Mythopoeia

Janus

Lately I’ve been thinking about the old days. And by the old days, I mean partly Classical Greece, but also my college days. There’s a connection y’see. I went to school in a private liberal arts college in the Pioneer Valley, western Massachusetts. I still inhabit the area today. It was a wacky school, where there were no grades, no course requirements, and people could major in frisbee. Lately I feel like a lot of people around me have been expressing negative opinions of private schools, and college education in general. While my general feeling is that state or government schools should be able to have the freedom to try more experimental methods, available to everyone, I see where folks are coming from.

It’s expensive, really expensive. I’m still in debt (and I know I’m not alone in that), and my bachelor of arts in theater doesn’t have the widest range of applications on the job market. Would I do it all again? Yes, in a heartbeat! College, to me, is all about two things (maybe three). The first is earning your very valuable piece of paper, which without (even though it is a bachelor of arts degree) I would have had considerable trouble finding decent work. The second, and much more important part in my opinion, is personal growth and learning for it’s own sake. There are a crazy amount of opportunities you can gain access to through higher education, mainly in the form of knowledgeable, unique, fascinating people that you likely wouldn’t meet otherwise. An actual college or university also has incredible resources, in the form of books, other media, or training. The connections you form (basically the third thing) can also serve you well later on. I’ve found that knowing the right people can be just as useful, if not more so, than having the right training or degree.

All of this is true to a certain extent with more affordable options like community college. I love community college, and I feel like I was encouraged to work harder and smarter in CC than anywhere else. But it also felt like it was about career building more than anything else, and to some extent it was more socially isolating. Maybe it was because I was usually the youngest person in my classes.

ANYWAY, I’m going off topic with this post. I’m really proud of the work I did in undergrad, and I hope to return to the dramatic arts sometime soon. I was a theater major, but Hampshire College is an interdisciplinary sort of place, and you’re encouraged to mix and match to create your own majors. I mostly was into acting and writing, with a little directing and set design near the end. I started on traditional playwriting, and then started moving towards monologue, physical theater, and something that could be described as “performative ensemble memoir” (I never called it that while I was working on it).

For inspiration, I turned to the myths and legends of old. Greek, Norse, Mayan, Indian, anything I could get my hands on. Study of the humanities, ancient epics, mythological cycles, and how the human race has used those stories in their art, that became the other part of my major. I decided to tell stories of my childhood and teenage years, and juxtapose them with ancient narratives. I was using stories from all over the world to create my own personal mythology, a mythopoeia. The terrifying nights of early childhood were a mirror to the tale of Orpheus, and my teenage struggles with depression and anxiety were placed beside Arjuna on the eve of his great battle.

I spent months writing the script, work-shopping it, gathering actors for an ensemble, directing, rehearsing, stressing. The experience was, honestly, life-changing, and I don’t believe it would have happened had I not made the decision to go to college. I struggled with my doubts, anxieties, and my fluctuating self-esteem, but in the end the production was a roaring success. I performed the show several times over the course of a weekend, and the response was very positive. Whenever I have doubts about my creative self, or if I ever feel like things are going stagnant, I can always look back on that time with pride. I’ve included a small excerpt from the performance.

(link currently broken, sorry)

Part of what made the show a little different was the way I used the ensemble. They had a kind of fluid role, playing different members of my family, mythological characters, kids from school, and so on. It was a “one man ensemble show,” where I was there to tell the story, but was frequently interrupted by these other characters, or otherwise separate from them. I got this idea from the play “Well” by Lisa Kron, where her mother keeps breaking into her monologue. Another major inspiration was the play Eurydice by Sarah Ruhl (one of my favorite playwrights ever). Here she takes a myth and makes it her own, keeping the characters, but inserting her own deeply personal story about her and her father. I was lucky enough to see it performed, but only after I finished my play.

Anyway, that’s enough reminiscing I think. I should be using this time to write some new plays! Until next time!

Image courtesy of the Internet Book Archive’s image photostream, no known copyright restrictions.

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Instant Playwriting

TampaTheater

Right out of college I landed a job with a performing arts summer camp. It was good fun, and I felt like I was putting my degree to good use. But more than that, it was the perfect place to try out some new ideas and methods with my writing and approach to teaching. I got very experimental, and came out of that summer with some well-tested ideas that have since come in handy. In particular, that summer was the first time I tried out my “Instant Playwriting” lesson.

