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!
Last week, the 2012 AGS drama students had their first performance. My teaching partner, Christina Riggins, and I wanted our students to focus on basic acting techniques such as goal, obstacle, tactics, beats, characterization, vocal energy and intention, and physicality. We also wanted students to dig their heels into a text. In this case, we chose Shakespeare's *The Tempest.* Shakespeare is challenging; however, AGS students are truly gifted, and they demonstrated that giftedness in how quickly they understood the text and gained command of the language. We gave them the added challenge of performing at an outdoor site of their choice on Hendrix's beautiful campus. They had to not only use the site as a backdrop but consider how the architecture could contribute to their blocking choices. On the evening of the performance, Christina and I led the audience from site to site, making our way through chronological scenes from the play, each performed by a different group, and unified through common costuming colors and pieces as well as physical and vocal choices for common characters. In the end, this turned out to be a very useful exercise for our students, and I loved the malleable nature of the text. It lent itself to gender-blind casting so well. This project is a keeper!
Above Prospero explains to Miranda why he conjured the tempest.
The victims of the tempest discuss their dire straits.
Ferdinand and Miranda swear their love for one another.
Caliban tastes liquor for the first time and declares Stephano, the provider of said liquor, his god.
Prospero finally approves Miranda and Ferdinand's relationship.
Prospero makes amends with everyone, including the audience, in the end.
Yesterday I received production photos of my devising project at Hendrix College, *Hope for the Honeybees*. For four weeks in September, Hendrix theatre students and I devised this family-friendly play exploring the issue of disappearing honeybees for Hendrix’s Family Day. The play centered on four child protagonists who discover a renegade flower in a post-honeybee world. Without any prior knowledge of “flowers,” the kids launch an investigation through which they discover a cover-up that disrupts their entire understanding of their place in society and the concepts of “reality” and “truth.” Even with only four weeks to devise and produce an entire production, this project was by far my easiest devising experience because the cast exemplified three keys to devising success—strong work ethic, positivity, and collaboration.
I have facilitated a lot of devising processes. Through these facilitating experiences, I have learned to be very transparent about the process. I tell participants how challenging the process can be as well as how rewarding it can be. This Hendrix cast was the most patient, diligent, and positive group of students with which I have ever devised. They worked hard and never complained. It was an honor to work with such a dedicated and mature group of students. And, of course, the Hendrix staff isn’t too bad, either. It was actually humbling to collaborate with former my former professor (Danny Grace) whose work I so much admire. He and the entire staff truly made my time at Hendrix enjoyable. Thanks to everyone at Hendrix!
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.