Teaching theater to those who have forgotten what its like to play

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Flashback Theater Co. | Let’s Play! February 2016

I see a lot of reluctance in younger people to test the waters of creativity. Without step by step instruction, they are frozen by the inability to carry on. In theater, you must be willing to try new things. You cannot rely on how something has been done before. Collaboration is reliant on everyone taking risks and expanding their creativity. And theater is a highly collaborative activity.

In my mind, Let’s Play! fights the urge of our newest generation to only do what is already expected. It heightens the need to think on the spot and deliver a creative product because it is being performed in front of an audience in real time. There is no rehearsal, no plan to make sure everyone knows what to expect. Participants quickly learn the “Yes and…” rule because there is no safety net.

Hosting Let’s Play! one night a month doesn’t seem sufficient for combatting the underlying issue though. Just last week, I was talking with a mom who said she knew a child who was punished for failing the CATS arts test by taking away access to the very resources that would improv the score. Recess turned into practice testing for this child, and they were banned from the “extracurricular” classes including (you guessed it) music and art.

Having worked with a couple of high school aged students who have been conditioned to think in the testing mindset, I have no doubt it is one of the factors that contribute to the need for step-by-step instruction and the inability to think creatively. Not only that, but drama is no longer seen as a worthwhile course in high school curriculum. Some schools have tried to maintain a drama program through clubs but it can hardly have the same educational effect on students as meeting on a daily basis.

My high school drama class was a lot of improv and creative thinking. It was a class I eagerly looked forward to every day. I enjoyed the challenge of it but also the freedom and empowerment to create my own stories. I convinced my best friend to join me and despite her reluctance to speak in front of crowds, she was able to later admit she had a lot of fun in the class as well.

So how to translate my positive theater experiences into future learning opportunities for others?

Let’s Play! was a concept I dreamt up in the middle of the night. The initial event allowed people to cast, rehearse, and perform a 10-minute play in the space of just two hours. It was open to everyone and was free to attend. About two dozen people attended – with most choosing to stay in the audience. Since then, Let’s Play! has been held with various themes in mind: Improv Games, Storytelling, Mock Auditions – but the initial thought of creating a space to come and play is still the same.

As a child, I very easily slipped into games of pretend. Whether it was “playing house” or “cops & robbers” my siblings, cousins, and friends had favorites to act out over and over again. The basic concept of playing house might have stayed the same but the variations of storytelling kept us entertained for hours. As I grew older, I adapted theater games into party games. I distinctly remember a New Year’s Eve party as a teenager where we played improvisation games for hours. (I might add this party was at the house of the aforementioned best friend who reluctantly admitted loving the drama class.)

My desire to create Let’s Play! stemmed from those memories of play-acting and improv games. But what once came very naturally to me as a child now needs constant effort to keep the storytelling juices flowing. And I think its the same for many others. Where there are a few that can jump up and deliver a one-liner with perfect comedic timing – some of those who come to Let’s Play! opt out of the acting part entirely. The most successful Let’s Play! to date has been Storytelling, where stories are read from books and acted out. I believe it is successful because it gives participants a bit of a crutch to lean on – but there is still plenty of room for creativity!

Practice makes perfect – so over time actors who return to Let’s Play! on a regular basis  get better at improvising and storytelling. After about a dozen Let’s Play! events, I can see more confidence in one of the actors who initially waited for suggestions from stagemates.  I believe Let’s Play! has proven that you can teach theater to those who forgot how to play – it just takes consistent reassurance and practice.

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