I am not a fan of message plays. Which is odd since a portion of my foreign sojourns have focused on training folks who do believe in the power of message plays. I love a good paradox, however, as often I learn from such contradictory experiences and gain great insight into what I believe and how I best work. I present such a case here: a trip I recently took to Pohnpei in the Central Pacific.
Hired to train a mix of high school and college students, who possessed a little to no drama experience, the organization wished for me to not only introduce basics of effective performance, but to help them develop short dramatizations based on social issues; essentially, message playlets. As we began our work together, the program director constantly referred to the messages the trainees would build, the important information that might be embedded within the dramatizations. As we talked, I encouraged him to consider how that the final product not simply verbalize the messages, but embody them within the storylines and the characters’ actions and intentions.
Due to the short time allotted for the workshop (four days), after a brief training in basic skills we quickly transitioned to conceptualizing and dramatizing ideas. During this phase, we focused on constructing scenes based on character intentions, actions to achieve those intentions, the conflicts and consequences that arise because of those actions. The trainees, slow at first to focus on the dramatic rather than the didactic, began to embrace the possibilities that arose in their dramatizations as they focused more on the stories of the characters. The program director, on a daily basis, noticed the change in the participants as they became more cognizant of how the stories embodied the ideas they desired to instill within their audiences, but also how more adventurous and expressive the trainees became. The director also got very excited by the training and play development processes.
It became clear what ‘message’ would result from this process. Just as each playlet embodied a kind of life message, as engaging plays should, the ‘message’ of the process was that the training itself became a transformative experience for the trainees. Their intense engagement in building both expressive and creative skills would help them more effectively reach and teach their audience. They would become young role models, looked up to by their peers and children and praised by their elders for their desire to improve the community. In addition, by improvisationally devising the playlets, the trainees gained a sense of ownership over both the creative development process and the content of the dramatizations. The importance of this truly struck home for me when I asked how they felt about the work, and one succinctly noted, ‘Good. It is our idea.’
In the end I saw just two performances by the group, as my contract allowed only a few days for the training, but I happily witnessed significant growth from the first to the second. The plays grew and deepened in the second performance as the performers settled into their newly developed skills. At the conclusion I asked one young actress her reaction to the experience. In her still developing English she said, ‘I am very happy of me.’
I think this is the message: The power they came to realize they possess that helps them reach out to and personally inspire their peers and fellow community members through the medium of theatre.