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.

Crashing after the Sugar House

Oh, boy.  I was doing so well.  Made all 14 other Ma-Yi Labfest Readings and still managed to finish my play, rehearse it and get it up with the wonderful actors.

And then the next day I crashed.

Teaching has been especially hard this week because my energy has waned, I am fighting the dumb flu that everyone is sneezing and coughing around, and Teaching Artistry is a highly energetic, highly creative job.  Today was a good day, though.  I got to help some students at Flushing International HS scribe and rehearse plays–their “What happens next?” or “What other adventure could Jason go on?” in response to Jason and the Argonauts, the wonderful two-man version by Visible Fictions.

And then, I realized why I love theater–the rehearsal is really the fun part.  And, as Visible Fictions does, they were charged with using props, minimal costumes, action figures, to fill out the world.  Two fellows in two different classes built full dragon tail regalia.  There were sword fights with homemade swords.  Heroes who stood up to tyrants and brave princesses who defeated monsters.  I just tried to remind them to use what we learned, transforming our bodies and voices to become the characters and inventively using props and space.  Being students recently arrived, many are shy about using their English, but today, one girl I’ve never heard speak until today, powerfully spit out her lines.  Perhaps because it was “play,” the stakes were lower and she was able to engage in front of a crowd.  Joy.

All in all, a good day of play.

The Writing Process

Some people get sheepish talking about their writing process.  Particularly if you find yourself working at the last minute.  Or right up to deadline.  Do you make apologies?  Do you just forgo the sleep?  Do you foist it on some kind soul to read it at the 11th hour and make sure you’re not totally crazy and there is a discernible story there?

I am working up until the 11th hour to get this piece done for the reading.  It is massively nervewracking to put it before an audience, but perhaps that’s the only way to know if it works.  If it feels alright in the mouths of these wonderful actors.  If there is that feeling in the air during the reading.  You know the one.  When we’re all present and inside the story and breathing hard because of what just happened/is threatening to happen/can’t happen.

If you can get a moment or two of those, maybe you’ve got something going on.

So, that is what we’re trying for.  If this play would just cooperate.  I keep trying to whip it into shape and it keeps bleeding around the edges.  C’mon, play.  Stop being so messy and chaotic.  Or be more messy and chaotic.