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Warm-Ups #1

I am terrible at documenting my work in the classroom. Let these pictures be evidence. I just get so wrapped up in what we are doing that I don’t think about grabbing a quality camera and snapping off some professional “artist at work” photos. I need to though!

 

This exercise is an ensemble and improv movement exercise. It asks the students to think quickly (and not overthink), work together, rehearse and then share. Here’s how it works:

 

Partners imagine that they are members of a secret club and they have to design a secret handshake that has 5 different moves, changes levels and uses their feet in some way. when it is time to share, we set up the premise that they are asking down the street and see someone from their club. When they meet, they do the handshake and when done, just go on their separate ways.

 

Simple, silly, confidence building.

 

After they share their initial handshake, I let them know that a new law in the city requires that we reduce the number of secret clubs by half, so they must combine with another partnership and then merge their two handshakes.

 

I have seen dozens of methods of how they combine handshakes; alternating moves, do one sequence then do the other, do them at the same time…

 

They then share their NEW handshake.

 

Simple, fun, challenging. Not sure where I learned this activity from. I think I got it at a drama educators workshop about 10 years ago. Since then I have adapted and used variations of the warm-up.

 

I may revisit these handshakes during any number of drama activities that I run, or I may use it as a way to get them moving and collaborating very early on. Sometimes, I challenge them to do their secret handshake out in the “real world” just for fun – sometimes they do but usually not.

 

I’m finding that it is vitally important that I do a lot of these ‘focused silliness’ activities. They’re very cautious and it takes a bit to get them up and moving – opening up.

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When Art Meets Life

This article originally published in the online version of the Teaching Artists Journal

When Art Meets Life | Jeff Redman

AUGUST 6, 2013

Back in February, I was part of a unique experiment in collaboration with the students in my drama class.  Partnering with the eighth grade humanities classes, under the direction of their teacher, Fady Tabbara, we attempted to create an original theater piece that dealt with the heavy subject of Modern Day Slavery.

Fady and I shared the same students and the timing between our two classes was perfect; he had never usedsocial action theater as an assessment tool, however, and the process of theater creation was new to the students.  We would be asking them to put themselves out there in a way they were not accustomed. They were hesitant:

          How will I know what my character is?
          Are we going to remember what to say?
          We’re going to perform this in front of the entire middle school?

As a teaching artist, it was exciting to watch the students experience new exercises, connect the dots, play with symbolism, adapt, interpret and refine.  Listening to them dissect the choices they were making and giving each other direction took their learning in a direction that a PowerPoint presentation couldn’t.

First person accounts gave way to narrative pantomime.  The cycle of slavery became a symbolic Machine exercise. Facts and numbers turned into a living newspaper. Interpretive movements and choreography morphed into an image collage.

There is rarely enough rehearsal time on any theater piece and this was no exception.

March 24th and we had to be ready for an audience. The students were nervous before the performance. The extra two hours we had in the theater before the show was barely enough to ease their tension.

          Did we rehearse enough?
          Will they understand what we are trying to say?
          What happens if one of our friends makes us laugh?
          Should I pick the pole back up if I drop it in the performance?

After the final image of the play, the line of students standing and repeating “Slavery is everywhere!” with their voices escalating from a simple, factual statement to a dire warning left an impression both on the performers and the audience. But what struck me as their teacher was that they created that moment.  It was theirs.

          Maybe we could start shouting at the audience?
          Or maybe we could make it seem like a horror movie, like they can’t escape it.
          Can we run off the stage after our final line? And then a blackout?

After the applause, the students came to the edge of the stage to answer questions from the audience.  They had asked a thousand questions of Fady and me throughout the process and they were ready for a few from their peers. I could see the euphoria on their faces as they took their seats.  That expression of excitement mixed with relief and exhaustion.

          How did you come up with your ideas?
          When you guys were the slavery machine, was Riks someone buying all the products?
          I like the statements you had projected on the back of the stage.

None of us could have imagined how relevant the final piece would become.

On month later, on April 24, a multi-story garment factory in the Savar district of Bangladesh collapsed taking the lives of over 1,000 workers.

While the garment workers in the tragedy did not technically qualify as Modern Day Slaves, their stories were familiar to the actors who had done their research: unsafe working conditions, long hours with no breaks, little pay, young girls and boys sacrificing education for work, no rights or protections, and few alternatives to finance their survival.

After the news of the collapse and the scope of it became clear, almost one month after their performance, I met with several of the students to make connections between their piece and the real world. They struggled to accept that their performance was greater than just an assignment, but once they began to make connections the ideas kept flowing.

What struck them most about the intersection of art and life was the eerie similarities between their fictional story of ‘Maria’, performed as a narrative pantomime in the final production, and the first person accounts coming from victims of the garment factory collapse.  Created months before the tragedy in Savar, the students had written an account of survival that would be echoed by hundreds of workers in Bangladesh.

“Should we do it again? “ one of them asked, “Since the building collapsed maybe it will mean more to the audience.”

Sadly, there wasn’t enough time in the schedule; they had all moved on to other classes since the performance. But the realization that something they made was connected to the real world will stay with them for a lifetime.

It will stay with me as well.

