Back in February, I was part of a unique experiment in collaboration with the students in my drama class. Partnering with the eighth grade humanities classes, under the direction of their teacher, Fady Tabbara, we attempted to create an original theater piece that dealt with the heavy subject of Modern Day Slavery.
Fady and I shared the same students and the timing between our two classes was perfect; he had never used social action theater as an assessment tool, however, and the process of theater creation was new to the students. We would be asking them to put themselves out there in a way they were not accustomed. They were hesitant:
How will I know what my character is?
Are we going to remember what to say?
We’re going to perform this in front of the entire middle school?
As a teaching artist, it was exciting to watch the students experience new exercises, connect the dots, play with symbolism, adapt, interpret and refine. Listening to them dissect the choices they were making and giving each other direction took their learning in a direction that a PowerPoint presentation couldn’t.
First person accounts gave way to narrative pantomime. The cycle of slavery became a symbolic Machine exercise. Facts and numbers turned into a living newspaper. Interpretive movements and choreography morphed into an image collage.
There is rarely enough rehearsal time on any theater piece and this was no exception. March 24th and we had to be ready for an audience. The students were nervous before the performance. The extra two hours we had in the theater before the show was barely enough to ease their tension.
Did we rehearse enough?
Will they understand what we are trying to say?
What happens if one of our friends makes us laugh? Should I pick the pole back up if I drop it in the performance?
After the final image of the play, the line of students standing and repeating “Slavery is everywhere!” with their voices escalating from a simple, factual statement to a dire warning left an impression both on the performers and the audience. But what struck me as their teacher was that they created that moment. It was theirs.
Maybe we could start shouting at the audience?
Or maybe we could make it seem like a horror movie, like they can’t escape it.
Can we run off the stage after our final line? And then a blackout?
After the applause, the students came to the edge of the stage to answer questions from the audience. They had asked a thousand questions of Fady and me throughout the process and they were ready for a few from their peers. I could see the euphoria on their faces as they took their seats. That expression of excitement mixed with relief and exhaustion.
How did you come up with your ideas?
When you guys were the slavery machine, was Riks someone buying all the products?
I like the statements you had projected on the back of the stage.
None of us could have imagined how relevant the final piece would become.
On month later, on April 24, a multi-story garment factory in the Savar district of Bangladesh collapsed taking the lives of over 1,000 workers.
While the garment workers in the tragedy did not technically qualify as Modern Day Slaves, their stories were familiar to the actors who had done their research: unsafe working conditions, long hours with no breaks, little pay, young girls and boys sacrificing education for work, no rights or protections, and few alternatives to finance their survival.
After the news of the collapse and the scope of it became clear, almost one month after their performance, I met with several of the students to make connections between their piece and the real world. They struggled to accept that their performance was greater than just an assignment, but once they began to make connections the ideas kept flowing.
What struck them most about the intersection of art and life was the eerie similarities between their fictional story of ‘Maria’, performed as a narrative pantomime in the final production, and the first person accounts coming from victims of the garment factory collapse. Created months before the tragedy in Savar, the students had written an account of survival that would be echoed by hundreds of workers in Bangladesh.
“Should we do it again? “ one of them asked, “Since the building collapsed maybe it will mean more to the audience.”
Sadly, there wasn’t enough time in the schedule; they had all moved on to other classes since the performance. But the realization that something they made was connected to the real world will stay with them for a lifetime.
It will stay with me as well.
This coming school year there will be another group of students eager to create theater. Fady will do the research with them and I will help them interpret it for the stage. We’ll work together on that intersection between life and art, finding ways to help students understand that their art, their creations have meaning. And hopefully we will not have another tragedy to make the connection easy to find.