Theatre Thursday

Devising Creativity – Creating from Scratch in High School Theatre

I have decided today to make a Theatre Thursday post. It’s been awhile. Sometimes I don’t have a ton to say. Sometimes I am not home where all my pictures are to make a post about one of the shows I have been working on (today is a good example of this problem, but I was able to find a couple videos on my phone to illustrate my thoughts so I am giving it a shot).

Over this past week I have had a couple of conversations with people regarding the value of the arts in education. Sadly, arts education is greatly under appreciated and under valued. I believe firmly that arts education helps make all other subjects make sense! Music notes are pictures that represent sounds. Letters are pictures that represent sounds. I am confident that learning about music and learning to read music helped me learn to read. I wasn’t a reader until Christmas of my third grade year. My brain was not able to grasp the picture/sound concept. Music saved my bacon. I was a shy teen who would rather read a book in the corner in the rocking chair than have a conversation with my peers. Sure, I wanted friends, but I liked the safety of imaginary friends, in books and in movies and in plays. Drama classes gave me a safe place to develop my ideas.

These day, drama classes continue to give me a creative outlet… as a mentor. Recently I helped to teach a devised theatre unit to students. I pitched the idea to my friend and co-worker because I was noticing an alarming trend within the young actors we coach everyday. These students would rather get a script on day one and be told where to go and when, and why, rather than to truly create collaboratively. They seem to want “that” because they are under the impression that it is “safe.” Why?

I am finding that my favorite projects are collaborative efforts. That is one reason I love what I do at our school. We are a team. We work together to create beautiful art.

I wanted the students to experience the thrill of creating from a place of IMBALANCE. Like on a tightrope. I wanted them to see what could happen if they came up with a performance, based on a theme, all on their own. Instead of starting with a script (a map of a story with characters to fill like square pegs in round holes), I gave them a theme – concerns of the modern teen. They were assigned to discuss the subject as a group, look for abilities and belief systems of the students in their groups, and to create a performance intended to invite community dialogue. They were to use the strengths of each of the performer in their group. Do we have a writer? Do we have a dancer? Do we have someone with strong religious beliefs? Do we have a nerd? Do we have musicians? I was asking them to create, not to recreate.

I believe that a lack of surety contains the power of learning and creating. Risk, the potential of failure, is a powerful energy. Risk is action in the face of uncertainty. I wanted the students to experience the power that is unleashed, and even magnified, when creating a new work of art. I wanted them to feel the surge of energy that comes when we are all looking together for something that does not yet exist. I was seeking the opportunity for these young artists to feel what power there is when they come together – breathing together – asking questions and responding to those questions in multiple ways, and in the process, discovering that the “right answer” may include many answers. I wanted these remarkable students to experience how empowering it is to ask questions about the world and to be okay with the idea of not knowing the end of the journey before the journey begins… for such is life.

We started with a theme – what concerns do teens have in today’s society? I gave them a few devised theater building blocks. We talked about “around, under and through”, “before the moment, the moment, and after the moment,” “the lift,” the use of body movement and telling the story through body language, the use of collaborative prose, and the addition of non-verbal music. We discussed how rhythm and pace could be used effectively. We talked about building a “tableau ” or stage picture affected the story telling. We talked about how the theatre experience could be used to affect change in our school, community and the world. Then, we turned them loose.

What are we going to try today? I like this way of beginning a class. It is so much better than, what are we going to do today? I find that there often isn’t a “right” answer. There are just more or less clear or more or less effective ways of expressing our ideas or feelings. The success is in the journey.

I was met with great resistance at first. They were not having it. However, I LOVE the result of this experiment! I wish the “showcase” at our State Thespian conference would do something like what we created in this unit. What these students created were powerful performance addressing real student concerns. These performances were their voices… their creations from beginning to end… voices that could change the world.

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