Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Settings and Senses

Performance by Activate Youth Theatre (Summer 2000)
Old Church Cemetery
Cobh, County Cork, Ireland
Since experiencing site-specific performances by the Activate Youth Theatre in Cork, Ireland, I've been interested in developing a similar work here at home. While I haven't yet engaged in this work, I have tried to excite the Summer Theatre Camp students at Playwrights Theatre about the idea of using environment of the school building where we've conducted our camp, but to no avail. However, last year, the old junior school did help to inspire a group a struggling group to eventually come up with a story idea that everyone liked.

This particular group was interested in the idea of a haunted, or otherwise creepy, house, but couldn't find a compelling set of characters or actions to propel the story. It also seemed that with such a specific, sensory experience as a haunted house, that the clear establishment of a setting would be useful. So, after a few days of failed starts, I set them up with a process drama in which they explored the old school as if it were an abandoned building. We went outside into the park-like front yard and as we approached the school, I told the students that if they were caught inside, the punishment would be severe... so severe it was beyond their understanding. Their tour began as light-hearted novelty, but quickly grew into a much more tense journey as the group created stories about the sights (gates in the hallways), noises (made by the custodial staff cleaning lockers around the corner), and smells (your typical 100-year-old building) that they experienced. Toward the end of the tour, a few students asked if they could head down the hall to our classroom to begin writing while the rest of the group explored one last hallway. Their sudden disappearance surprised the remaining students and sparked a new idea about the dangers of the haunted house. They quickly ran back to classroom to join the others and within minutes had an outline for the story that would eventually become their final presentation. While not a "true"site-specific performance (performed on stage as opposed to in the environment of the site), it demonstrated to me how a location can have an impact in the writing/development process.

This past weekend I was reminded of this story while reading an interview transcript from my dissertation research. In it a former NJ Young Playwright described revising a play that took place in an art studio filled with paintings, sculptures, and the like. After a conversation with the director about the practicality of such a lavish setting during a staged reading prompted the playwright to conduct a series of script tweaks that incorporated the removed visuals into the dialogue. Upon reading this I realized that I don't typically talk about setting in a playwriting workshop like this and that it would likely be an important lesson to my students. So on Monday, we talked about the settings within each of their plays and then I brought the group outside to take a walk around our office building. I asked the students to make note of the things that they sensed all around them and choose one location that made the biggest impact on them. When we returned to the classroom, I had the playwrights take one scene of their play and rewrite it as if it took place in the location they remembered from outside. They immediately noticed how the location changed what each character did and said and then returned to their original writing to make revisions based on the settings of the play. The result has been more realistic character interactions and each day since Monday, at least one playwright has mentioned using something from outside in the writing. I'm looking forward to making that a regular component of my playwriting curriculum.

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