The students were about to arrive, and I needed to go greet them at the door.
“Can you make this stuff look appealing? Like the window of a boutique? Or the best craft room ever? And then can you cover it up?”
I was talking to Katie Galaro, the stage manager for McCarter Theatre Center’s High School Intensive. We looked at a pile of random supplies and objects: yarn, balloons, fabric, aluminum foil, and several found objects from an earlier “inspirational scavenger hunt” in downtown Princeton. It was a pile that could have easily been perceived as trash, but I knew it would soon be transformed to create valuable spaces for meaning-making.
The young artists soon entered our rehearsal room and, after a brief warm-up, sat down for a Master Class in Shakespearean text analysis with Joseph McGranaghan, the project’s associate teaching artist. Afterwards, we divided them into groups, distributing envelopes with one of four soliloquies chosen from Shakespeare’s Hamlet, a story soon to come to McCarter’s stage via Bedlam’s productions of Hamlet and Saint Joan. The students spend about 30 minutes collaboratively analyzing their soliloquies, reflecting on content and form, and formulating a guiding question asked by the soliloquy. I call for their attention, standing next to a plastic table covered with a large swath of fabric.
“Based on the guiding question you pulled out of your Hamlet soliloquy, create a place for us to experience and a task for us to accomplish. You can choose to include an element of performance if you want to, but it’s not required. It does, however, need to be a prepared experience for the audience. You have 50 minutes, and you can use any of these materials.”
I dramatically unveil the table (Katie has arranged it to perfection). Some mouths gape open, some hands shoot up into the air, full of questions, and some eyes look to the side, hoping to find a peer’s similarly excited gaze.
Their excitement temporarily transports me back to my own excitement as I sat on a squeaky folding chair in Cornerstone Theatre Company’s rehearsal studio, holding a photocopy of a short monologue. The monologue was taken Alison Carey’s The Good Person of New Haven a community-based adaptation of Brecht’s Good Person of Szechwan, produced by Cornerstone in 2000 in New Haven, Connecticut, and directed by Bill Rauch. In college, I discovered community-based theatre from Jan Cohen-Cruz’s Local Acts, and I spent hours reading all I could about Cornerstone, Carey, and Rauch. Five years later, I was engaging with their work in Cornerstone’s very own squeaky chairs.
I wasn’t there by myself, though. Funded by Ann Shaw’s generosity, Lily Junker and I were here to consider how community-based practices could be incorporated into youth theatre programming. Specifically, we were thinking about the High School Intensive, a three-week summer course designed to put the work of young people in conversation with productions in McCarter’s mainstage season. As we studied Carey’s brilliant work and received guidance from Cornerstone artists about adapting classic texts, I had a moment of panic: We can’t do this with young people in a three-week class! We don’t have time. We can’t just have them individually adapt classic texts to which they’ve had minimal exposure, expecting them to produce a full script, rehearse and perform in three weeks.
(Now knowing those brilliant young artists, they probably could have, but no one would have slept.)
Fast forward, back to the the young artists at McCarter. The students run around McCarter’s Berlind Stage, draping fabric, hanging rope and yarn, blowing up balloons, and carefully placing objects in their installations. We only have one pair of scissors with us, so they are, indeed, running (and learning how to make art with scarce resources, I like to think!).
It’s been an hour, and the young artists are out of time. Each group is ready to share their installation, to guide us through an experience that will make us reflect on a guiding question in their soliloquy. The first group, working with the Act I, Scene 2 soliloquy (“Oh, that this too, too sullied flesh would melt…”), created an installation from the top of the theatre’s steeply raked audience seats to the bottom. The installation used yarn tied from seat to seat across the aisles, arranged at increasing and decreasing levels.
