Thursday, August 13, 2015

The Focus on Process

Tomorrow morning we will host the culminating presentation for the Acting Workshop class as part of the Summer Theatre Camp at Playwrights Theatre of NJ. This event will mark the end of a two-week process in which six elementary school students created and developed two original short plays under my guidance. We've been meeting in the rehearsal/conference room at the PTNJ offices, which yesterday I transformed into a performance space. We don't often hold class and perform in the same space, but a last minute scheduling issue made it necessary. While skeptical at first, the students have enjoyed the quirkiness of the room, which I think has been an interesting challenge to which they needed to adapt. I also think this arrangement is appealing because it helps to downplay the traditional emphasis on performance and focus the students (and our audience of family and friends) on the work that has been done the previous nine sessions.
Our classroom spaced transformed for performance.

The spotlight on the development process (of scripts, of students, of imaginations...) is what is at the core of the educational work that we do at PTNJ. This is not to say that our programs don't value a product like a final presentation, but rather we see it as a part of the creative process that began on the first day of class. This idea is supported by the concept of a play as a tranche de vie ("slice of life") of the larger story of the character's lives. Part of our play development includes explorations of characters' lives before the script begins and after. Similarly, the performance itself is a slice of the actors' and audience members' lives: they come to the presentation with a certain understanding and expectation and leave with new thoughts and feelings based on what they have just experienced. It is fascinating to watch 7-10 year olds struggle with and understand this concept. I've also challenged them from the start to think of a play being a story that is communicated from one group of people to another; that all we need to do this is a story, some actors, and an audience. The rest is just extra fun. That's not something that is easy for a 7 year old to take, especially when their primary point of reference when developing a character is what props they need or the costume they will wear. We've struggled with that to the very end, but overall, I think they get it and that their work demonstrates this.

To further emphasize the development of the work, I've lined the walls of the room with the notes, ideas, lists, pictures, and other brainstorms that helped propel the students' original concepts into the works-in-progress that will be performed tomorrow. This modified lobby display is something that the other teaching artists and I have talked about for years, but only began to put into practice about two summers ago. The impact has been great as students and parents alike have noticed and commented on just how much work has been done and as a result, how much has truly been learned. And in the end, that revelation and reflection is what the whole thing is all about.
These papers outline the first ideas and drafts for each of the group's stories.

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