the region.

Masks from past Storybook Theatre performances and photos of former students are throughout the second-floor office with a view of Fifth Street. Musical instruments and drums, papier mâché creations including a large egg, and books—lots of books—fight for space along with a sofa for students.

Has she started thinking of retirement? Sort of. Her husband recently retired from Beaufort Community College where he taught adult basic education and in the prison education program. And her son, Robert, has moved back to North Carolina to study film production, after years based in Los Angeles with a band.

“I love it so much it’s hard to think about retirement,” she says. “They say artists never retire because they continue to create their art.”

Shearin described his colleague as a “delight to work with” and a creative driving force to Storybook Theatre, which has performed original works that Clark devised.

“She’s so inclusive and always upbeat. Even when she’s not upbeat, she still seems upbeat. She always seems to see the glass as half-full. She doesn’t get caught up in the drama of a crisis; she instead gets caught up in the solution,” he says.

“She’s very good with students. In her relationships, she can be very generous, very warm and outgoing, but she also holds her students to a very high standard.”

One of those students is Bondurant, who considers her trip to Iraq with Clark and AmericanVoices one of the highlights of her time at ECU. “We had a special situation in Iraq because we were team teaching. She does give you the reins and lets you control, but she’s there to make sure you’ve got yourself under control. She’s there to answer questions and is very helpful. She wants you to succeed; she wants the best for you. She’s a great guide,” says Bondurant.

Clark’s work in the classroom was recognized with one of two East Carolina Alumni Association Awards for Outstanding Teaching during the annual Founders Day and University Awards Celebration in April.

That high standard produces graduates who are prepared to walk into classrooms and teach, says Shearin. And theater arts education does more than just entertain.

“Children’s imaginations and creative impulses are fostered and developed. And without creative imagination there is virtually no progress in the world, it’s just about business,” he says.

Bondurant was a little nervous traveling with her professor before the American Voices trip, but Clark put her at ease. “We were connected by the fact we were in foreign country and the only women, so we got close by the end,” she says, adding that Clark treated her not just as a student but also as a colleague, which she appreciated.

“She loves all her kids, big and small. She really does. She loves working with every age from little 4-year-olds getting ready to start kindergarten to us, big kids, who are 22 or 23, getting ready to embark on our own professional journey,” she says.

Bondurant is impressed by Clark’s passion to expose as many children to theater as possible, which she hopes to emulate after she graduates. “She has a huge heart. She hardly ever says no, because she wants to spread as much theater as she can to the youth and the community.”

“She’s definitely my role model and someone who I can look up to,” Bondurant says. “In fact I always say: When I grow up, I want to be like Patch. Because I do.”


Patch Clark in Iraq

Offering a brief respite for the children of war

“Well, I know Patch.”

That simple reply is how Greg Hurley connected a fellow ECU faculty member Patch Clark and the executive director of American Voices.

John Ferguson with American Voices was on campus earlier this year to conduct several leadership workshops and was in Hurley’s office in the Fletcher Music Building talking about the plans for this summer’s trip to Iraq.
Patch Clark in Iraq

During their conversation, Ferguson mentioned he needed a new theater arts instructor. Did Hurley know of someone who might be a good fit?

Hurley knew the demands of the position since he had been to Iraq and Thailand in 2010 with American Voices.

And the associate professor of music education was already planning on returning this year to teach with the Youth Excellence on Stage (YES) Academy, run by American Voices, which promotes cultural diplomacy through the arts in countries that are arising from isolation and conflict.

Hurley called to see if Clark might be interested in hearing more. And Clark, in her words, “jumped at the chance,” and came over to meet Ferguson. A few months later, the two ECU faculty members and Bethany Bondurant, a fifth year senior double majoring in theater education and theater for youth, were packing for Iraq.

The YES Academy conducted free classes for local students, aged 8 to 26, throughout Iraq, including in Duhok and Kirkuk, where the ECU instructors were. Classes in theater arts, hip-hop dance, piano, string orchestra, composition and music theory and jazz were offered to 45 female and 232 male students.

