Back in 2007, James Miles was a disillusioned actor. “I felt I was seeing the same stories being told over and over again. There was nothing new or inventive that appealed to me,” Miles remembers. “I didn’t know how to access those different levels of performance I was seeking.”
Miles was working as a preschool teacher at Brooklyn’s Maple Street School when a friend suggested he apply for a teaching artist position at the New Victory Theater, Broadway’s only theater that exclusively performs kid-friendly shows. The frustrated actor found just the role he was looking for. Now a part-time teaching artist, the local father of two is able to use acting skills in an exciting environment that changes daily: the classroom. Plus, he can still work with kids while sharing his passion for the arts.
In fact, Miles credits the venue with helping to transform his life: “The New Victory Theater has been one of the best things that’s ever happened to me.”
The teaching role reignited Miles’ passion for acting because it allows him to make use of his improvising talent. “As all students are different, I realized I had to completely be open to new experiences and flexible enough to modify what I was teaching so that all students could succeed in the lesson plan,” he enthuses. “My background as an actor…has helped me be inventive and alive in the classroom.”
Every year, about 33,000 NYC students and teachers visit the New Victory Theater for an educational show during school hours. It’s the job of Miles and the organization’s approximately 40 other teaching artists to “turn the classroom into the theater.” Working in pairs, teaching artists visit public, private, and religious schools throughout the city, educating students prior to viewings and helping them create art of their own following their theater experience.
The teaching artists work with kids of all ages—from pre-K to high school seniors—but most of Miles’ students fall in the pre-K to seventh grade range. In his six years with the theater, he’s taught students about all types of music, art, and drama. Miles recalls with a laugh that on one occasion, he was able to correct a young student who guessed that a puppeteer was the result of a crying puppet.
Miles loves working with kids and says his classrooms are “usually full of smiles and laughter,” but he also has high expectations for his students amidst all the joy. “This has proved to be one of my gifts: creating an environment where we all work, but the work is fun.” He also helps kids break out of their comfort zones. “In the classroom, it’s always been fun teaching students how to dance and rap,” Miles says, “especially for the kids who are really shy or the ones who are like, ‘This is not who I am. I do sports. I don’t know how to do this.’”
When he’s not working, Miles strives to foster an appreciation for the arts at home in his 3-year-old twin daughters, Lily and River. The family enjoys painting, storytelling, and daily dance parties. Following a recent trip to the circus, Miles stuck a seven-foot piece of tape to the floor in his home so his girls could pretend to be tightrope walkers. Outside of their at-home performances, Miles and his family like to visit Prospect Park, the MET, and, of course, the New Victory Theater whenever they can.
Beyond New Victory, Miles works as a teaching artist for the Disney Theatrical Group and Fresh Prep, an Urban Arts partnership project that uses hip hop music to help students prepare for the New York State Regents Exams. He also teaches acting classes at the Packer Collegiate Institute, the Buckley School, and New York University. He recently finished filming a movie produced by Spike Lee and frequently performs improvisations across the city.
It would seem that the only thing this NYC dad isn’t doing right now is sleeping, but he doesn’t seem to mind. If anything, he’d love to add one more project to the mix. “I want to have my own talk show where I interview people in my house while they’re playing with my children. That’s always been a dream of mine,” he says. “I just want to keep improvising, keep having fun, and make people smile.”
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