This coming school year there will be another group of students eager to create theater. Fady will do the research with them and I will help them interpret it for the stage. We’ll work together on that intersection between life and art, finding ways to help students understand that their art, their creations have meaning. And hopefully we will not have another tragedy to make the connection easy to find.

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A Nightmare World

The first design challenge is done! Last week, we shared our designs and each student got some time to describe their process and their intentions with the piece. We were able to find most everything then needed, but we’re still looking for some of the tools.

What was most interesting about this design challenge was NOT that the students could assemble a super polished fantastic finished product – that wasn’t the point (even though sometimes my colleagues would rather have something nice to show everyone – personally, let them produce all kinds of work at all levels of competency. They’ll learn soon enough what they want to represent them).

The point of this exercise was to get students to think in the abstract; play with size and scale, bring something from their brain into the real world, become frustrated that what they WANTED to make, just didn’t come out the way they wanted.

This task also gave me a chance to see where each student is in the development of their skills. Some students made the leap from 2D to 3D right away and some didn’t quite make it until the end, focusing instead on making a backdrop as opposed to a ‘world’. That’s just fine and I think that some of them – when viewing their peers work – started to see how they could expand their 2D world.

I liked watching the students take risks, knowing that many of them were thinking “I’m not sure if this is going to work” or “I hope I am doing this right” – they took that risk anyway.

 

Some played with the position of the audience (sometimes purely by accident) and some imagined where the lighting would come from. The beginning stages of thinking like a theatre designer.

Sure, I could have given them more time, and indeed some asked for it, but why? This wasn’t a final project and it certainly wasn’t based in any sort of “study” as I just threw them into the pool to see how they could swim.

 

We ran out of red paint. We ran out of black paint. Couldn’t find the small paintbrushes. Went a whole class period struggling to find glue sticks for the glue guns. Had one student cut a finger with a blade and one student get hit by a chip of wood flying off the table saw.

 

We also found an alternative color scheme using spray paint and some oranges. Made small paintbrushes out of a larger paintbrush and some rubber bands, Found out that you can get glue sticks from the supply room. A small nick will heal in no time and doesn’t hurt at all (and it’s punk rock to work with a bloody finger). Its OK to get a bruise from an errant piece of wood when it comes from a giant loud machine that only certain people in the school get to operate. And best of all, glue stick strings make awesome spider webs for miniature nightmare worlds.

I’m still missing a few shots, I think they are on the other camera….

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Bamboo: Tools of Storytelling

This article originally published in the online version of the Teaching Artists Journal

Bamboo: Tools of Storytelling | Jeff Redman

JULY 16, 2013

In February I began working with my 8th grade students to devise a theater piece based on modern day slavery. Doing research in humanities class with my collaborator, they each took a turn writing a story based on a first person account of how someone fell into slavery.

Now they were bringing the stories to drama class.  My job in the project was to guide them through the dramatization process, to help them interpret the material and make it into a theater piece.

Their stories were very well written, but they were stuck on how to stage it. They had already explored tableau and choreographed movement and were looking for something new.  Narrative pantomime was a style that they were familiar with, but they were afraid that the complex narrative would become monotonous and they were asking for some inspiration.

Doing some research online I came across a series of exercises written by a theater company based out of London called Complicite. The exercises were designed to lead a teacher through the process that the company uses as they devise theater pieces. Being familiar with their work, the idea of getting an inside look at how they teach their methods was intriguing.

I looked through their site, and an image along with the exercises caught my attention.  It was a picture of students holding bamboo garden canes and moving as an ensemble across the stage.  I read further and the Complicite exercises seemed like just the right approach to get them inspired.

Living in south Asia, bamboo is plentiful and the next day, sixteen 6-foot bamboo poles were delivered to the theater.  Before I handed over the poles to the students I began my own self-study. Holding the pole was transformative and there was potential for the students.

The next class they were greeted by a bamboo stack and told to find one that would be theirs for the class.

Their interest was piqued. After a brief instruction on how to avoid accidentally hitting another ensemble member with the pole, they experimented with pacing, focus, space, tension and emotion. They tried making different sounds with the pole on the stage floor and against other poles.

We moved into ensemble work.  Dividing the group into two working groups they experimented with moving as one, holding their poles at the same height and angle, keeping a shared focus, turning and wheeling about as a single organism.  After the ensemble work, exploringthe potential and limitations of the bamboo, they were ready.

In Complicite’s example the sequence of exercises culminated with a storytelling exercise focused on a scene from The Caucasian Chalk Circle in which students told the story of a character traveling through various environments and emotions using the bamboo to create the world on stage. Perfect. Having a different story to tell we used the student narratives. The bamboo was to become a tool along with their bodies and voices that told the story of a young girl’s journey from her small rural village to working in the mine digging conflict minerals as a slave.

The first few attempts were messy, with poles moving every which way and minor disagreements about how to arrange them, but as they got into the groove the bamboo became an extension of their communal ideas. Objects started to take shape and the moments started to come together. Bamboo became a hut, roads, fences, the entrance to the mine, tools and a stretcher.

Choreography began to develop. They worked and re-worked howmany poles it took to make the hut and then which pole would move first into the road. It took them some time to coordinate, they still need to refine the movement, but they were inspired.

As always, the end of class came much too soon.