I stand in a room with 14 teenagers. I have begrudgingly won them into a circle. They stand waiting for instruction—mostly so they can refuse it. I’m convinced they each woke up this morning practices their quips, because they are fired off with perfection. I announce we will start off simply and I ask them each to think of one sound and one movement. When it is their turn they can perform their sound and movement and it will spread throughout the circle like the wave, just in time for the next to do a new sound and movement etc. etc. etc. They look at me flabbergasted. I start.
“Hiya! (karate chop)”
Nothing. They stare. I repeat.
“Hiya! (karate chop) Come on! You can do it.”
It takes me 30 seconds to realize the game I have chosen is equivalent to having each participant watch the others turn into a horrid house of mirrors, amplifying their insecurities. Then the dreaded thought:
“If they can’t do this…what do I have them do.”
As an educator, I find theatre to be inspiring, dynamic, and unifying. I believe that the journey of creating devised pieces is transformative. I especially believe this when I am thrust into my deepest of insecurities, “Maybe this time it won’t work.”
Unlike a traditional piece, when you devise you must accept each person wholly as they are. The quiet girl does not get the role of the sheep. The eccentric boy cannot be the energizer bunny (you know the one you wrote in- just in case) each person must be able to stand alone and with others. My practice stems from my truth: each person has a story and a point of view that deserves to be heard and respected. However; working with a group of participants that says they have no interest in theatre and doesn’t want to speak- always creates a challenge. While retreat is simple, I remind myself that every cast, participant, and person is changed through being able to share their story. It is my responsibility to soldier on. So how do I get a series of non-interested children to transform into willing participants?
One. I start with myself. No. I don’t mean this in a self involved way. I take pride in my work- but I know it isn’t all about me. Every time I meet with a new group I start with the same speech, “ You don’t know me. You’ve never met me, but I want you to work with me. So I am going to give you 30 seconds. I want you to ask me anything you need to know about me in order to be able to work with me today. Ready? Go.”
I have been asked my age, race, ethnicity, marital status, favorite color, occupation, dreams, high school, college. I’ve been asked questions that seemed entirely unrelated like, “Do you like peppermint?” I’ve also been asked nothing. Met with silent fearful stares. What I have found is that being open, honest, and giving to your students ALWAYS pays off. I give them everything I want them to give to me. In return I get their interest, then their respect, and then hopefully their trust.
Two. I meet them where they are at. If they can’t get into a game I’m playing, I do a different game. I find ways to make participation easy and sharing simple. Go to the right wall if you like chocolate, the left if you like vanilla, and stand in the center if you prefer fro-yo.
A variety of graph games let people know who present is like them and they are funny. Choosing between music, TV shows, movies, Team Edward/Team Jacob- and soon enough the participants will want to choose their own. All that is needed is an opening of a door just a crack. But in order to open a door you have to know where to find it. Find the interest, examine the dynamic, and then build up your ensemble from there.
Understanding the room can help you to place the boundaries of your work. For example, a nervous group of girls might understand status and power but be unwilling to discuss it as a group. Therefore, individual explorations that you guide them through simultaneously (group writing, character walks, image work) can provide safety and depth. Taking the time to know your room will provide you with the strongest tactics to accomplish your piece.
Three. Find the success and return to the challenge. All theatre education is learning on your feet. I have never taught a class exactly as I had it planned. Lots of participants, adults and children alike, have a difficult buying in. Everyone wants to be the star of the show- or no one wants the limelight. Or both, which is always difficult. When passing the sound and movement is met with silence or a lackluster response, leave the game, for a time. Find the way in and then return to it. Everyone knows when they have failed. Failure is okay. It should be acknowledged, and when appropriate celebrated, but so should perseverance. If a game flounders the first day return to it the second, or third, or tenth. Find the way to make a cohesive group, and then reward them by showing them a prior challenge that is now simple.
Reluctance is the enemy of creativity. It is sly and surprising. It sucks up your energy and claws at your confidence. But, the most important tool of any educator is patience. I have to remind myself each day that the crux of my work is starting from square one. That every group is at the beginning, and even if I have been to 1000 beginnings, this one will be different, this one will be theirs. With new beginnings come new challenges, but also new discoveries. And discovery is the birthplace of art. Discovery is worth the challenge.
Kristianna Smith is an experienced educator and impassioned theatre artist. She has spent the past decade working with youth, educators, and the elderly reinvigorating the human experience through theatre arts. Kristianna attended the University of New Hampshire, where she received a Bachelor’s Degree in Theatre with an emphasis in Secondary Education. As Education Resident for Long Wharf Theatre, Kristianna directed the warmly received TYA production The Mischief Makers. She remains the only Education Resident to have directed for the Next Stage Program. She also cast and directed the vocal talent of Long Wharf Theatre’s winning PSA for the National Corporate Theatre Fund Contest, highlighting how theatre helps to prepare students for the 21st Century workforce. As a teaching artist, Kristianna has worked with learners of all ages. Notably, she has trained classroom teachers in both Arts Integration and Social Justice Theatre. This work has specialized in using the arts to reach students in non-traditional classroom settings. Kristianna is the CoFounder/Director of Strategic Planning for Via Arts LLC based in Connecticut. Via Arts LLC an arts service company whose mission is to create partnerships with local community-oriented organizations that better the holistic well-being of the community. www.via-arts.org