Instant Playwriting is a method for producing a short play or skit with a group of kids, and then putting it on. In all honesty, it’s probably nothing new or revolutionary in how it approaches story-building, but it is something I came up with independently, and it works. I’ve pulled it off with groups as young as pre-school, and as old as 12-13. I call it “Instant” because it’s a streamlined process and produces results in a fairly short time. It requires a bit of work on the part of the facilitator, but the trade-off is that the kids feel like they have created the story themselves (which, in no small part, they have).

The specifics of how to work through this lesson vary with each age group, but I always start with a brainstorming session. Before you even go through the following steps, lay down some ground rules about how the group communicates. Make sure it’s fair, that everyone’s voice is heard, and that there are no bad ideas. Maybe it’s just that I tend to work with sassy little children, but I often deal with overly critical group dynamics. Don’t let the loudest voices overcome the original ones, or the group’s story may suffer. I have everyone raise hands, and when we vote to keep or discard ideas, we use a blind vote in which eyes are covered.

(Note: the following process can be done within the space of about three hours, but that is intense. I usually spread this lesson out over the course of a week, and an hour or so each day devoted to brainstorming, practice, and creation of costumes and backgrounds. That helps mitigate the nervous breakdowns.)

With all that in mind, here are my steps for brainstorming. Every story needs to have these basic components: setting, characters, conflict.

  • Setting – I would say this part is actually optional, but I like to include it, and here’s why: most groups already have fixed ideas about the story they want to create, and what characters they want to be. Even worse, they might have formed one or more cliques and started batting ideas around before you engage them in structured brainstorming (and it’s hard to stop this). Setting is the widest focus for storytelling, and writing down a few different ideas for a setting, hopefully very different ones, can get the group thinking outside the box. Get a few ideas down, and then vote on the favorite. Something I do frequently (because these rules are made to be broken), is combine two or more settings into a new one. This is especially helpful if the group is largely split on their favorite ideas.
  • Characters – Come up with an expansive list of characters that fit loosely into the chosen setting. Kids love this part, because they get to pick whatever they want to be (and you should almost always let them be that thing). It’s like a dream version of a real play, where they don’t have to audition, they just say, “I want to be the robot unicorn.” Be prepared to create ensembles of characters that have a similar theme. My regular drama group at the after-school program is mostly girls, and they always want to be sisters or goddamn princesses. This process creates very simple stories that don’t require a single protagonist or “lead,” so this is fine. Make a story with twelve princesses who are all sisters, it’ll be okay. If every single member of the group winds up in the princess club, that just means you have to be the bad guy. You can end this part of brainstorming when you have figured out who every group member wants to be. If you have some shy characters who don’t want to act, explain that the group also needs help with set, costumes, and backstage support.
  • Conflict – Also know as “The Problem.” This is what the whole story will be built on. There is a problem, and the forty brave princesses must work together to solve it. I find it helpful to highlight examples from fairy tales to explain how this basic principle is present in all stories (Snow White has mommy issues! Aladdin is poor! The Beast is a beast!). And if they have trouble coming up with their own problems, transplanting one from these stories is fine. My group seems to love tales of revenge against evil, domineering adults. The central conflict will also help determine the basic scene structure, which transitions us into the next part of brainstorming.
  • Scenes – Keep things simple, all you need is this:
  1. A scene which introduces the main characters and the conflict.
  2. One or more scenes that introduce “minor challenges,” or obstructions to the solving of the main conflict. If you have minor or peripheral characters (like that robot unicorn) these are good places to introduce them so they can either help or hinder the main characters. As the protagonists bypass these minor challenges, they build up to the finale.
  3. A resolution scene in which they solve the main conflict, often confronting an antagonist along the way. Everyone lives happily ever after, the princesses defeat the evil drama teacher and make him pay for his cruelty.

That’s it. After that you can settle down and make costumes and a set. I find that construction paper hats work well in all scenarios. A big sheet of poster paper and some markers will do nicely for a backdrop (you’re not putting on Hamlet).

