This post has been a long time coming – I’ve been so busy with my new job that I just haven’t had the time to write it. Every week I think, “What an awesome class! I’ve got to write about this!” and every week I get caught up with other things. Folks, this is the week. Several developments have made this an exciting time to be a part of Conspire Theatre.
First, Jessie Hillman has joined our ranks as an assistant workshop facilitator. Her father, Grady Hillman, is a nationally known arts-in-corrections consultant so I was excited to have her on her board. In three weeks, however, she has proved her worth far beyond being the daughter of an awesome guy; she is spearheading our spring fundraiser, picking my tired butt up every Friday morning to go to the jail, and leading really cool games that bring out all sorts of great responses from the women in our class. I am thrilled!
Second, today’s class showed the culmination of about threeweeks of a new kind of work I’ve been trying. I brought in the idea of a soap opera or television show and suggested that we write/act out some scenes and episodes from it. I’ve been trying to find ways to create extended projects and stories with a group that changes week to week. We discussed the types of characters in movies and tv shows (the villain, the hero, the goofy sidekick, the tramp, the loner) and then created our own. The tramp won the most votes, so we brainstormed Anastasia, a stripper with four kids, three babydaddys, and a ton of ambition. Her stage name is Diamond. She wants to write a book. Her most recent babydaddy wants her to quit dancing. She loves her children and wants to be a good mom. She’s a heroin addict. She’s not a heroin addict. She’s beautiful. She wants to go to school. She’s complicated, okay?
I have to admit that I pushed for the tramp because I wanted to interrogate ideas around ‘bad girls’ and the discrimination/judgments that women face from men, but also from each other. My current group has some women who claim to hate women in it, and I want to get at those issues. Anastasia has been the focus of our attention over the past few weeks and by digging into her, we’ve dug further into actual improv and performance that we ever have before.
The class has reached that wonderful spot where I know most of the women, we’re all getting along and everyone’s enthused. Meg’s absence has pushed me to become a better facilitator, one who’s much more confident in handling a class by herself. Jessie’s presence has encouraged me to try out some new approaches, which the class has gleefully embraced. This past Friday she brought in High Middle Low, adapted for the women’s bad knees and cranky backs. High Middle Low is an improve game – one person must be seated, another standing and another on the floor at all times. If one person switches, then another must take that position. Jessie modified it so that instead of one person being on the floor, one person had to have her hands on her knees. The audience brainstormed characters and settings and off we went!
It was hilarious and really difficult to stay in character and focus on the scene. I wound up playing, and we were three women in line at an amusement park. Ms. M, who is hands down one of the best improvisors I’ve ever seen, tried to plot with me how we were gonna jump the other girl and pull out her weave but all I could think about was, “Who’s standing? Who’s sitting? What am I doing?” The best scene occurred when we played by the original rules and got a woman to come sit on the floor. That scene took place in a grocery store and a rolling chair became the cart. It was a mother, father and child – and the child started out sitting in the grocery cart but when she got up, someone else got in and it turned into this ridiculous merry-go-round of people jumping in and out of the ‘grocery cart’ and yelling at each other about it. The person on the floor kept looking for deals and throwing cans against the floor to lower their price. Mayhem ruled, in a wonderful, kind of controlled way that stayed within the boundaries of the scene.
After this, we moved into an Anastasia scene. Because the group changes from week to week, we only have one fully intact scene group. I’ll call this scene, “Anastasia in the car.” Anastasia is in the car with her babydaddy and three kids. She’s taking them all the mall so she can buy herself some new outfits for work. On the way, her middle daughter shows off her new dance move she’s learned – “just like Mommy!” – which is, of course, totally inappropriate for a little girl. The babydaddy freaks out and demands that Anastasia stop dancing. The argument escalates. By the end, the two are emotionally blackmailing each other – the babydaddy threatening to take his son, Anastasia telling him that the boy isn’t even his and both of them dragging the children into the middle of it.
The scene began with a lot of giggles and a lot of interference from the kids in the backseat. It was funny, but I wanted them to dig io what this argument looks like in real life and how children react to anger.
“What do kids do when you argue?” I ask. “Do they get scared?”
The women nodded.
“So use that – don’t just treat it all like a joke. React like kids do – they know when something’s wrong.”
I also asked the actors playing Anastasia and the babydaddy to come up with some more strategies to use in the argument. When we embarked on the scene again, it was much darker and more powerful. The kids cowered in the backseat and held onto each other. The argument lasted longer and there didn’t seem to be a clear resolution.
We discussed what this kind of conflict does to the kids caught in the middle and one of the women used the term ‘emotional blackmail’ before I even thought of it. What I really liked about where the scene went, is that it portrayed a complicated scenario without reducing it down to black and white, right and wrong. This was also the first time we explored a serious scene in which I felt safe enough to take it into slightly risky territory. I’ve also started openly directing scenes – upping the stakes and experimenting with character motivation and backstory.
After all this deep work, we ended with a game of Zip, Zap, Boing which, they informed me, they play ‘in the tank’. This means that they play it really, really well and it’s all about rapid fire ‘zaps’ across the circle. Intense!
This Friday I’m going to take us one step further and do what I have not dared to yet try in the class: Forum Theatre. I want to take these Anastasia scenarios and explore possible solutions, or at least attempt it. My trusty assistant Jessie wrote her thesis on Forum Theatre and spent time with the inimitable James Thompson, so I’ll have the best support Austin, Texas can give me. Wish us luck!