We've started rehearsing for year three of *Choosing Sides* at Horace Mann Middle School. *Choosing Sides* is a three-day interactive play that explores bullying with middle school students. I developed *Choosing Sides* in collaboration with Pulaski Technical College, SafePlaces, and Horace Mann Middle School. I am excited about this year because I have revised the script and facilitations, and I'm ready to try out the revisions. Last year was very effective but I played it safe. I relied heavily on our *Choosing Sides* booklets for facilitations. These were booklets with specially designed written activities that inspired additional discussion. The teacher and students really loved the booklets. They all felt the booklets provided an emotionally safe way to engage with this difficult topic. This year we're doing a lot more on-your-feet activities. Hopefully, we can keep it emotionally safe but also get into some more meaningful conversations. Above you see my actors, Stephanie Ong and Chris Straw rehearsing. I will write more in the coming weeks!
We've used puppets generously provided by April Ross (formerly of the Heights Toy Center in Little Rock). The idea of using puppets came from my good friend from Stage One Children's Theatre in Louisville, Talleri McRae. Talleri suggested I use puppets when she read my previous Cabot observations blog in which I mention my challenges in using Augusto Boal's Forum Theatre techniques with young children. In forum, you stop a scene at the climax and have audience members "rehearse" different solutions to the problem by standing in for actors. When I tried this with children, the childrens' reactions ranged from completely freezing up to self-conscious giggling but rarely had I been successful in these facilitations. Talleri suggested having the students whisper what they would say and do to me and then using a puppet to actually stand in. This technique really seemed to free the students up, so I decided to use puppets in the actual show. Now I'm wondering....puppets or no puppets?
1) The students really do like the puppets.
2) I think the puppets allow our adult actors to convincingly deliver lines a child would say without the awkwardness that usually accompanies adults performing as children.
1) I don't know how necessary the puppets are. Could we deliver these lines as effectively without puppets?
2) The puppets we have are wonderful, and I am so thankful to April for letting us borrow them. If I decide to go with puppets, however, I think I would want really spectacular puppets, i.e. larger, that are (possibly) created specifically for the show.
3) Since this is part of a larger series, I want to ensure that the series is unified. Do puppets in one show and not the others seem random?
4) We try forum out tomorrow. Do the puppets really help students stand in for actors?
5) I would need to really work with actors on animating their puppets.
I returned to Cabot to workshop *Choosing Sides* today. The students were super sweet and receptive. The story centers on bullying between two friends incited by the introduction of a class t-shirt contest. My observation of the students during free drawing time served as the inspiration, and the storyline seemed to resonate with them today. Big Kudos to actors/teachers/puppeteers Dylan Clifford and Dariane Mull whose willingness to experiment made today a success. Here are some quick glows and grows to consider in the revising process:
1) We gave students individualized booklets like we did in our middle school program. Even though I designed them instead of a graphic designer this time, the booklets were very successful in facilitating students' careful reflection on the scenes.
2) Students were engaged in the story and facilitation.
1) Our partnering teacher, Mrs. Thompson, suggested presenting the play each day for no longer than 30 minutes. 30 minutes felt like no time at all today. I wonder what she would think about extending the time now that she is more familiar with the theatre-in-education format.
2) Right now, we're doing 30 minute segments for 4 classes over 3 days, and all 3 days involve the same story. If Mrs. Thompson felt we could hold students' attention longer, I would want to add/vary the settings. Perhaps the t-shirt contest is still the pinnacle, but I'd like to see them interact with each other beyond their desks....perhaps a playground or lunchroom scene?
3) Originally, I thought of this as a pre-k through 1st grade program. I am now considering this more as an Early Elementary program for 1st and 2nd grades. I'm not sure if pre-k students could handle the writing in the booklets, and the storyline just feels very 1st and 2nd grade. I want to get teachers' input on this.
4) We recorded a soundscape that served to underscore the middle school program. It worked really well to establish a school environment and even give the illusion of additional characters. In the finished product, we must have a soundscape for this one.
5) We need a set, and I think there will be a floor component to this set. We will paint portions of the floor with chalkboard paint, and the students will actually draw with the characters during scenes as if they are part of our imaginary classroom.
6) Hire a graphic designer for the booklets. Yes, my simple prototype works, but you can't do many visually interesting things with Microsoft Word.
"I'm the judge."
"Julie is my favorite."
"Miss April, I love you."
--Just a taste of what I heard on my first visit to Allison Thompson's first grade class at Eastside Elementary in Cabot, AR. I will make two more visits in preparation for writing a Pre-K-1st grade *Choosing Sides*--a series of interactive, age-specific plays that explore bullying. This project is an on-going collaboration between Pulaski Technical College and SafePlaces with funding through the Arkansas Arts Council. Even with only one visit, I see that issues around bullying at the pre-K level are both different and very much the same from issues around bullying at the middle school level.
On my initial visit, I spent about 15 minutes observing the students. They were free-drawing on individual eraser boards. I heard multiple students repeating: "I'm the judge." When I asked Ms. Thompson about this, she said the students were referring to the judge of their artistic works. "Did they come up with this on their own?, " I asked. She nodded yes and explained they are very competitive.
I also noticed the idea of favor at play--being in each other's favor and in the authority figure's favor. One student drew a picture declaring her favoritism for another student...who just happened to be the designated "judge." And, of course, there were a few students who drew pictures for me. At an earlier time in my career, I would have been flattered. Now, I feel more concerned that we may inadvertently train our children to create their idea of what WE want to see as opposed to using their free drawing time to create their own story on the canvas.
I then facilitated the students in a conversation about bullying--What is a bully? What is a friend? What can your friend say to make you really happy? What can a friend say to make you really sad? I forget how hurtful children this age can be--how they sometimes wield the aforementioned idea of favor to achieve power. I was also struck by their idea of what a bully looks like in the role-on-the-wall exercise. In role-on-the wall, you draw an outline of the character--in this case a bully. Then you ask the students what the character looks like and write that on the outside; what they feel like and write that on the inside. Admittedly, the students had a hard time with this rather abstract exercise. However, it was interesting to hear that the bully wears black and has lots of skulls on his/her clothing...especially after their discussion of how their own friends can hurt them. They don't seem to realize that their friends can also be bullies because bullying is about behavior.
This initial visit definitely reminded me of my work in Ms. Bell's class at Horace Mann Middle School in Little Rock. Middle school students also wield favor for power. Of course, in middle school, you begin to see the seeds of dating violence. At the first grade level, it is truly about friendship. I return to Cabot today with a drawing exercise in which students will draw a picture of a time when they have been bullied. I will then look for similarities to identify common ways of bullying to include in Choosing Sides.
Day 3 proved to be very fruitful. We intentionally decreased the number of scenes and increased audience participation each day. That meant Day 3 consisted primarily of audience participation. Stephanie and Ebon performed one scene, facilitated, continued scene, and the rest of class was supposed to be forum theatre, and a talk by Angela from Safe Places. Our forum theatre didn't work. There are three reasons: 1) the scene itself wasn't very forum-able, and 2) the middle school students had a hard time not giggling which meant the scene lost its power, and 3) Our actors weren't experienced enough with forum. After struggling through forum for two periods, we relied on discussion for the remainder.
It was great having Angela from Safe Places there to talk to students. She was able to engage the students with a level of seriousness about bullying that I don't know we were. She also gave them her card in case they or their friends needed to talk about bullying, dating, or domestic violence.
At the end of the day, Angela, Stephanie, Ebon, Holly (the teacher), and I sat down to reflect on what worked and what didn't. It was a very useful conversation to me. We decided that the storyline was strong although it needed some tweaking to be more age appropriate. We want to flesh out the male character a little more as the play focuses a lot on the female character right now. We want to play him up as a strong, confident alternative to our male antagonist. I want to rework some of the facilitations. The students' individual packets were liked by all.
I feel very proud of our work, and, hopefully, we can continue to make it better.
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.