Driving, Devising, Discussing
It’s been a weird weekend, folks. Caroline and I were invited to judge the Devised Theatre category at the Wyoming State Drama Festival which ran Thursday, Friday, and Saturday. Because of our busy schedules we weren’t able to attend Thursday, so Caroline and I both opted for the crazy task of driving 5+ hours to Rock Springs, Wyoming on Friday morning. With my playlist of show tunes at the ready, I hit the road around 1am.
I stopped in Laramie around 4am to pick up Caroline who had driven earlier that night and stopped part way. While it might have been an expensive nap, I think she went the better route. I’ve gotta tell ya, night driving in Wyoming is a scary event where not only can you not see anything, the fog and wind and snow is blowing like crazy. Fortunately, our little two car caravan made it safely to Rock Springs and just in time too.
Devised theatre is not a category the Colorado Thespians have. It’s one I think they should pick up though because after a full day of watching Wyoming students perform their self-created works of theatre, I was reaffirmed in my conviction that in order to create theatre makers, we have to start teaching students that they are the storytellers of their communities. That their focus on locally sourced stories will only serve as a source of advocacy for the value of the work they do on stage.
Judging the devised pieces came in two parts. The first half hour of a group’s time was theirs to perform with. The second half hour was a feedback session by the three judges. Caroline and I were joined by Doug Berlan, the Deputy Executive Director of the Educational Theatre Association. It was interesting to see how the day progressed and our feedback sessions morphed into dialogues about the topics at hand.
The process of devising a piece of theatre starts by identifying a topic or issue important to the artists’ communities. The artists then use their practice to explore and communicate viewpoints on that particular topic. It became very clear when a group had grabbed onto a topic that was important to them. The pieces we had the privilege of giving feedback to were deeply felt and moving in their connections to these students lives. I don’t think there was a single feedback session where at least one student said something along the lines of “this part was my story” or “this was my life.” It was incredible to hear young people have the courage and the honesty to stand up and reflect their stories to an audience.
I believe all theatre should stand on its own. We don’t need big long director’s notes and presentations talking about what happened on stage. The art should speak for itself. Having said that though, there was a clear power in sparking conversation about a topic. You could feel the room engage when what was happening on stage was digging at the core of something important.
Last night, I had an interesting conversation that I wasn’t exactly apt to have engaged in. It was politically charged and with someone who has opposing views as me. At the heart of the conversation was the question, “how do I understand the truth?” A valid question I think right now in the world. What is truth? Who says what truth is? Upon reflecting on my weekend, I believe that we can start to find the truth in the world again by listening to each other’s stories. Several of the groups that presented for us talked of their nerves in exploring the topics they did because of their “home audience” reaction. What I also heard in those nerves though were admissions that their audiences were, in fact, very receptive to their work. I believe this was the case for so many of them because they were telling their own stories, they were sharing their humanity.
When we are able to see each other as people who all have a story to tell, we somehow become able to remove labels and move toward understanding, maybe not agreement, but understanding.
It is common to hear people say that one of the beautiful things about theatre is that it is live. I agree, but I’ve taken to saying that it’s even more beautiful that it is local. These stories were real to the communities they served and they spoke to audiences in a much more striking way than Shrek ever could (as fun as Shrek is). They covered bullying and drug use. They explored the experiences of the modern woman as she grows up. They questioned why art gets judged. They shared stories of American families and of trauma victims.
Next weekend, Caroline and I are taking our students to the Colorado ThesCon. With its 5,000 plus attendees and residence in the Colorado Convention Center, it will be a markedly different affair. My hope though is to find opportunities to show my students that no matter the size, the locality of theatre can and should still exist.