Melanie Zehner sits looking out the window

Teaching Artist Spotlight: Melanie Zehner

Melanie Zehner has served as a teaching artist, assistant director, and choreographer at ArtStream for nearly four years. Her love for the performing arts began when she started studying improv when she was ten-years-old. Upon completing bachelor’s and master’s degrees, she began working as a freelance actor, teaching artist, and writer. A professional actor (AEA/SAG-AFTRA), Melanie has experience performing on stage and television, in film and commercials, and modeling. She is dedicated to her craft and continuing education. She completed training at the Studio Theatre Acting Conservatory, Shakespeare Theatre Company, Washington Improv Theatre, and Second City in Chicago. 

We are thrilled to chat with her about her experience and love for theatre. 

Tell us about yourself. What is your background and how did you get involved with ArtStream?  

I was born in Upstate New York and started to become involved in theatre at a young age. I received my BA in Theatre from SUNY Potsdam and my Masters in Physical Acting from University of Kent in Canterbury, UK. Currently, I am working as an actor (AEA/SAG-AFTRA), teaching artist, and writer. I recently graduated from the Second City Conservatory. Currently, I live in Chicago.  

I got involved with ArtStream when I saw an ad on Indeed looking for teaching artists. I had people in my life who I knew would have benefited from a program like ArtStream if it was available to them. I was hired to assist two classes, but quickly moved up to lead/co-lead positions.   

How did you first get involved in theatre?  

Growing up, I was an extremely shy child. My mother signed me up for acting lessons at a local children’s theatre because she read that acting classes could build confidence. I fell in love with theatre during my first class and never stopped. Not only did I love storytelling and making others laugh, but I also gained skills that made me a better person.  

Why did you decide to become a teaching artist?  

Some of the most important people in my life were the teaching artists that inspired me. I still bring the lessons they taught me into my classroom. In a way, being a teaching artist is the biggest thank you I can give them.  

What is something the ArtStreamers would be surprised to find out about you?  

I think ArtStreamers would be surprised that I try to read 100 books a year. This has been a good year book-wise. I have already read 104 books in 2021 and it’s only August! If I was to recommend a book to my students, it would be The Nevermoor series by Jessica Townsend. They are very similar to Harry Potter and Percy Jackson. I just started to get into graphic novels and those have been fun to read at bedtime.  

What is your favorite ArtStream class/topic to teach?  

I love teaching improv. Improv and ArtStream’s mission statement go hand in hand. Improvisational comedy was originally conceived in the early 1960’s by Viola Spolin in Chicago. She used improv games as a way to teach social skills to immigrant children. Her son then brought the games to his college theatre troupe and the Second City comedy theatre was formed shortly after. I feel like teaching improv not only allows students to practice their social and listening skills, but it gives them the permission to be funny. I find that there is a superpower in humor and making others laugh with you. I love seeing those moments when a student finds their ‘funny self’ and just plays.  

I also loved being the Assistant Director/Choreographer for the Virginia Cabaret. Our actors were beyond talented and the creative team I worked with was the best. It also was a chance to flex my writing skills, which was fun.  

What do you feel is most important to teach/offer your students? 

Something I always tell students is to try their best and I remind them that their best changes from day to day. It’s okay to feel tired or nervous one day. I also encourage students to bring their own creative energy into a project or class.  

Please share an example of something that happened at ArtStream that really inspired you.  

There are so many memories! One recent memory that comes to mind is the Take Five: Create a Movie on Your Phone Class I taught recently. Our goal was to create a five-minute movie in five days. All of the students really put their all into the class and we created a wonderful movie called Fantasy Friends. It’s now on ArtStream’s YouTube channel

After the class, one of the students asked if they could work on their own version of the film, using the tools and skills they learned in the class. It’s wonderful seeing students being inspired post-class and I am excited to see their final product of the film.  

What kinds of changes have you seen ArtStream students make in your classes?  

Watching the confidence grow in my students is the most rewarding part of the classes for me. I have seen students learn how to advocate for themselves using the tools that ArtStream has taught them. I also love watching the friendships form in ArtStream classes.  

There’s no denying how much the ArtStreamers adore you. How do you build those meaningful connections?  

Thank you! I point to my humor and my tendency to geek out over things as a way to connect with people. I love making people laugh and I think there is an openness about bringing a sense of humor into the rehearsal space. Laughter can break the tension and stress in a room. I also am a big geek and love chatting with students about their interests. I have gotten into some really great TV shows and movies at the recommendation of our students. Having an understanding of their likes makes connections happen.  

What are you looking forward to most this fall? 

Fall is my favorite season! I’m excited to embrace my spooky side and welcome the colder weather. I’m also co-leading an improv class with Rye Ellis. It’s going to be a Take Five, so every day for a week we are going to be playing different improv games. 

What is your favorite play or musical?  

I am a huge Phantom of the Opera “phan.” It was one of the first shows I fell in love with. I also love the musical Next to Normal. My favorite play is The Importance of Being Earnest. I’ll also say that my favorite improv format is a Bat. That’s when you perform a Harold in the Dark.  

If you could create a new play or musical about anything, what would it be?  

I would love to create a devised adaptation of The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman.