Since Michelle was orientating at Texas State today, where she’ll be teaching a Creative Drama class this semester, I was on my own today at the jail. Small group today – only 7 women – but they all seemed pretty happy to be in class. Since Michelle and I have been talking about the fundraiser, the women have been asking questions and like to keep up with how it’s going. We showed the promo video a couple of weeks ago and today one the women said, “You’re gonna get a lot of money with that video.” I hope so (hint hint)!
We played one of my favorite games, Wah!, which is less fun with a small group because you can’t really get people “out” because then there’s no one left to play. To liven it up a a bit, I asked everyone to put an emotion on top of their “Wah!” and to react to each other. It went from a pretty low-energy, unenthused activity to everyone flinging “Waaaaah!”s at each other and having a great time. I love when whole scenarios and conversations unfold without a single coherent word being spoken. Wah? Waaaaah! WAAaah. WaaaAAAh! wa.
We paired up and did partner improv where person A could say “Yes” and person B could only say “No”. Some of the women mentioned that it made them uncomfortable because they didn’t like conflict. We discussed that a bit but everyone felt okay playing around with a bit, so we did. When I asked everyone what came up in their head when doing this, some said, “My kids” or “My boyfriend” and one woman said, “You don’t wanna know what I’m thinking.” “What if I do?” I replied.
“Sex!” her partner yelled out.
“I already thought of that,” I said. “Please.”
We switched to “Be quiet” and “Tell me”. I paused everyone at various moments so we could watch the different pairs interact. The earlier mention of conflict segued nicely into what I’d written on board: Types of Conflict. We talked about person v. person, person v. society and person v. herself and thought of examples. Then I introduced Aristotle’s elements (exposition, rising action, climax – “To bring it all back to sex,” I said – falling action and denoument). We analyzed Dirty Dancing to find the elements, and also talked about Patrick Swayze’s hotness. I did also say that other ways to tell stories exist – that we don’t always have to follow those guidelines and asked if we could think of any stories that fell outside of that traditional arc. For Colored Girls got mentioned but it was difficult to think of others. Most mainstream movies and shows follow that structure pretty explicitly.
Once we had the elements down, I asked the partners to create a short scene that had a beginning, middle and end, and a person v. person conflict. Each pair should draw inspiration and ideas from whatever came up in their yes/no, tell me/be quiet scenes. Since there was an uneven number, I paired up with a woman (Ms. B) and she told me that our tell me/be quiet exercise reminded her of sitting in school – one girl trying to get another one to tell her a secret while the teacher is talking. We crafted a fun little scene where I kept trying to get her to shush, and she escalated her attempts to get me to tell her. It ended with both of us getting detention. I said, “Detention? It was her fault! I don’t wanna get detention!” “Whatever,” she snickered, “I do it all the time.” The whole class cracked up.
We performed for each other and I asked “What worked? What did we like?” after every scene. I usually ask those questions, but I’ve realized that I need to warn the group that I will be soliciting feedback on each scene. Otherwise, they have nothing to say. Planting the idea before they watch the scenes helps them all look for certain moments to talk about.
I tend to shy away from this kind of traditional theatre instruction but I’ve had many years of it. I know all the rules so I know what to break and push back against. Most of these women have very little experience in theatre, so going back to traditional foundations like Aristotle and scene creation seems to be quite fun for them. Many of the women started taking notes when I talked about conflict and play structure. I might make a handout! I’m already giving out gold stars when they bring in homework. And you know what? They get excited about them.