It all began with a simple exercise with my 8th graders in drama class: take what you have learned about modern day slavery in your Humanities class and create a three-person tableau to represent one image from your research. I gave them each about a minute and a half to come up with something.
“Don’t look at the other groups,” I corrected, “I want to see what you can some up with on your own.”
In scattered teams around the room a few directors arose, surrounded by plenty of followers.
“Everyone in your group must be involved! No bystanders. Make some sort of physical contact if you can.”
Unsure attempts at a pose. With about 30 seconds left a few rough tableaus started to take shape. Some were standing. Some cowering. There was plenty of frozen aggression and submission.
“You only need to capture one image,” I reminded them to narrow their focus, “one moment. Like someone snapped a picture with their cell phone.”
More images started to appear: higher status and lower status; hands were raised or grabbing and pulling; loved ones were protecting; some were trying to flee, but were stopped short in the tableau; half-attempts at emotion.
“Time is almost up. You must make a decision! It doesn’t matter if it is right or wrong. Who even knows if it is wrong? Just make a bold choice.”
Confidence started to appear. Feet began to show grounding. Some of the images didn’t align and others were full of emotion. Uncertainty began to give way to collaboration. Teams showed resolution.
“And… freeze! Nope – don’t move. This is what you have, you can’t change it.”
I looked around the room at the different tableaus highlighting strong images out loud, powerful moments that had potential. I used names and was sure to remind them that even if I didn’t quite get what they were doing in the tableau, the process was there.
It was time to let them relax. Even though I knew they could hold the tableau longer, it was still early in the process. No need to push them to the brink.
They shook it off, stretched their shoulders. There was some chatter between groups as they checked to see what others had done: “Were you the mom, or the guy buying the slave?”, “I thought you were going to fall over!”, “Were you portraying that boy from the article we read?”
This tableau exercise is one I have done in class often. But, this time, it took on more meaning. We were no longer creating tableaus about random imaginary events; this time they were trying to re-create events that they had researched and read about extensively. Events that still happen every day and affect real people.
I had them get back into position group by group, one at a time so we could all see what each group was doing. The first group: a man picking up a young child and taking it away from the family, the parent holding on as the child disappears.
“Each time I clap my hand I want you to make whatever you are doing just a little more intense,” I instructed, borrowing this technique from another teaching artist I had the pleasure to observe.
I clapped and they moved. An inch at a time, carrying the boy further from his parent until just their fingertips reached out to each other.
“I want you to hold on with this next clap. Feel that tension between you, that pull.”
I clapped, they pulled.
The image was powerful in the moment: a boy who had trouble keeping a neutral face was suddenly projecting fear of separation and unknown.
We did it again with other groups. With some I clapped just a few times, others it took twenty claps to get them in such a state of physical and emotional tension. Some remained frozen. Others moved throughout the space in an eerie slow motion. It took time, but we got to a point that what they were doing became fantastic. It became dramatic. It became… theater.
There was silence on the stage. At our next break there were spontaneous pats on the backs, some high fives and even a “That was cool!”
When I asked them where they got their inspiration for their tableau images, they all answered, “The stories we read. Those first person accounts.”
“Yes, but how did you know what to do with your bodies in the tableau? Your hands? Were you copying something you had seen?” I pressed.
There was silence for a while.
They were not imitating images they had seen in a magazine or in a Google image search, because there are none. There are not images on the web of the moment when a young girl is sold by her desperate parents to a carpet factory owner promising that she would send them her salary every month, or of the instant that a young boy realizes that the short break he just took instead of working would be paid for with a beating.
“Are we going to use these tableaus in the performance?” asked a student who just moments ago was reaching for her sister.
“Should we? I liked what I saw, I think others will too.”
Honestly, I had looked forward to this rehearsal with trepidation. Neither the Humanities teacher or I had tackled such an intense topic in this manner with students, but we had agreed we would see it through until the end. Even at the beginning of the rehearsal I wasn’t sure it was going to work. We would be asking the students to put themselves in front of their peers in a very vulnerable manner.
“How long before we present it?”
“A few weeks.”
“Can we re-do some of the tableaus? Because I liked mine, but I think we could add a few things from the story that we read that we forgot.”
In that moment I knew we were on to something. The students had just become artists, storytellers who interpret, show empathy, want to make their work better. The students were no longer simply researchers. They began to inhabit the characters and the stories they had learned about with my collaborator in Humanities.