This has been a challenging semester for many students, faculty and staff at SDA. However, a definite bright spot in the semester was yesterday’s final with my GESM 111G Theatre Scene class, depicted above.
This is a freshman seminar, intended for non-theatre majors, so it hosts a diverse group of students (not all of whom are depicted above.) Their degree goals range from computer engineering, mechanical engineering, business administration, cinema, pre-med, to narrative studies, and other majors. Not-so-secretly I harbor the goal of “turning” them to the arts, opening them to the riches of our theatrical practice. In the past, I’ve successfully persuaded students to continue taking an acting class, or once, the THTR 130 Introduction to Theatrical Production class, where they were a crew member for one of our productions in the Spring semester. This semester, I had the privilege of teaching in tandem with my colleague, Melinda Finberg, as we guided two discreet sections of the course through our mutually defined syllabus.
We began the semester learning about the World of the Play, utilizing Elinor Fuch’s tactile treatise on the subject. We read several chapters from Twyla Tharp’s The Creative Habit, to immediately dispel the notion that making theatre is not rigorous or is somehow loosey-goosey. I had them do an exercise early-on from that book, the creative autobiography, where students shared their first creative moments, both successful and not. I read these, squirreling away some of their creative ambitions and dreams. I was delighted to read that in general, their attitudes to money, power, praise, rivals, work and play were consistent. They seemed to understand that a certain amount of money and praise were to be enjoyed if attained; they universally scoffed at power and recognized that rivals were helpful in pushing one to do their best work. Work was perceived to be necessary, play was “yay! Fun, good, etc.” My goal in having them do the exercise was to get to know them, to have a window into what made them tick. I tortured them by breaking them into groups to talk about how they would take actual steps toward reaching these fantasy creative goals and then had them report back what they would do individually advance their agendas. I’m still not sure how that exercise went. This may ring true with other teachers. Not to pull the curtain back on the wizard, but much that we do is trial and error. Certainly I am always trying to find new ways to open mental doors for my students, to encourage expression of their human aims.
We’ve since been busy, spending the fifteen weeks of the semester learning how to read plays, then how to see them; how to creatively unpeel production elements from the skeleton of the play itself, to determine what design elements serve to better tell the play’s story and which ones might not be in service to that story. They learned how to easily identify the protagonist, or to make a compelling argument for their choice. We’ve detailed the opposing forces of five plays, identified the inciting incidents, the many moments of engagement, the climaxes, the denouements, the larger dramatic question asked by each play in our dissection of the fall productions presented at USC’s School of Dramatic Arts. I’ve shared the process of presenting a play, from obtaining the rights, through casting, rehearsing, and how a design team sculpts their work in four dimensions as guided by and supported by individual directors’ visions. Melinda and I’ve been blessed with participating guests in class to help make those collaborations real and tactile. Our visitors were directors and costume designers, artistic directors, directors and scenic designers, directors and lighting designers, and finally, a playwright. We’ve called in a lot of favors of my colleagues and am forever grateful to those student designers who’ve shared their processes amidst time management while juggling both their academic work and designs.
We’ve talked about the timeliness of presenting specific plays now, as in The Cider House Rules, Parts I and II in our current political climate where a woman’s right to choose is threatened daily with new legislature. Why was Jaclyn Backhaus’ play, Men On Boats so powerful at this particular moment? Can we relate to the police state that Mad Forest emerges from?
We’ve touched on the economic realities of programming plays by professional theaters, the notion of theaters’ artistic missions, and the challenges of meeting the costs of producing plays, without self-censoring. We’ve collectively bemoaned the paucity of governmental support of the arts in our country and how that exacerbates the afore-mentioned challenges.
They’ve attended five plays this semester, and written performance analyses about various aspects of the productions, a paper each about Scenic and Lighting Design, Casting and Inclusivity, Dramaturgy and Direction, Sound and Dialects, Costume, Hair and Makeup.
Other papers (yes, this is a bear of a class for reading, writing and creative exercises) included a straightforward dissection of one of the early plays to identify the parts of the play that we learned about through Carl Pritner and Scott E. Walters’ Introduction to Play Analysis, our main text. They had two creative projects intended to better examine the world of two plays, Men on Boats, and Mad Forest, by Caryl Churchill.
