Fela! and Student Performances

This is actually from late December.  I apparently forgot to click “publish.”  Oops.

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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 rehearsed.

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.

Middles

The middle is always the most difficult thing to characterize.

In theatermaking and in teaching, we often call this “process.”

I spend a lot of time planning in both things.  When writing a play, I’ll often spend weeks or months reading, researching, thinking.  Thinking while I’m in the shower, eating a cupcake, falling asleep on the subway, in the middle of a conversation with someone, while watching a play.  The play is omnipresent.

Teaching is very similar.  I build a map, think about where I want to end up with them at the end of 45 minutes, at the end of a 2, 4 or 10 week residency.  And I build backwards.  What game, activity, set of questions, turn and talk will get us there?

I find a lot of solace in that initial mapping.  There is something tangible and concrete I can hold onto and look at.  There is a terrain I mean to cover.  I just need to wear the right shoes and get enough rest and I should be able to make the journey.

But, on the journey, a torrential downpour will come out of nowhere.  The upper of my shoe will separate from the sole.  I’ll drop my water bottle in a stream and it’ll float away.  I’ll get 15 or so mosquito bites.  This is what happens in the middle of a residency when you add the students and daily school drama, absences, classroom teacher burnout.  This is what happens on a second and third draft of the play when all the feedback you’ve gotten starts running through your head and you get seduced by strands that take you off entirely in the wrong direction.  Then, your characters get angry and start to run amok.

I am in the middle of a lot of things right now.  In the middle of a big residency devising a piece of theater with young people.  In the middle of a residency around Fela! In the middle of a draft of The Sugar House at the Edge of the Wilderness.  In the middle of building the Spring reading series called 2020 Visions at Teachers & Writers.  In the middle of writing an article on Philadelphia Young Playwrights for the Spring issue of T&W Magazine.

It makes me feel very messy.
But I am “in process.”

I’ll finish something soon.

I’ll cross a bridge.

Delicious Books

I know I work here, but these are beautiful and a bargain, so, have a look at these.  Thought I would share the wealth.  The nerdy writer that you love or a teacher that you dig might be eternally grateful.  Some of these have saved me in the wee hours looking for lesson plans.  I like Poetry Everywhere, The Handbook of Poetic Forms and The Adventures of Dr. Alphabet.

The Nature of Professional Development

I wrote the below for the Teachers and Writers Collaborative E-Newsletter, to report on what we’re up to here. I got to sit in on a lovely Professional Development session with public school teachers and a T&W vet on Veteran’s Day,  one of only two city-wide PD days for NYC.  Professional Development has come to have so many different meanings and so many implications.  Over-professionalization of the field.  Artless, boring, dry sessions on testing practices.  When I was a teacher, so rarely was PD something to look forward to, much less learn from or enjoy.

In this particular case, I was moved to see teachers put in the position of their students, writing personal pieces though it’s scary and hard.  For, we can often be our best selves as teachers when we truly understand the difficulty in what we’re asking our students to do and have had to fight through fears to be brave and master the skills or create something specific and true.

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In the airy, book-lined Center for Imaginative Writing at Teachers & Writers Collaborative, a group of teachers from Aviation High School are buried in their notebooks, scribbling out their responses to a prompt by Karen Ulrich, a T&W writer and author of How to Write Your Life Story.  “Today, our goal is to write a scene from your memoir.”  This felt big to me, a big goal.  But I took a deep breath and put myself in Karen’s capable hands.

Karen gave us an excerpt of her book which contained a list of prompts on “memory triggers.”  Turning points-decisions that changed your life. Regrets.  Secrets you have kept.  World events that have had a powerful effect on your life.  “Choose one that you are especially interested in writing about and make a list of moments in your life that apply to that category,” she encouraged.  She then asked us to select the one that we were most curious about. This would be the kernel of the memoir piece.

As the workshop went on Karen showed us how a unit on memoir can be employed to teach good writing technique for both fiction and nonfiction.  She started with character.  Karen said, “List traits of you at the moment in time you’ve chosen.”  I had used the world events prompt and from my list, I’d chosen the Blackout of 2003.  What was I like then?  “Bob haircut.”  “Tall shoes.”  “Always bustling.”  “A bit meek with authority.” Listing in this way helped me to examine myself from the outside and without prejudice.  More importantly, it helped me to find the voice for this protagonist-me in 2003.

We then moved on through setting, plot, sensory detail, and dialogue.  As each aspect was introduced, we did a bit of writing with that technique or device in mind.  At the end, Karen asked us to take the very best bits out of what we’d written and to cobble it together into a whole.  This seemed much less scary than being told to build a memoir piece from scratch.  Instead we had small bits which we could collage together into a cohesive piece.  In this way, Karen modeled beautifully how a teacher could take this work into the classroom and create a well-scaffolded unit for his or her students.

The teachers shared some of their final pieces and they were textured, with strong charismatic characters and richly drawn settings.  You could see that they were surprised by each other’s work and how personal and authentic it was.  For those who read aloud, there was a palpable sense of the pride in building and sharing this piece of memoir.

So, while they walked out armed with Personal Fiction Writing by Meredith Sue Willis (T&W, 2000), handouts from Karen’s own book, and samples of memoir writing, more importantly, they walked away with their own memoir pieces and the memory of having participated in this process so that when they ask their students to be brave and to write about something true, they will be able to say, “Yes, I’ve done that that too.  And it’s hard.  But it’s worth it, I promise you.”

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.