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.

Email

Okay, here’s a question.  How are all of you out there dealing with the larger influx of email communication that we are getting these days?  Is it me, or is picking up the phone more uncommon and in-person meetings too hard to schedule because people are too busy?

I think I am getting upwards of 100 emails a day.  I wish that I were joking.  My gmail is bursting with emails, and that’s after I unsubscribed to a bunch of junkmail.  So, this is really all work-related and personal correspondence.

Who has a good system of filing and responding to all this stuff?  I’m drowning.  As a freelance worker and a writer, those emails are always flowing in faster than I can deal with ’em.  And they’re coming like a river of hot volcano and they’re threatening to burn my house down.

Anybody?

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.

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.