It is my opinion that often a playwright doesn’t get to hang on to the complete vision of their play enough. They get butchered, bastardized and taken away from their original intention because so many people are pulling at it. And you end up with a hodge podge mess of a thing.
Here’s a letter from JD Salinger describing why he will never let Catcher in the Rye be made into a film. What I admire perhaps, is his strength of conviction but it seems like at the end of the day, he doesn’t trust actors.
The most interesting pieces I’ve seen lately seem to have a complete vision are Once and For All We’re Gonna Tell You Who We Are, So Shut Up and Listenat the New Victory Theater and Pig Iron’s Chekhov Lizardbrain at Clemente Soto Velez. In the case of the first, the director got 13 14-18 year olds in a room and devised the piece with them. In the case of Pig Iron, from what I have read, the piece was group conceived by three of the actors and the director.
So, what I am trying to figure out is where I can belong in a collaborative process like that which yields striking results, where everyone buys in and creates something that is more than the sum of the parts.
I am going to see if I can make the April/May workshop of The Sugar House at the Edge of the Wilderness that kind of experience for all involved. We’ll see. We’ll experiment. We’ll play. I’m going to try to hang on by letting go, but doing so in a collaborative environment.
I would like to hear about successful collaborative or devised experiences that anyone has heard about. Anybody? Colossal failures too. It is helpful to know what doesn’t work.
This is actually from late December. I apparently forgot to click “publish.” Oops.
I was thinking to myself today, walking to the last day of a residency around Fela! at a school in the Bronx, that I am am so lucky. It was 7:25 in the morning and I had woken up at 5:45 am to get there in time, it was about 15 degrees outside with the wind chill factor. But, I got to watch Fela! with an entire theater full of NYC Public School students and it was one of the most joyous theatrical experiences I’ve ever been a part of. I looked down the row about 15 minutes into the show and saw faces filled with wonder. During the Q&A, Sahr, who played Fela, told the audience that they were the very best audience they had ever had. I had seen this in his eyes when at the top of the show, he says to the crowd, “Everybody say, ‘Yea, yea” and hundreds of high school students thundered back, “YEA, YEA!” He had to turn away, smiling at the wonder of all those voices who wanted to go on this journey with him.
But, I’m getting away from myself. I’ve had to be part of a number of student cumulative performances in the last week or two. Residencies wrapping up, school administrators, parents and teachers often like to see a product, a piece of theater that students make to show what they can do. Now, unlike creating paintings or sculpture or performing songs on musical instruments, theater is a bit tricker to have a final showing. Many students feel extremely naked onstage. And you have to push all you know, all your energy and guts and feeling into this one moment when you perform, instead of showing a painting you’ve been working on for weeks. Or being able to play in a student band with 35 other students.
What I witnessed today was this:
Being an extremely short residency (4 workshops taught by me, 4 by the classroom teacher), there really isn’t time to build a culminating performance.
In this, my fourth session with them, I went in thinking that I would help to take their writing into performance, emphasizing that it was an experiment, a rehearsal, a work in progress. We had 45 minutes, really 30 when most folks had trickled in. It was an impossibly short period of time to make anything, but we had to try.
I scaffolded with them a bit, reminded them of what we did with beats and call and response during our first session with wonderful TA percussionist and hoofer LeeAnet Noble. And I had them look at letters I’d had them generate last time, writing to someone who they would fight for and telling them why, inspired by the songs in Fela! (Everyone who had been in class wrote a letter, even if they showed up to class late, because somehow, everyone wants to tell the people that they love the most, who they would fight for the most, why they are beloved.)
I then put them into groups and asked them to choose their two favorite lines, add percussion, add call and response and create a piece to share. The piece had between 2-5 other students letters represented.
They shared and their pieces were touching and ambitious. Dense, rich, dangerous.
And it reminded me, art can be made. It can be made quickly with decent scaffolding. And most importantly, the best art is made when it comes out of what the young people have to say. This sounds obvious. But I think that we forget this all the time. I have to remember this and make it the root of what I do.
And yeah, I’m lucky because I got to see Fela! twice in order to make this residency happen. But I’m also lucky because everything I learned in that theater and then in the classroom, stays with me. And if I do anything right, it’ll show up in my work.
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.
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.