Our second January series here on ALT/space was inspired by an interesting confluence of December submissions from our contributors. Completely independent of each other, four of our writers sent in a story relating a can’t, not, or aren’t in relation to art making. This is truly the beauty of ALT/space for me — how our stories of teaching practice are at once unique and related at the same time! Enjoy! —Malke Rosenfeld, ALT/space Editor
There is a point in any drama workshop, no matter if it is a single session or nine weeks long where I hear a familiar phrase. I hear it from adults and children alike, middle to high school. It is uttered when we are doing improv, when we are brainstorming, when we are developing a story or a character or a movement sequence. It can surface when the only instruction I have given is, “you can do anything in the world you want, but you must do something”.
“I can’t think of anything.”
I love this phrase! I used to hate it, thinking it was the death of the energy in the room, but now I look at it as a challenge because I know this is when my job really begins. After all, generating ideas is essential to creation and students will never be able to move forward if they “can’t think of anything”.
A while ago I had a new group of eighth graders starting their drama exploration. It didn’t take long for someone to say it. It came out during an exercise where they were each to take the lead at some point in creating a simple movement that the rest of the ensemble was to support by matching the leader. It was a simple beginning ensemble exercise that came to a screeching halt when the action froze and the next student in sequence said, “I don’t know what to do.”
Creativity doesn’t magically happen. John Cleese of Monty Python fame delivered a lecture on the process of creativity in 1991 that has recently resurfaced on the Internet in which he says that creativity “is not a talent, it is a way of operating.”
In the drama classroom it is all about a way of operating. Giving students the tools with which to invent and develop ideas. Making time, giving space, and encouraging a willingness to be open to anything. I encourage them to try different approaches because I know without a doubt that they absolutely can think of something to do. The drama room is a laboratory with the space and time for ideas to be born.
One way I create space and time for ideas is with an exercise that goes by many names— creative visualization, guided imagery, dramatic imagination—but I just call it “play time”. As children this kind of activity was just part of the way we operated when we had free time, but as we got older it became more difficult to squeeze it into our busy schedules. In the drama room, the exercise is rekindled.
Guiding the students into relaxation and breathing, they center themselves and open their minds. Focusing inward on their body sensations and breathing patterns takes away stress and enables them to think beyond their own personal insecurities. Once we have spent time getting into the proper operating mindset the imagination takes over and they are open to possibility.
I name a location for them—a field, a sandy beach, under a canopy of trees—and let them determine the specifics using their own mental paintbrush. With a relaxed and open mind, they begin to invent a world that they can inhabit. A setting that they have invented.
Since it is theater, we need to get up our feet and move into the scene. I count backwards from ten and clap my hands. They sit up and are allowed to move at their own pace. Using their body in the space they tentatively explore the world they created. Hands run across the top off tall grass, eyes half close and noses breath in the sweet smell of wildflowers, and for some the frame of their body opens up to soak in the sunlight.
I am there as a guide, keeping them safe and making sure our session is uninterrupted. After giving them stimuli and a few checkpoints along the way they write their own script. They are the director, the designer, the dramaturg and the main character using the entire space as their stage. In silence they explore, only interacting with another if the situation seems right and they are invited in.
Lasting anywhere from 30 to 60 minutes, the session ends with the final checkpoint being the stage that they started from. Counting backwards again, they slowly come out of their play. Breathing returns to normal, they make eye contact with one another, and look at a space filled with possibility. We take a short break and begin to talk.
What kind of field were you in? Did you seek out shelter from the storm? Was the helicopter friendly or dangerous? What was in the package that fell? How did you feel when you were being chased? Where did you go when the pursuers had passed?
It isn’t that students can’t think of anything; it’s just that they have not been shown how to get in an open frame of mind. They are often not allowed the time and space to create or be imaginative. And in the absence of operating with an open mind, they haven’t developed the ability to trust their own instincts.
Their journals come back to me the next day after a session filled with pages and pages of text. Vivid descriptions fully thought out ideas, and conflicts of all varieties. Pieces of their stories re-surface as we develop ideas throughout the course. It is a reference point for theatrical terms such as being in the moment and emotional recall. The more we practice the process, the easier it is for them to bring themselves to an open frame of mind when they need it.
While I do teach them acting techniques and theater history, the most important thing I do is giving them the experiences that build confidence to create—practicing with them the process of getting into a space where their imaginations are endless.