The AGS Happening is an annual event during which all the AGS arts areas collaborate. Given that this is an election year and, as such, will be the first time for many AGS students to vote, we explored the election as our theme. My plan was to have some students read their own reflections on voting for the first time and have other students read excerpts from famous historical speeches. When I pitched the idea to the students, several students who won't vote this year wanted to write from their perspectives as well. For the historical speeches, I choose Sojourner Truth's "Ain't I a Woman," MLK's "I Have a Dream," Cesar Chavez's California Commonwealth Club speech, and pieces of the Declaration of Independence. In their writings, students discussed their frustration with waiting another four years before being able to vote for a president, being forced to hope others will "stand" for them, the need to unite, the responsibilities that go along with the right to vote, and the plight of those who are "invisible to the system" among us. Once the students finished, I realized their writings conversed very nicely with the speeches. I then directed students to weave their writings with the speeches to play up the interesting ways they spoke to each other. We then created frozen images (pictured below) to add a visual element to our performance. What actually made our performance, however, was the choir's underscoring of "Jacob's Ladder." Their singing added poignancy to the important words the students were saying. Another happening happened and students got to witness how exciting collaboration across the arts can be!
For four weeks, I have taught drama at Arkansas Governor's School on Hendrix campus in Conway with my co-teacher, Christina Riggins. This was my fourth time to teach drama at AGS but my first time since in the economically-svelte four week format. Feeling like I just worked my way through a minor tornado, I must agree with my friend Richard Gobble. I believe that of all the classes, drama suffers the most from the loss of two extra weeks. There simply isn't enough time.
We began the summer with auditioning and acting basics. After sitting on the THEA Foundation's performance scholarship panel, I know the majority of high school students aren't taught auditioning skills. I also know the majority of high school students (at least in Arkansas) learn to act through scene work rather than learning acting technique. In fact, only students from two of the schools represented (Bentonville and Little Rock's Parkview) raised hands to indicate familiarity with the acting technique covered when polled. (This may be due to Arkansas' requirement that drama teachers certify in speech rather than theatre--two very different disciplines.) Therefore, I felt it imperative to cover the concepts of goal, obstacle, tactics, and expectations in order to insure a common vocabulary.
During the second week, we explored avant garde theatre movements such as Dadaism and The Happenings in preparation for AGS's Happening--an annual inter-disciplinary arts event. Under the theme of "Weathering the Storm," we collaborated with visual arts students using slow motion pantomime scenes, multimedia images and sound, an interactive rain storm, and the deconstruction of our "set" to indicate the various emotions experienced during extreme natural events such as tornadoes.
This left us with two weeks. I LOVE devising. Anyone who knows anything about devising knows there's NEVER enough time, but two weeks is NOT enough time. We charged the small groups of students with devising a ten minute play inspired by the Arcade Fire song of their choice. Though I definitely don't think a lot of the students initially bought into the concept, they created really cool work in spite of our EXTREME devising time period.
As an educator, I leave this experience feeling very conflicted. I am ultimately very happy with the students' final work; however, it was incredibly stressful to get it there. Due to our shortened time period, Christina and I couldn't guide students through questions to discover the holes in their scripts. We had to be very direct with feedback which inspired quite a bit of resistance. In spite of our best efforts to explain our transition from facilitators to directors (which is a major part of the devising process) and to talk them through their scripts' issues, many students felt we squashed their ideas. Ultimately, I believe the success of the show led them to forgive us, but this one really hurt in the process.
bell hooks discusses how learning is often painful, and I would argue that pain is felt on both sides of the learning--teacher and student. As I prepare for my next devising experience at Hendrix College in the fall, I feel newly charged to insure the students bond as an ensemble, lead through questions rather than directives, and maintain positivity in the face of the inevitable frustration that is part of the devising process. As I told my AGS students, though, I believe it is the pain of that frustration that makes the joy so much more powerful. Devising is incredibly hard work that stretches acting, writing, movement, improvisation, designing, and directing skills. And THAT is why I still believe it is one of the most holistic, rewarding experiences in theatre.
About the Author: April Gentry-Sutterfield is a director, deviser, educator, and mom who uses theatre as a tool for social justice, education, and community engagement.