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, exploring the 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 how many 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.