CYT veteran Jordan Clifton is proof that even after a theater experience wraps, the show can go on, and on — in his case, in an enduring and varied career in theater education. Like so many other people this year, he has been finding creative ways to “meet this moment,” as he described it — a moment that he has been building toward since appearing in a children’s choir Christmas pageant in the third grade. Now 28, Jordan is the theater arts teacher at Broughton Magnet High School in Raleigh.
Even though Jordan got hooked on theater early in life, he said that while growing up in Garner there weren’t many opportunities to partake in it until he was at West Johnston High School, where he appeared in “Les Miserables.” He was in high school when he started his CYT run with “Bye Bye Birdie” (Conrad Birdie) in 2008, continuing with “Once on This Island” (Tonton Julian) in 2009 and wrapping up with "Pippin" (Leading Player) and “Fiddler on the Roof” (Tevye) in 2010.
CYT Director Nikki Dyke was his first true theater teacher and director, he said, and his experiences with CYT were “instrumental in my love for theater and knowledge” that this was something he could do. Jordan went on to receive a BFA in theater performance in 2014 from Catawba College in Salisbury, N.C., and he credits his CYT tenure for setting him up “for a lot of success” in college and beyond. “I remember so vividly the atmosphere that was created for us at CYT, so welcoming and inviting but also demanding,” Jordan said. He learned “what a well-oiled rehearsal machine looks like, which is so important in the theater process.”
Jordan developed a taste for teaching in college, while serving as a teaching assistant at Raleigh Little Theatre during summers at home. Those stints helped to boost his confidence as a leader and led to roles as a teacher and director with the Community Theatre of Greensboro, where he also gained experience in arts administration. At one point he considered being a flight attendant for Delta Air Lines, calling that interview process the “most stressful audition I’ve ever been to in my life.” But through a CYT connection, fellow CYT veteran and theater teacher Morgan Shearon, he learned about a job teaching theater at North Graham Elementary School. He got the position, and in 2017 won a $20,000 grant from the Andrew Lloyd Webber Initiative to help upgrade the school’s theater resources.
Jordan is now in his third year at Broughton, where he has directed “Hairspray,” “Eurydice,” “A Chorus Line” and “Poof.” Over the years he has continued to appear in shows with several companies throughout the area, including Snow Camp Outdoor Theatre, Barn Dinner Theatre of Greensboro, Theatre Raleigh and North Carolina Opera. “It’s been really great to be able to practice what I love to do and spread that love and passion to kids,” he said. His experiences as a teacher have shown him “the power of theater to bring community together,” especially across racial, ethnic and economic lines, he said.
Theater has the power to give children a sense of belonging, Jordan noted. “My favorite thing is meeting that student that is — my favorite word — ‘loquacious’ and just loves to share and express themselves. They might not find a place for that in any of their other classes, but the theater classroom is where that flame can be ignited and they can, through that, find focus and determination, commitment.” In his role as an educator, he said, he has learned the importance of “never underestimating any kid or any person’s potential.”
Jordan draws on his CYT experiences often, whether while teaching or performing. In addition to CYT’s polished rehearsal process, he said, he was struck by the amount of collaboration that goes into theater and the importance of building solid structures to serve the final products — the shows themselves. “I always remember how meticulously organized Nikki was,” he said. Audiences don’t see the “400 cues in the stage manager’s production bible,” for example, he said, or the detailed cast schedules.
Jordan’s extensive theater background is helping him “meet the moment” that the world is in with the ongoing pandemic. Many arts organizations and venues continue to be “dark,” including New York City’s Broadway theaters. Broughton remains on a virtual schedule, so Jordan has been working on ways to take an art form that is inherently physical and basically a team sport into a remote realm for his classes in acting and technical theater. He and his students plan to start rehearsals soon for site-specific outdoor projects. They’ve also been doing table reads via Google Meet, playing with poetry and engaging in conceptual work, all of which will pay off when in-person learning resumes, he said. “I think everybody can agree that learning and being with each other in person will always be more powerful than virtual things,” Jordan said, but there’s great value in finding new avenues for creating and sharing stories.
Beyond academics, simply being able to be together — even if only through computer screens — has been tremendously beneficial for students, Jordan said. Hanging out online offers “space where we can socially and emotionally check in with each other and let the kids talk to each other,” he said, “because they’re just not getting a lot of that.” Students have been able to tell their own stories, too. One of Jordan’s students shared a lovely story about how she had been finding “beauty in her quarantine,” but another student said — well, not so much. This shows how theater and the arts in general remain essential, he said, because storytelling and entertainment help to “relieve people of all of the tension that’s happening in our world that we live in, whether it’s social, political, emotional. … We all need it right now, kids and adults alike.”
Despite the usual challenges in the arts world, combined with the stresses of 2020, Jordan remains passionate about the role that theater can play in childhood development. “Theater is an essential component of a well-rounded education,” he said, as it can help to cultivate some of the “21st-century skills that we need” — including communication, creative problem-solving, and the ability to work in groups but also independently and with personal initiative. He was pleased to recently see one of his current students, Laura Lillian Baggett, in Burning Coal Theatre’s “A Hundred Words for Snow” — where, because of the pandemic, he was one of only four audience members.
He’s also passionate about the role of theater in schools and making it more accessible. “No matter what city or town or community you live in, every child should have access to theater and all it has to offer,” he said. “The social, emotional and personal growth it provides for students” is so important, he said. “That’s why I’m so thankful for CYT. … I wish that more schools offered theater as an opportunity. That’s why CYT and other nonprofit arts-producing organizations are so vital, to not just the students performing and working backstage, but the community at large.”
Carolina Youth Theatre (CYT)
Carolina Youth Theatre is a community theater focused on providing theater arts education and performance opportunities to students across the Triangle.