Lessons From *Lily*
Wildwood Park for the Arts is currently touring my play *Lily and the Apple Seed.* They've been all over the state encouraging k-5th graders to make healthy choices. I watched the production for the first time two weeks ago at Jefferson Elementary here in Little Rock. This was my first full-length play to write by myself, and I feel so fortunate to have seen it in production. My major lesson is not an earth-shattering one for theatre artists. In fact, its pretty basic--"Show, don't tell." I primarily used narration to tell the story of this young girl faced with a food dilemma instead of using action scenes. There were several reasons for this: 1) I based the play on a narrative story by my sister-in-law, Emily Sutterfield; 2) I was limited to three actors, and I wasn't sure how to do action scenes involving different more than three characters and only three actors; and 3) I was commissioned to write a play encouraging the seed to plate idea. I didn't know how to do this without being didactic; therefore, I tried to used Brechtian techniques to embrace the didactism rather than fight it. This, too, led me to narration. As I revise, I will attempt to lose much of the narration as well as the strong didactic message. Though I'm proud of what we created, I think the next version will be significantly different, and I hope those changes are for the better. I am so thankful for everyone who worked on this project--especially director Stacy Pendergraft and set designer Cheri Devol. They made me look good!
The Pain of Devising
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.
Reflections on *For Colored Girls*
345 people attended the final showing of *For Colored Girls* at Mosaic Templars last night. I was so scared throughout much of the process that I want to revel in my feelings of success. These ladies worked so hard and put in so much work. I am so proud of them. And we were so well-received by our audiences. This experience has affirmed my belief in the value of community-engaged theatre. Community-engaged theatre can provide theatre experiences to people who may have never stepped foot in an auditorium much less on the stage itself. That experience can be powerful. It was for many of our actresses. And, of course, my shrewd side appreciates how fitting within a niche' provides a ready-made audience. So even though I truly want my post-show high to last, I want to document my initial lessons and questions so I don't forget them.
1) Before doing community-engaged work, try to understand all your partners' bureaucracies. With Mosaic and Laman, the bureaucracy primarily involved getting permission on all publicity materials. Pulaski Tech was a bigger beast. Of course, PTC supplied the money to produce the work, and we are abundantly thankful to them. I had no idea, however, that the bureaucracy there was so very involved--setting up vendors, waiting on P.O. approval and information about next steps, depending on other people to make orders. The take-home lesson here is that planning for a community-engaged project should probably take place about a year in advance.
2) Be confident in your knowledge of your population and process. I have worked at PTC for four years now, and I have a very good understanding of the population. Our students sometimes have a difficult time making commitments because of life circumstances. Our entire cast was NEVER on time. We rarely had the ENTIRE cast present. I didn't know what the show would actually look like until dress rehearsal. Part of me thinks that this issue could be addressed over time through the cultivation of a theatre culture--a culture that values hard work, punctuality, and pushing oneself to the absolute limit. When I consider my students' lives, however....we are not talking about typical college kids whose entire lives are theatre. We are talking about mothers and fathers who juggle full-time work, full-time school, and responsibilities to family. When I consider that fact, I know it is not only about cultivating a theatre culture. This is the reality for the people with whom I work, and they make great sacrifices to create art. My issue is not with my students as much as it is with the guilt/embarrassment I feel when I look at this situation through the eyes of others. This is really about understanding class, and I often found myself in this process feeling guilty that I wasn't harder on my students about being on time, showing up, etc. Yes, it frustrated me to no end when someone was late...especially when it was because their "friend" needed a ride. My inclination is to say "Too bad. You have a pre-standing commitment to us." Then I think about the fact that within a culture where not everyone has a car readily available, providing someone a ride (if you are lucky enough to have a car) is a pre-standing responsibility, too. I want to so a better job of negotiating the requirements of production and my population's specific needs. And I want to make no apologies to others for the reality that my students find themselves in. I do want to explain their reality from a knowledgeable standpoint, but I want to speak from that standpoint in order to educate the person with whom I am talking--not to feel ashamed for understanding where my students are coming from.
3) Stand by your art. Some people were offended by this work. *For Colored Girls* is full of curse words and decidedly feminist (a dirty word in some circles). As a Christian from an evangelical background, it was difficult for me to see that the work I chose to produce offended some people's sense of morality. I have seen the power of this work, though. I understand that Shange's message is one of struggle and hope. I heard cast members and audience members speak to that message. And, anyway, I believe Christ was a feminist, too. When we saw Shange at UALR, she was unapologetic to those whom she offended. "I just don't have time for that, " she said. I don't know if I want to be that unapologetic because I truly want people to UNDERSTAND the value of the work. I believe that understanding comes through conversation rather than writing someone off. There's a balance somewhere there.
1) How can we make community partnerships more substantial and meaningful?