Clark saw firsthand the struggle to educate all the children of Iraq. Children came to the YES Academy via different avenues—some from the local children’s theater program, others were the children of teachers, and word-of-mouth brought some participants.
“One kindergarten teacher brought her daughter. One of the challenges is to involve girls in these types of programs,” Clark says of the program in Duhok.

“Imagine if your daughter had to have a guard outside the door while she was learning or if her teachers had to be hurried into a car to get somewhere safe. It’s so hard to fathom, but it’s the reality of the Middle East or at least these areas,” says Clark.

HurleyHurley (left) taught private lessons, coached chamber music and taught orchestras of aspiring musicians aged 13-15. He also taught string pedagogy classes to students and area music teachers.

“I am so fortunate to have had the experience of working with such a variety of students doing the thing that I love—making music with people,” says Hurley. He has also taught in Syria, Lebanon and Jordan.

The experience in 2010 made Hurley ready to teach again, but there was not enough funding for 2011. Instructors are given a small stipend; their travel, housing and food are provided by the sponsoring country’s embassies or universities.

When the YES Academy moved on to Kirkuk, “it was more challenging,” Clark says. The area is not as stable as Duhok and the American Volunteers staff were escorted by armed guards as a precaution. “But each day more and more children came,” she says with a smile.

“The building had no air conditioning; it was very hot. The conditions were challenging but it was so rewarding. The parents and the teachers were thankful for our presence.”

Even though she had traveled abroad before, nothing prepared her for the Middle East, says Bondurant, who assisted in the programming and organizing the materials needed for the YES Academy activities.

She remembers Kirkuk for the dramatic contrast: “It was hard being escorted by men with guns and we’re going in to work with children—to keep that in the back of your mind. These children see this every day. And it’s a reality they have to live in.”

Four days after the YES Academy ended and the group had left the city, a car bomb rocked Kirkuk—two doors down from where they had just been, Clark says.

Even though the experience was so different from her life at ECU and her hometown of New Bern, Bondurant says she felt safe. “It wasn’t what I was expecting. It was better. It was the best experience of my life—to go and share my love of theater, to see the children’s faces light up each day, to see their aha! moment.”

Even though the YES Academy instructors had to use translators during their classes, Hurley, Clark and Bondurant say it wasn’t as difficult as one might think. “We were able to communicate even though we didn’t speak the same language,” Bondurant says.

One of the scenes performed by the young adult actors—all male—told the story of Iraqi independence. Young men pushed down a center actor representing Kurdistan-Iraq while another young man played and hit a guitar, building up the tempo to a crescendo. The outside actors then collapsed and the interior actor held up the Kurdish flag.

“When that happened in the performance hall, the audience jumped up, applauded and yelled. That was an expression of the emotion of war and how the war has left these young people,” she says.

Children and their families invited Clark and Bondurant into their homes to share a meal during their week in Kirkuk. “We drank a lot of tea,” says Bondurant.

“Going to Iraq has really inspired me because it made me realize that there’s a whole other world beyond where we’re living here at ECU,” she says. Bondurant hopes to find a position in a school or theater company that allows for summer travel and international outreach, such as the YES Academy.

Clark and Bondurant brought duffle bags with the supplies they would need for their projects and left the extra paper and glue sticks, which were a new discovery to the Iraqi children and their teachers. Clark also took puppets, because children of every age and culture seem to love and relate to bits of cloth that come to life with stories.

“We left behind supplies, a few puppets, and musical instruments, which they were in desperate need of,” Clark says.

But Andy Anaconda didn’t stay. He’s been with Clark since first appearing in an ECU Family Fare/Arts Smart series production years ago.

In both cities, the last day was filled with performances. And like their American counterparts, the Iraqi children looked out into an audience filled with parents and grandparents. But unlike America, guards also attended as a precaution, Clark says.

“We were surrounded by parents and the guards. I had a 5-year-old in my lap. It was an amazing moment to realize the impact of the arts on the lives of people and those who teach it.”

Hurley says his experiences with YES Academy have changed him. “You have to truly have a love of it,” Hurley says. “It’s given my life new meaning.”

He adds, “The opportunities for cross-cultural understanding and appreciation have been life-changing and fulfilling on many levels. I feel fortunate to be involved with music education in this unique manner.”

This article originally appeared in the Winter 2013 issue of East magazine.