Devising Performance with a Community-in-Flux
In my time working with Be the Street at the Hilltop Library, I've gotten to know dozens of brilliant, generous, funny, creative, and courageous young people. Together we've told stories, built community, played countless theatre games, and have had a wonderful time doing it. That being said, devising performance with teenagers carries some unique challenges. Devising performance with teenagers in a public library without the structure of after-school-style programming adds a few extra layers to those challenges.
Many of the obstacles we faced to developing our ensemble were due to a combination of the age of our participants and the nature of the public library as a community space. Because many teens only come to the library when there is a specific gathering (often Dungeons and Dragons-related), most are not there every day, or alternatively, their attention is divided between potential activities. For the first six weeks of the project we had one or two consistent participants while the rest of the group consisted of teens just so happened to be in the library on a Friday afternoon. Since kids are often not in charge of their own schedules, many could not guarantee whether they would be able to return the following week. Getting grounded at home could mean that they would no longer be able to come to the library after school; getting a phone taken away would mean that they could not contact us, nor could we remind them about upcoming workshops. For minors we needed signed permission slips from parents for general participation in the program, compensation, photo releases, and transportation to and from the actual public performance. As the teens are often at the library before we arrive and waiting for a ride home after we leave, each of those permission slips had to complete the journey from the workshop to their homes to their parents to school and back to the following week's workshop.
With guidance from the Albany Park Theatre Project, the Be the Street Library team was eventually able to craft a workshop structure and final performance piece that could work with rather than against our community-in-flux. One of the things we did in workshops after the first few weeks was to create a consistent routine. We began every rehearsal with the same check-in (Bam-Pow!) and played a focusing game which emphasized group listening. At the end of the story-gathering or skill-building portion of our workshop the group would stand in a circle and together put our "best foot forward" to move into the rest of our week.
Having familiar activities allowed teens to step back into the workshop space even if they had missed the previous week. The ensemble members who could attend consistently quickly stepped into leadership roles, volunteering to explain our activities to newcomers.
Traditionally, theatrical performance relies on an extensive rehearsal period with the same group of people telling a single narrative. Early on in the process we knew that we would need to take an alternate approach. Our strategy was to use a performance structure that highlighted each individual’s story and allowed for a flexible way to show the ensemble-based nature of our project. It had to provide an opportunity to work as a group but not rely solely on any one person.
The final performance was assembled from a combination of poetry and stories told in previous workshops. Each performer had an opportunity to tell their own story about a time that they stood up for something they believed in or a time that they felt truly accepted (themes that emerged from earlier workshops). The rest of the group worked together to create frozen images, or tableaux, to support the storyteller’s narrative. Participants wrote their own individual poems inspired by the prompt: “What ingredients would make up a recipe for you?” and the ensemble cut up and rearranged all of the lines into a single poem that served as the through-line for the whole piece. Although some of the original authors were not able to be part of the community sharing, the teens who assembled the poem decided to include lines that resonated with them and were excited to speak the words their friends had written on stage. Ultimately, the community of teenagers represented in the Hilltop Library group’s “A Cookbook for Us” extended far beyond the seven artists who the audience got to see.