Ultimately, as the final project, a paper, they’ve utilized a stage direction from Tennessee Williams’ Cat on a Hot Tin Roof to examine any one of the five plays we’ve read and seen this semester. This final assignment I owe credit to Professor Oliver Mayer for, because it came out of his shepherding of my fall 2018 class while I was caught in my own “Thundercloud of a common crisis,” while helping my husband in the waning moments of his life. Here’s the quote:
…The bird that I hope to catch in the net of this play is not the solution of one man’s psychological problem. I’m trying to catch the true quality of experience in a group of people, that cloudy, flickering, evanescent-fiercely charged-interplay of live human beings in the thundercloud of a common crisis. Some mystery should be left in the revelation of character in a play, just as a great deal of mystery is left in the revelation of character in life, even in one’s character to himself. This does not absolve the playwright of his duty to observe and probe as deeply as he legitimately can: but it should steer him away from ‘pat’ conclusions, facile definitions which make a play just a play, not a snare for the truth of human experience.Tennessee Williams, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof
So back to my final, which was really a party because the final was submitted by each of them at 2:00PM that day, via Turnitin. Over the final weeks I’d been mulling in my task-grading-saturated brain what would be a fun and celebratory way for the group to spend some relaxed downtime at our final meeting. The night before, I got up off my couch at 10:30PM, after grading papers, and went to Target, to peruse the game aisle to find a game that might be fun. I picked up a game entitled Joking Hazard, from the creators of Cyanide and Happiness. (Here’s where you can stop reading if you are an upper university administrator, please.)
The box sports two cartoon figures, which I guess are familiar to anyone under 20. Had I not been in the aisle at Target at 11:30 when they were closing at 12:00AM, I might have googled You Tube: Cyanide and Happiness and seen this video that would spare me the mortification that ensued. But no, onward I went down the aisle, buying other gifts and some containers of caramel corn for the class to eat while they played the game. Did you know that two tall containers of buttery caramel corn constitutes a party? I did.
Cut to the next afternoon, as I opened the game for the eagerly assembled students. As we had so many other exercises during the semester, we broke into smaller groups of four to five, and I handed each group their “deck” of cards. We read the rules and off they went, my enthusiasm beginning to flag as I watched one young woman turn about 6 shades of red as she rifled through the deck I’d just handed her. I had no idea of how inappropriate the game was. Talk about trial and error. She looked up and asked me if she should filter through the cards and remove the offending ones.
No, I said, brightly, we don’t self-censor, right? This still was in the innocent moments before I looked over the shoulders of each group as they began playing the game. True mortification set in within about three minutes as the really offensive cards came out. I’d say the game is about 80% really explicit either sexually or violence-wise. But the students were starting to get into the game. One student did say, “This is really sexual.” I quickly said, “We can stop playing anytime.”
But even after each group finished a round, they wanted to stay, as they were really enjoying the company of the other students they’d bonded with over the summer through theatrical literature and experiencing shows together, so they continued to play, one group beginning a deck-long story, which they collaborated over, creating a long span of cards telling a dark sexually aberrant tale. Lamely, I stood over them, as they laughed and continued to insert more cards into the invective stream, each one causing gales of laughter. But ultimately, I began to feel proud, as they did a creative exercise completely outside the framework of the game. They applied their knowledge of story, of opposing forces, of forwards, of climax (god help me), of bloody denouement. Moment of engagement took on an entirely different meaning in the context of Joking Hazard. Then a student pulled out their phone and began doing a pano shot of the story which engendered a little roil my stomach. Another student pulled their phone up above and captured the entire story on their table, which snaked three levels deep into the mires of really inappropriate comic frames. The group picture I took as they all assembled around that group’s story, again, other members of other groups inserting comic frames into the tale.
Anyway, this last semester I got to teach before the Title IX case is brought against me was probably the best one I’d had. Through the plays we examined, we caught the true quality of experience in a group of people, the cloudy, flickering, evanescent, fiercely-charged interplay of what it means to be human. At the end of the “final”, I shared with each of them postcards I’d written with the private dream they’d spilled from their creative autobiography, and urged them to reach up and grab at it. What a privilege it has been to share with each of them what I love about the theatre and hope that I’ve succeeded in planting in them the seed of a lifetime of theatre appreciation. However inappropriate their final was.