Once More, With Purpose (Or, PACE Youth Theatre)

Update: I'm currently posting from Granada, Spain where I've been observing the Let's Dance program. I'll post more about my findings next week.

(Last week's observation was in Paisley, Scotland. While the teardrop pattern "paisley" was developed in Persia, its name comes from West Scotland's Paisley, a textile center that manufactured paisley designs. Paisley's competing to be the UK's City of Culture in 2021, and their branding for the campaign is centered around [you guessed it] paisley.)

Do you know how you can tell that someone's a master teacher? You watch to see how much she does in the classroom. Last week, I had the privilege of watching PACE Youth Theatre's rehearsal for The Monstrum, led by Mhairi Gilbert. Mhairi was able to spend a significant portion of the rehearsal sitting on the sidelines, talking to me about the work that PACE does -- because her students could lead most of the rehearsal themselves. Not only were they able to lead the activities, they were able to reflect on and evaluate the results afterwards. One of the most valuable pieces of teaching advice that I ever received was that students should be the ones doing all of the "heavy lifting"; they should always be working harder than you (the teacher) are. This sounds strange but the more superfluous a teacher seems in the classroom, the more I know that she's a master of her craft. It takes a lot of instruction -- in terms of classroom routines, technical skills, and character building -- for students to be able to manage their own learning.

Angus (a student who's been involved in PACE's National Theatre Connections program for four years) directed most of the warm-up activities. The first major one was Ice-Rat-Wolf -- an exercise in which students stood in a circle and passed the titular words to each other. So if a student passed "wolf" to someone across the circle, that student and the ones immediately next to him would start acting like wolves, howling loudly and stalking their prey. However, the exercise started to transform, each new iteration led by a different student who would seamlessly call out directions. First, the students started moving around the rehearsal studio while still passing the words. Then they eliminated all sound from the exercise, relying only on their physical movements and facial expressions. Eventually (with the instructor's prompting), they added sound back into the exercise and moved back into a circle -- taking them back to where they first started. Mhairi and the PACE students graciously let me film some of their work. You can check out Ice-Rat-Wolf below:

(Notice how few times Mhairi has to give them directions. Also, at 0:09, you can see a student giving directions for her peers to "spread out." She wasn't a designated student leader from what I could tell; all of the PACE Youth Theatre members seemed comfortable leading exercises and making adjustments.)

Then, students went into an exercise where they walked around the studio. Whenever someone called out "stop," one student would start walking and then stop. As soon as she stopped, two more students would start walking -- and then three, four, etc. However, if more than the prescribed number of students start walking (i.e. after the first student stops, three students take a step forward), the entire company has to begin walking around the studio and the exercise re-starts. It's an exercise that builds a sense of ensemble and encourages students to focus on what their fellow actors are doing at any given moment.

Mhairi directed the group to split into two: the villagers and the infected. She divided the rehearsal studio by shifting a door-frame into the center, and the students played their own separate games on different sides. Their movements were based on the group to which they belonged (ex. the infected writhed around on the floor), but they weren't limited to only walking. Students would shout out directions about what their group members should do next: "Villager company. Scrubbing the floor. Walk. Stop. One."

After they began to get the hang of the exercise, Mhairi moved the door-frame out of the way, and the students were tasked with playing their two separate games in the same space; they had to focus exclusively on their game, ignoring whatever the other group was doing. Mhairi encouraged groups to strategize about how they could successfully get their entire group walking. She eventually had to huddle up with the infected (the younger company members) when they were having an especially hard time focusing on their game; they decided to stick to the perimeter of the room. Take a look at the walking exercise below:

(At 0:06, you can hear Mhairi directing the infected company to sit down. Watch them strategize a way to successfully run their own game alongside the villagers.)

Afterwards, the group analyzed why the exercise was successful or unsuccessful and thought about how they could translate their lessons learned into the actual show. Mhairi mentioned that she sensed the ensemble was "trying to be clever" instead of focusing on the purpose of the activity; they were moving around the space with unbelievable energy and making bold physical choices, but they weren't focusing on their fellow company members so that they could get everyone walking. How might that impact the actual show? "We might lose the meaning of the play," one company member commented. Mhairi helped guide them in their analysis by asking questions like:
- What did you notice about the energy in the room?
- Were you listening to each other?
- Were you paying attention to each other?
- Did you give yourselves identities while you were moving?

All of the warm-up exercises served a purpose, focused on developing students' understanding of the play and building their characters. Since The Monstrum takes place in Siberia, the characters are always struggling with bitter cold (ice). The walking exercise required students to perform various movements like their characters (the villagers and the infected). During The Monstrum, students portray rats and wolves in various sequences. There was an especially interesting moment during the rehearsal when, during a dream sequence, students flicker little lights attached to their fingers. This represents wolves blinking, as they stalk the main character. Mhairi led a sequence of "break-it-down" questions that increased the rigor of the sequence exponentially:
- Why are you moving your fingers during that dance? (They're the wolves' blinking eyes)
- Who are you blinking at? (The main character)
- Why are you blinking at him? (We're threatening him; we want to eat him)
- Can you honestly say you're thinking that when you're moving your fingers? (All of the students responded "no")

This was for a five-second moment in an extremely intricate dance sequence. But it's that attention to detail, even during moments where teachers can afford to "let it slide" (because the audience might not notice if the actors aren't fully committed to their wolf-characters during the dance sequence), that makes Mhairi a great instructor and that will bump her students from good-to-great as well.

One of the first things that Mhairi told me was that everything done during the National Theatre Connections process is in service of the journey. And NT Connections certainly does provide a journey for its students: a physical journey (to the regional Connections festival and possibly even to London*) and an artistic one. Students make this journey every day in the rehearsal studio when they traverse the distance between warm-up exercises (where they build their skills, movements, and characters) to rehearsing actual scenes. They track the journey that the characters make in the narrative, identifying the main event of each scene and listing key words that set the mood. They also make a journey as an ensemble -- learning how to trust one another, listen to one another, and create work together. The ensemble created a journey board that mapped out their experience of the rehearsal process. Sometimes, this reflects their feelings during the different weeks ("rollercoaster ride," "vulnerable") or specific events that they want to remember ("our Winter's Tale" when they took a group field trip to the Citizens' Theatre or, my personal favorite, "the day she dabbed"). Find some highlights from their journey board below:

* I'll be writing more about National Theatre Connections, as I'll be following PACE'S production of The Monstrum throughout their journey from the home theatre production to the regional festival in Edinburgh. It's a fascinating program that's been replicated in countries across the world -- but not in the United States.

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