One Theater World Reflection: Pig Iron Master Class


A reflection on my experience at One Theatre World 2013 is impossible.  I walked away inspired and excited and exhausted but mostly I walked away acutely aware of the questions in my head: Are we in need of classifications for Theatre for the Very Young?  When is theatre a performance and when is it a workshop?   Why do we call it Theatre for Youth when we could just call it theatre?  So I took a little advice that I first heard from Patch Theatre’s Dave Brown: work within constraints.  Given that, here are three thoughts from Pig Iron’s master class “Something from Nothing”:

1.     It is easier to run together than to walk.  Pig Iron asked us to find a partner, one standing behind the other.  Bodies lightly touching we established a connection with our breath and began to walk through the space, pressing harder into each other as we struggled to maintain our breath.  As the person slightly in front, I closed my eyes and we continued to move – taking one timid step after the other.  Instructed to test what possibilities, we moved with more assurance, taking giant Laverne and Shirley steps. We stopped and started.  Forward and backward.  Haltingly.  Slowly.  Gracelessly.  But then we began to run.  With eyes closed I ran around a room perfectly in sync with my partner.  We started and stopped.  Forward and backward.  Fluidly.  Quickly.  Beautifully.

It made me consider process and collaboration and creation.  Beginning something is so hard.  Those first fundamental things you do when welcoming a new ensemble; sitting down with a new collaborator; coaxing a new idea to life.  But if we set the right foundation the things that seem as impossible as 20 people running in a confined space with their eyes closed and not colliding once become a reality that seems perfectly choreographed.    Which leads me to my next thought:

 2.     Stop and take a breath.  Ok ok.  It wasn’t as easy and beautiful for everyone in that room.  Some people never ran.  Some people claimed their partner pinched and pulled and prodded them.  And when it was my turn to lead my partner around the space I placed my hands on his shoulders, nuzzled the right half of my body against his back, took some deep, audible breaths and then we went absolutely nowhere.  We were frozen.  Which foot would we start on?  What was our speed?  Which direction?  We stood in stillness for maybe 20 seconds.  I could feel him asking all the same questions.  And then we stumbled forward.  Perhaps I pulled him.  Perhaps he pulled me.  We awkwardly entered the playing field taking horribly faltering steps.  We stopped.  We breathed.  We tried again.  Success!  We did a little forward.  We did a little backward.  We started a little jog.  I looked around at all the cool things other partners were doing and felt my partner tense as our gait fell out of rhythm. We stopped.  We breathed.  We tried again.   This time we ran.  We bobbed and weaved and stopped and jumped and started and crouched and stomped.  And we would stumble.  And stop. And breathe.  And then we’d start again.

I am a long time yoga practitioner and have become very invested in my individual breath.  I know that when I feel overwhelmed our out of control or like giving up my breath can push me forward.  I can breathe out the negative, chaotic, and reactionary and breathe in the positive, calm and intuitive.  I can choose when I want to breathe in and when I want to breathe out.  Pig Iron reminded me that I am not the only one who can breathe.

The nature of collaboration dictates that it is neither your idea nor mine that propels us forward but truly a new idea ignited from the fact that we are together in this moment.   My partner and I could only succeed when we were breathing together.  And it is just the nature of the exercise (and of ourselves) that my eyes were open seeing something exciting over here and his ears were attuned hearing something exciting over there and we would lose our connection.  It is such a comfort to know that all it takes is a moment to stop and breathe together.  And in that moment we learn to be less precious about ourselves and more sensitive to the work.  We take a moment to recommit to our shared goal.   So finally:

3.     We are the luckiest people in the world.    As we ended an exercise I’ve done a million times I had a completely new reaction:  profound sadness.  I felt a rush of emotion for all the people in the world that don’t get to do our work.  At OTW this year I got to play and get paid for it.  I got to run across a circle and high five a person whose name I didn’t know while jumping and yelling “ho!”  And they enthusiastically high fived me back while jumping and yelling “ho!”  I got to very literally put myself in someone else’s hands and do the same for them. I got to grow wings and antennae and battle a lizard monster. I got to experience exercises and stories and people I’ve known in a completely new way.  I got to fail. And I got to try again.  How did I get to be so lucky?

My parents will never do this work.  I don’t even think they know that this is part of what I do. And that makes me sad.  I want this for everyone.  We are so incredibly lucky because on a daily basis we get to leap and fall and get back up. We get to connect and illuminate and uplift.  We get to be audacious and intimate and vulnerable.  We get to lean into someone we’ve just met.  We get to learn a stranger’s breath and heartbeat.   We get to run with our eyes closed.

Ellie McKay is the Associate Education Director at ZACH Theatre creating program content, mentoring up-and-coming teaching artists, and providing professional development for local classroom teachers.  She spent six years with Seattle Children’s Theatre in various positions including Education Program Manager, Teaching Artist and Literary Manager.  In 2012, Ellie co-founded Austin Theatre Teaching Artists Collective, a group committed to strengthening teaching artistry in Austin.  Ellie was honored to serve on the Seattle Arts Commission in 2010 and her artistic work has garnered a CityArtists grant, three Seattle Times’ Footlight Awards and a B. Iden Payne nomination for Best Director for Youth.  She is a proud member of TYA/USA and is excited to be in development for her first Theatre for the Very Young piece, B.

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