An audience member is provided with scissors and asked to guide the rest of the audience through the yarn. When we arrive at the area where the string is closest to the ground, balloons fall from the balcony above us. We continue, a shorter distance this time, and arrive at the bottom. Afterwards, the students explain that they focused the guiding question, “How do we choose between what’s right and what’s easy?” They used the string to represent Gertrude’s emotions and Hamlet’s perception of them—a web that should be difficult to navigate, but instead cut through in a seemingly simple fashion. The balloons represented Claudius entering Gertrude’s life as a possible suitor, arriving at her lowest emotional state, distracting her from the challenge of moving forward.
Each installation was equally thought-provoking and aesthetically innovative. Ultimately, the students landed on four guiding questions, one for each installation. For our continued exploration in the devising process, we chose the question articulated in the first installation—“How do we choose between what’s right and what’s easy?” The young artists used this question to create questions for story circles and interviews with the community, and to begin reflecting on their own personal stories. The students also expressed interest in exploring gender expectations, organically pointing us towards our other classic text, George Bernard Shaw’s Saint Joan.
The second scene from Saint Joan portrays Prince Charles’ difficulty in making the decision to go to war and Joan’s role in convincing him to do so. A young woman arrives in the king’s court, dressed as a soldier, asking him to choose between what’s easy (avoiding war), and what she believes to be right for France (going to war). This scene matched perfectly with our guiding question, so we decided to perform this scene as a staged reading, interrupting it with short devised scenes based on personal and community stories. The scenes were matched up to the original text with lines we called “trigger lines.” For example, after Joan enters the king’s court, a character asks another, “Do you believe that such a woman should be allowed in the court?” The performers froze after this line, and a devised movement piece was performed alongside an audio recording of a student’s story about gender discrimination on her tennis team. During the performance, the students put their own stories and the stories of community members on stage, alongside the writing of George Bernard Shaw, asking that they be heard by their audience in the same way Saint Joan asked to be heard by_____.
The performance was beautiful, and the project itself was full of ensemble-based collaboration, exciting devised work, and plenty of heart from our 16 young artists. But, as I reflect back, my favorite day was Shakespeare day. Engaging with one of the most popular, revered texts in the English language, these young artists made meaning that was relevant to their own lives, translated that meaning into their own aesthetics, and then invited their peers into participatory, personalized experiences. While they didn’t adapt Hamlet or Saint Joan, they generated installations in the spirit of Rauch and Carey, believing that Hamlet had something to bring to their lives, and their lives had something to bring to Hamlet.
Cornerstone’s vision statement asserts, “By combining the artistry of people with many levels of theatrical experience, we act upon the conviction that artistic expression is civic engagement and that access to a creative forum is essential to the wellness and health of every individual and community.” This project helped me further understand the critical nature of theatre made with and by young people as a form of civic engagement. Oftentimes, practitioners and theatre education staff work to make sure that young people’s “voices are heard.” This is an admirable goal, but Cornerstone’s vision looks for more. It asks that the voices of young people be heard by their communities, and that they be recognized as voices of the community.
During our story circles, a community member turned to the young artists and said, “You are the exact opposite of what the media wants us to believe you are, and I’m so glad to know there’s hope for the future.” As it turns out, in all three story circles, one of the community participants voiced this to the young people. The young artists were stunned, then frustrated by the way their stories and characters were portrayed in the media. Harry and Maddy, two artists in the Intensive, wrote the following epilogue for the performance in response:
We hear what’s said
We don’t agree
They view us as narcissistic
But we’re here with you, telling the stories of the community
Not only here on stage but also on those social media sites that we’re constantly scorned for
The easiest thing to do is to go along with society.
But we are choosing to speak up. We are choosing to connect with our community. We are choosing to write this play.
We believe in the possibility of a world where people make decisions without the influence of society.
We believe in making the right choice despite the difficulties that may arise.
We believe everyone has the right to choose how they live their lives.
We refuse to be remembered as the generation that let society win.
We choose to tell stories, to know our communities, to make change.
What do you choose?
I choose to build a world where young people are known by their neighbors through the way they tell stories, not through the way stories are told about them. I’m grateful to TYA/USA and the Ann Shaw Fellowship for making this journey possible, and I’m excited for the future possibilities of community-based practices in our field.