2) How can we start the planning process earlier?
3) How can we bring the necessary people into the planning process earlier?
4) How can we achieve community buy-in like this in every project we do?
5) How can we make the best use of this momentum?
That's a start. I'm sure more questions will arise. Looking forward to the next project!
One of our community engagement elements involves a partnership with Laman Library. Laman's Special Projects Coordinator, Paula Morrell, and I developed the partnership as a series of workshops--2 reading circles and 1 writing/visual art workshop. PTC English instructor Jerrica Ryan facilitated the reading circle in which participants discussed and analyzed the work. PTC Visual Art Instructor Kimberly Kwee and Paula Morrell co-facilitated the writing/visual art workshop. Using the play as inspiration, participants merged collages and writing to create artworks which will be displayed as a front of house exhibit during the performances at Mosaic Templars. Thank you Jerrica, Paula, Kim, and everyone at Laman for helping us bring more community members into our artistic process!
UALR provided our cast and crew with the opportunity to meet *For Colored Girls* playwright Ntzoke Shange on Thursday night. As part of their Black History Month celebrations, UALR invited Shange down for a reading and book signing. Shange read several selections from *For Colored Girls* and her other works. It was exciting for me to see our actors with her because some of our cast members connect so deeply with her work. One of our ladies slipped out with her on a smoke break to sneak a hug and a picture. Several of our ladies hugged her with the deep gratitude that only a source of profound inspiration deserves. It was indeed a special night that reinforced our desire to honor Shange's beautiful words.
*For Colored Girls* at PTC
It began with a conversation at Community Bakery. I met with local actress Verda Davenport-Booher to get her interested in one of my projects. Instead, I left interested in one of her projects. At the time, it was just a seed. She wanted to do something with Ntzoke Shange's *For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow is Enuf* to coincide with Tyler Perry's film release. She wanted to introduce young women to the beauty of the original. I hadn't read the play, but it sounded like a worthwhile project to me. "I'm in," I told her.
I read it and felt like someone hit me in the gut. This is a tough play, and I didn't immediately see the beauty in it. I read it again and again. My mind began to open to the possibilities....and to the message of hope at the heart of this play. Verda and I met to read and discuss the play together. We still didn't know what shape this project would take.
Then Sheila Glasscock at Pulaski Tech asked me if I wanted to direct this spring. I thought of our student body--the majority of which is African-American female. I thought of the possibilities for discussion this play would provide. I talked to Verda, and we said "Yes."
We have rehearsed for almost a month now with a cast gathered from our student body as well as the Little Rock/North Little Rock community. We have a partnership with Laman Library in North Little Rock to facilitate a series of community workshops. At the first two, participants will read and discuss the play. At the final workshop, participants will create a collage and writing inspired by the play. We will exhibit their finished work in our performance space. And we have a partnership with Mosaic Templars to use their beautiful performance space for free. In addition to those community engagement endeavors:
-many of the PTC English instructors are including *For Colored Girls* in their curriculum
-the PTC Committee for Community Diversity will host an on-campus discussion panel the week after the play
-the PTC Network for Student Success will have a special night to attend the play and host a "Real Talk" in which they will watch and discuss scenes from the film
-young women from the LRSD Accelerated Learning Center will create living statues of the characters for the pre-show
-young spoken word poets will write poems based on the young women's living statues to be displayed next to the women
-I will lead on-campus workshops in which students create mini-choreopoems.
-We will present selections at PTC's Poetry Night.
So THIS is what consumes my thoughts at the moment. I can't wait to see how we bring this piece to life.
NOTE: Image created by Amy Bonds and is current proof of publicity design--NOT final.
Choosing Sides: Day 3
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.
Choosing Sides: Day Two
Day Two started off rough. First period has lots of interruptions with announcements and DEAR time, so that factors in. However, I think the main problem was the our facilitations were misplaced. We had not scaffolded them well. We reworked that for the 2nd class, and things went much smoother. In fact, the classes that were a little less interested yesterday seemed more interested today. Off tomorrow, and then we go again on Thursday!
Choosing Sides: Day One
Choosing Sides: Day One went surprisingly well. I've been in love with theatre-in-education since I took the T.i.E. course at UT with Lynn Hoare. Seeing how a play could create a space for open dialogue about challenging issues was really eye-opening for me as a grad student. T.i.E. plays are so tricky to create, though. It is so easy to get preachy and trite and just plain boring. I was so thrilled to see that Day One went so well. Of course, there are things we will revise. I'm a little nervous about days 2 and 3 because some students have already guessed what's going to happen. I've also realized we need to hear more from Chris, our male character. We really get to know Ashley in the first day. The second day should be about getting to know Chris. After our rehearsal for Day Two today, however, I realized we need more scenes that focus on Chris' side of this story. Excited and anxious about Day Two!
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.