Narration is nearly always the key to these things pulling together. You already have a story that your group came up with, so just narrate it to the audience. Write it up word for word if you need to, or just improvise! If this is a smaller project with a limited production time, you may be doing narration for the whole thing. If some of your actors want to improvise lines, simply point out the gaps in your narration where that would be appropriate. When I do this with really young kids, they usually don’t have lines, unless they’re 5-year-old Laurence Oliviers. It’s all physical acting on their parts, so all you need to practice is blocking. And blocking can be really, really simple. You have 68 princesses? Have them stand in a row facing the audience, and have them take turns interacting with other characters in each scene, otherwise keep them in that row. It’s not very exciting, but it’s fast and easy, and they feel like they’re acting.

Of course, this method doesn’t have to produce simple, formulaic skits driven by adult narration. I have used this brainstorming method as the basis for writing actual plays, tailored specifically to the group. I’m going to include one of these plays for the use and enjoyment of educators and people with bored kids. Even though I wrote this play, the kids came up with the story, and played the characters they wanted to play. They felt like it was their own, and were thus more enthusiastic during production. Obviously writing a play is a lot of work, but I will say that it was a lot faster and easier when I had the whole story laid out before me the way they wanted it. All I had to do was plug in snappy dialogue.

If you use the play for anything, please give me credit, and/or link people to this page. That’s all!

Theatre

Image courtesy of Florida Memory, no known copyright restrictions

The Prince/Princess of ________

ThePrinceof_____

I’ve helped with running a summer camp in Amherst for the third year in a row now. I’ve always kind of used it as a laboratory for trying out new games and activities with the kids. The first year, we stuck with pretty traditional improv and drama games. These were meant to be fun, and more process-oriented. In my first post I mentioned part of my background in creative drama. I studied it in college, and it’s a great tool for educators. It differs from formal “drama” or “theater” education in that it usually isn’t building towards some kind of final performance or product. It’s more like structured play, in which you simply explore something within a set of rules or guidelines.

In a classroom, that “something” is often a book, a story, a scientific concept, or some kind of problem that a group has to solve. The method for acting all this out is almost always improvisational, although if you’re dramatizing a storybook, that might not be the case. The games I play with my summer camp/after-school kids usually don’t have any kind of curriculum behind them (they would sniff that out in a second). My games are more about having fun, being ridiculous, and hopefully building a love for theater in the long run.

Last summer I tried to put on an actual play, and it was a total disaster. Our camp has this whimsical, free-wheeling philosophy where we encourage the children to make their own choices about how they want to structure their day. In theory, it sounds great (and in a lot of ways it is), but if you’ve ever tried to direct a group of kids in a play before, I’m sure this sounds like big trouble to you. Such was my sense of hubris. The thing is, I have directed kids before, many times. It’s challenging, often frustrating, but very satisfying in the end. The thing is, all of those times it was at a different camp, a performing arts camp. The system was backing me up there, but last year I was at the mercy of children’s attention spans. If they didn’t like what they were doing, they could leave. And leave they did. And argue. And throw tantrums. It was a lot like many of my college productions actually. By the end, we decided to scrap the whole thing and make a mockumentary about the making of the play. That was way more fun, and easier to pull off. It was really funny, and I’d upload it, but there’s privacy to consider.

This year I’ve returned to the Creative Drama roots, and tried out a bunch of new games that my regular group has been having a blast with. And I want to share some of them! To the kids, I refer to games like these as “story drama” or “story games.” I’m not sure how to appropriately categorize them, but they resemble many existing party games, LARPs, murder-mysteries or theatrical warm-ups. One thing I love about theater is how it’s definitions tend to make it blend into other disciplines, or even other mediums. I still have never tried live-action roleplaying, though I’ve always wanted to. That to me describes these games pretty well though, a game, a story, an improvised theatrical production, all happening at once. One that I tried out recently, which was a hit, we named “The Prince/Princess of ________.” Here’s what you need –

  • A group of at least 3, although many more is preferable. I ran the game with a mixed age group, about a dozen kids, ages 7-10.
  • Some wicked fancy costumes.
  • Some kind of chair, the bigger and more cushy the better.
  • The adult in the group will be teaching and facilitating, and they might find a pencil and paper useful.

