Classroom Theater

Imagine for a second that you were rehearsing whatever show it is that you are currently working on, with a group of 4-5 collaborators. So, you are in your rehearsal room, hammering it out, working on the script, figuring out the blocking, etc.

And then, in walk 4 other groups, to share your room. They are also rehearsing with their props, costumes, text, choreographed fight sequences, etc. This is the situation in the typical NYC public school classroom that I walk into. There will be 30 students, rehearsing simultaneously in a space the size of your living room. If you have a big living room. I could probably only fit 4 students in my living room. But, you get the picture.  This was the situation yesterday at an International High School in Queens where I was doing some residency culminating performances.

“What?” you say.

“How do you hear yourself above the din?”

“Aren’t you tripping over each other?”

The answer is that in working in schools, doing drama, this is the way it is. We make it work, somehow. But, unlike the fine arts, or perhaps even dance, this means a lot of chaos, more chaos than people are used to seeing in classrooms.

I taught with two guest teachers as my primary colleague was out. Part way through the first class, the two guest teachers shot some looks over, like, “are you mad?” The noise.  The questions.  The fact that students were using broomsticks as faux swords.  This is not what English class normally looks like.  But today, it is okay and I must also make them comfortable in the room.  I ask one teacher to model an activity with me to draw her in.  Show the students that she too will take the risk to get up and work in front of them.

I was to teach around the question, “What is point of view? And how does a story change depending on who’s telling it?”  And I ended up needing to teach each class very differently depending on the student group dynamics and language comfort.  While I came in with a plan, I ended up changing things on the fly, in order to better have them understand POV and be able to tell a story from a different character’s point of view.

When it came time to show the pieces the students magically whizzed together in a few minutes, the teachers seemed to enjoy them and were impressed with how much the students showed that they knew about the play, how inventive they were, how they moved through their shyness and varying levels of language acquisition challenges to create a moment of theater.

And perhaps I re-learned, we are always in process as teachers and artists and teaching artists. And we have to change things on the fly sometimes, because what we’re doing is not working. Or could work better. Our instincts are usually right. And momentary chaos is often okay. As long as we are seeking the answer to the driving question. Instincts are right. Chaos is good. This will be my mantra.

Appreciation

Last week, I was working with young people who were working towards a show, a culminating experience that showed all they had worked on in the past two weeks.  Dance, combat, scenes and monologues.  We had students from all over the city, many different schools, aged 12-18.  It was a very compressed experience but my co-teacher and I realized that we needed to cement the notion of ensemble with them.  That for this time they must be family, they must look after one another and they must work together to make magic onstage.

Saying this is one thing.  But, how to make it happen?

I thought about an exercise I did a million years ago when I was working with Peeling.  We would make two lines and each person would move down the line, telling the person before them what they appreciated about the other person.  I thought it would work especially because they were 12-18 year olds, so they might not be able to acknowledge each other in public, but when presented with another person one-on-one, and with the right prompt, they might be able to speak the truth.

So, I began the exercise and said, “You will have a minute to look at the person in front of you and tell them everything you appreciate about them in the work you’ve seen them do in the last two weeks.”  I watched as laughter erupted, as they leaned into each other and smiled or blushed at what others appreciated about them.  And as they moved down the line, a warmth filled the room.

One boy, at the end said, “I feel so loved.”  Another boy said, “You think people don’t notice you at all, but then you hear that they do see you.  They hear what you say.”  Another boy said, “You think you’re like, an invisible person, but then you realize that you’re not.”

That says it all, I think.

While my partner and I didn’t participate in the exercise, two boys came up to us and wanted to tell us what they appreciated.  One of them said, “I appreciate that you’re tough on us and really keep us on track, but we know it’s because you love us.”  I said, “You’re absolutely right.”

I realize that I must find a way to do this more in my own artistic and teaching practices–tell people all that they are and all that I get from having them in the room.