Keep it Old/Make it New

When I decided to offer our theatre workshops as an ongoing class at the jail, I realized that new challenges would arise but I wasn’t quite prepared for them. I’ve felt somewhat adrift these past few weeks, trying to adjust to only seeing the women once a week, to missing two weeks in a row and to what, exactly, is the purpose of these classes if we aren’t necessarily building towards a performance. My own energy has reflected this – we had two pretty quiet classes in a row, and while quiet can be constructive, I didn’t feel right about my own performance. 

The fabulous James Thompson, in his book Applied Theatre: Bewilderment and Beyond, uses the term ‘bewilderment’ to discuss that state of not-knowing that happens when you start a new project or find yourself in a new situation. It’s a state of fear, maybe anticipation, where you’re learning and stretching and discovering while you’re also doing, which can be a precarious and frightening thing. I went into the jail for the first time in a state of bewilderment, feeling my way through the building and the system and the women in my workshops. As the jail became ‘normal’ to me (remember when I talked about it almost feeling safe?) that bewilderment has faded.

This poses its own danger because I run the risk of assuming that I know what I’m doing. And while I certainly know what I want to do and have the skills to go in there and do something, I have to remember that every day and every workshop is full of surprises. I can’t go in with a closed mind and expect that I’ve already experience every situation so I can handle whatever comes my way. Especially in a jail. Bewilderment, for me, is frightening but necessary – a way I keep myself on my toes and eternally striving for better.

Today felt more accomplished than the last several classes. I’m getting back to making something every single class. The games are good but when we make something, we can then stand back at the end of the class and really pat ourselves on the back. It can make the work feel more important and more serious, somehow, even when we’re all laughing over a short scene about two women in the park.

I brought in ‘blank scenes’ today – short, completely neutral scenes.

A: Hey.

B: Oh, hey.

A: How are you?

B: Fine. How are you?

A: Okay.

B: Do you want to…

A: What?

B: Nothing.

A: Nothing?

B: I gotta go.

A: See you later.

B: Bye.

Before launching into the scenes, however, the women walked around the space while I gave them a list of instructions. Walk with your head and shoulders down, hunched. Now with them up and back. Make eye contact with everyone in the room. Avoid eye contact. Tense your whole body while you walk. Now try it loose, like spaghetti. And so forth. The final instruction was to imagine a bright, hot sun in your chest and walk around the room with its rays shooting out every which way. I love to include some imagery and imagination to get people’s minds going in a different direction. We discussed how emotions are tied into the body, and how holding one’s body a certain way can bring up emotions without any other external stimuli. We also discussed how one’s body language can send someone else a message.

For each scene, the women had to figure out – who is A? Who is B? How do they know each other, where are they, what are they doing, what’s the conflict, etc. At first, I wasn’t clear enough that the only lines they could say were the ones on the page. Once that became apparent, a general outcry went up as to how they were supposed to convey all the backstory through these few lines. In the end, everyone shared their scenes and it was great to see how some of the women really got that the physicality of the scene was what told the story rather than the lines.

Next week, I might consider having them add more lines to the scenes, to see if they can get the story across with just a few more words. This is a writing exercise I force myself to do at times (although my posts here don’t reflect that!) – give the most information with the fewest amount of words. We could have many more new faces next week, though, so we’ll see. The other challenge of only going once a week is the difficulty of getting a flow going or of really building a community when we see them so infrequently. Live and learn.

Recommended reading for this week: Iphigenia in Forest Hills in the New Yorker.  Unfortunately, it’s not available online but if you can get your hands on a copy, read it.  It’s a great (and horrifying) example of how our trial system often leaves no room for gray areas – how instead of being innocent-until-proven-guilty, most people accused of a crime are seen as guilty just because they’re on trial. 

-Katherine Craft


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