How to Run the Game

  1. In phase one, choose one group member to act out the role of the Prince or Princess. This is the ruler of an imaginary city, with lots of problems. I explained to my group that “a long long time ago” the country of Italy was composed of many city-states that were ruled by Princes. My group is mostly sassy little girls, so we ended up with a Princess. My preferred method for choosing the Princess was with a blind majority vote from the whole group. You might find other methods more effective, including just choosing one yourself as a facilitator, randomly or otherwise. Everyone else will role-play advisers and courtiers.
  2. Phase two, come up with a name for your city. In various iterations of the game, we came up with Florencia, Rosetta, and Beefcastle (I let the boys pick the name one day, since they were always a minority vote).
  3. Phase three, come up with at least two factions. Explain to the group that a faction is a group of like-minded individuals who want the Princess to act a certain way, and change the way the city is run. If you’re looking to explore certain ideas with your kids, you might want to make the factions pre-set. War and Peace are good ones (which we’ve tried), Rich and Poor, Art and Money. If you’re letting them brainstorm their own factions, try to encourage idealistically opposed groups.
  4. Phase four, your job as a facilitator is to role-play a master of ceremonies, who organizes the functions of the Princess’s Court. The game is structured around “the order of the day,” in which you present a problem to the Princess. The problem can be anything you can imagine, but it needs to have clear choices which are tied to the factions. For example, in our very first game, we had a War faction and a Fashion faction (I let them come up with their own). One problem that I presented the court with was the threat of an invading army. The choices were as follows: we can meet them on the field of battle, or we can buy them off with some of our finest suits and dresses. The job of the Princess finally comes into play here; only she can make the decision. If you have trouble improvising situations, then I recommend using fixed factions, and writing up some problems for the group beforehand.
  5. Allow the group a few minutes to argue in favor of their factions, speak with the Princess, and make their voices heard. This part is chaotic, but fun, and some interesting situations can emerge from it. I found that I never really had to intervene too much in organizing the debate. The speakers naturally emerged from their factions, and those who didn’t want to speak found that quietly influencing the speakers was a good way to take part. There were times when it was helpful to simply take turns so that each member of the court had their say, if they wanted one.
  6. The Princess makes her decision, the facilitator narrates the outcome, Rinse and Repeat. I would usually pretend to read a letter from a messenger, with a dramatic flourish. The actual outcome doesn’t matter all that much, unless you’re playing for points (see below). After going through this cycle (introduce problem, argue, make a decision, deliver outcome), it helps to have a little recess, in which the kids can just role-play their characters and goof off. Sometimes having an actual snack, or cups and juice, can sweeten the deal.

Problems to Watch Out For

Be careful of the social dynamics in your group. As fun as role-playing European court politics can be, it can get a little… back-stabby. Make sure that there is no discussion beforehand in the group if you’re voting in the Prince/Princess. Don’t let your group form actual cliques and voting blocks, that’s just for the role-playing. If this is a problem in your group, consider either exercising tighter control on choosing the Prince/Princess role, or using one of the variations below.

If any of your kids decide they want to leave a faction and join another one, or form a new one, let them. Just explain that a faction only needs one person, numbers don’t matter, only the Princess’s decision.

Variations

Playing for Points: It can be exciting to make the Princess feel a bit threatened in her position, so these rules can be introduced to amp up the intrigue. When you deliver the outcome of the Princess’s decision, you need to designate one option as the “right” option (and it should clearly be the best outcome). If the Princess chooses the right option, she gets a point. If she doesn’t choose correctly, the point goes to the faction who represents the right option. At the end of the game (you can end it whenever, but at least three cycles is probably good), see who has the most points. If the Princess has the most, she remains on the throne. If one of the factions take over, she is dethroned, and that faction now runs the city! Let them role-play that how they like, but end the game before they start arguing about “the new Princess!”

The Republic: Instead of Italian city-states, this is more inspired by Italian merchant republics. Choose a group of children to act as a ruling council for the city, at least three. The decision-making process now becomes a vote. You can still play with points for this variation if you like, it just means one faction becomes dominant at the end. We came up with this idea when one girl declared the Princess’s decisions unjust, and that the people were not being represented. Nothing really came of it, but we had a good discussion about it afterwards.

You might notice that there isn’t really a process here for creating names or identities for the children playing. I usually don’t do that, because I often work within a limited time frame. But having your group come up with names and personalities for their courtiers is a great idea, and will help immerse themselves in the game. It just takes a while. Try it if you have the time!

Anyway, that’s all! I hope you find this writeup useful, or at least interesting! Until next time –