As of last night, I completed my second-to-last stint at working with children through theatre. After 11 years of it being my career focus, I am moving out of Ithaca to Connecticut to embrace other artistic identities. There is much to think about.
This program was a new one at The Hangar. A long-term rental which was to be in our space for the month of February fell through, which allowed us to try a February break program for kids. On a whim, I opened it up to a younger age group (Grades 1-3) than we normally host.
I had, as usual, carefully planned everything out. Which book to use as a basis for our script, what crafts this book would inspire, what music, and how our day would be structured. The week we just completed looked nothing like my outline. So what happened? The book had not arrived by Sunday night for starters. The book I found as a last minute replacement was much more simple and geared towards even younger children.I was busy all weekend leading up to it with other theatrical endeavors resulting in no time to re-plan, and by being alone with the kids a great deal of the time, sans some precious hours of collaboration with an intern, I had to also be the tier of shoes, the blower of noses, and the drier of tears. My energy levels aren't as high as they were in my 20's. I wasn't sure if it was going to work.
But it DID.
And I kindly shake my head at myself for even thinking it wouldn't.
I read so much about the importance of play with children. As idol Mr. Rogers said, "Play is the work of childhood." You'd think after 11 years of this I will not just trust the theatrical process, but trust this process as applied directly to children. After all, many aspects of theatre: imagination, playful experimentation, and trial and error THROUGH play, are the language in which they speak. These are all aspects us adults have to re-learn in our BFA and MFA programs. For kids, the process of theatre is a natural state of being.
The book we ended up using for our page-to-stage weeklong workshop was "The Turnip" by Jan Brett. A simple story with beautiful illustrations, I chose it primarily as it had the most characters out of all the books I was quickly flipping through before my own engagement. Would it work? I had no idea. Perhaps it was too simple. Perhaps the book I had intended to use would come and we'd focus on that one for the performance with "The Turnip" as a warm up. The first day was a blank slate, which is a first for me- the over planner.
We took it page by page. I read it out loud twice. The children absorbed it and improvised acting out the story almost perfectly. Then the real magic happened. They began to create original character interpretations which are from their own active minds and not from the story at all. The brother badger: a ladies man. The father: a grandpa instead since one child loved playing older people. And characters that didn't exist at all! One girl saw a picture of the garden gate and decided that should be her character. They wanted to play rock songs during it. Nice to know kids still listen to The Who.
All the planning in the world, backed by my lofty BFA and MFA degrees would not have produced the original work they created. I videotaped their improvs and transcribed them into a script, only changing one or two words which did not make sense out of the context of improvisation. The character drawings they did on poster board did not look like what I had in my head when I was envisioning what our ensemble-made garden and props would look like. They were better because they were THEIRS, as raw and unpolished as children's drawings can be contributing to the aesthetic of a child-centered performance program.
We filled our days with rehearsal and imagination exercises inspired by music, poetry, and prompts. Meditation, theatre games, crafting. I made the day about them and what they needed rather than what I thought they needed. We took breaks as often as they required. We checked in with each other to see how we were all feeling. We rehearsed our play enough to perform it with confidence, but would also break from a traditional schedule to let them just be kids on a school break. We performed our play to friends and family.
What was a lighthearted, whimsical, and silly 15 minute play with rock song dance parties was also something much more. It was a reminder to me, and I hope to parents, of the importance of play in children's lives, an often talked about subject and topic for advocacy.
Personally, it was an important reminder of the importance of play in my own life. In trusting the process and trusting others, and to often let go of whatever outcome I had envisioned, for I might be stifling something even more amazing. As Ursula LeGuin said, "The creative adult is the child who survived." And I was reminded of this by 6-8 year olds, which is the best part of this life lesson.