“I just think they all really need to talk to each other. Like, all three of them,” the eleventh grade girl in the second row called out.
“Great. Would you like to show us?” asked our collaborator Teresa Simone.
The student stood up and walked to the stage as the rest of the high school students at Arizona Conservatory for the Arts and Academics sat in the theater and clapped and cheered for her. She tagged Ashley Laverty out and took her place in the Forum Theatre scene in the role of Charlotte, a high school girl who felt pulled in different directions by her boyfriend and best friend. Ashley stepped aside and we all watched as the student skillfully navigated an awkward conversation with best friend Bridget (played by Rivka Rocchio) and controlling, clingy boyfriend Dan (played by Haley Honeman).
Is the problem solved? The audience was divided, but this student’s approach of confronting the problem with honest dialogue was the closest thing to a consensus so far. But, as Teresa pointed out to our audience, many problems can’t be solved in five minutes. Or even sixty minutes. Our short Forum Theatre scene, based on Augusto Boal’s Theatre of the Oppressed techniques in which audience members are invited to literally step into the play and try out solutions to a problem, had inspired three other brave high school students to attempt to solve the problem of The Clingy Boyfriend, but we never came to a conclusion. Teresa asked the audience to keep discussing the problem, thanked them and our Forum Theatre scene, and our play came to a close.
We could have used this seventeen-year-old’s advice much earlier in the process. Had we known what she and her classmates knew about the importance of communication, perhaps the devising process of #24TEEN (pronounced hashtag twenty fourteen, get it?) would have been more collaborative than clobberative.
As a part of the MFA Theatre for Youth program at Arizona State University, all first year graduate students enroll in Touring Theatre to gain the experience of choosing, rehearsing, and touring a play to local elementary or secondary schools. While the goal of the class is to create a touring show, we ended up asking and painfully finding the answers to questions beyond the scope of the production: How can you transcend the limitations of gender and age to create a show that speaks to the audience it was created for? What does it mean when you are creating art with an assigned group, rather than one of your choosing? If the process is terrible, can a successful product redeem it?
The four of us, Ashley Laverty, Rivka Rocchio, Haley Honeman, and Teresa Simone, settled on the target age range of high school students fairly seamlessly and with what we believed to be a shared vision. This was probably the last quick and unanimous decision we made. We recognized early on in the process that our limitations as a group of twenty- and thirty-something-year old women didn’t exactly provide the best vantage point from which to see the issues impacting teenagers in 2014. And while we wanted our personal experiences as teenagers to color the production, we didn’t want to limit ourselves to that point of view.
We felt the best way to address the limitations of our authorial perspective would be to create a play based on real teenagers’ writings and experiences. We partnered with Arizona School for the Arts (ASA), a performing arts high school in downtown Phoenix, and designed three workshops with a tenth grade acting class and an eleventh grade directing class. Our session designs were some of the more successful collaborative work we accomplished. Each workshop had its own unique focus, beginning with lower risk topics, like identity, and easing into more provocative topics, such as body image and relationships. We didn’t want to preach to the students, or to lead them into a particular way of thinking. Each fifty-minute workshop began with an icebreaker and ended with a fifteen-minute writing prompt. The prompts ranged from, “Tell me a story about what it’s like to be you in 2014,” and “Write about your ideal body. What does the most perfect body look like to you?” to “Write about a time you made fun of someone,” and “Write about a healthy or unhealthy relationship. What does that look like?” Our hope was that by promising confidentiality, teens would be honest and forthcoming in their responses.
Sitting around a table with pages and pages of stories, one-liners, scribbles, and even warnings—“Don’t stereotype us!”—we were overwhelmed and excited. How were we going to weave the words of the students into our piece? But a more pressing question was where were the voices of guys?
Although there had been way more girls than boys enrolled in the acting and directing classes, we felt very strongly that we didn’t want to exclude male or transgendered voices from our play. We weren’t going to have the opportunity to perform our piece for an audience of all girls, and we felt a play focused solely on the female experience would shut out students who didn’t relate or identify with that perspective. Our solution was to focus many of the play’s scenes on gender-neutral issues, like technology takeover, pressures that are put upon teenagers, and unhealthy relationships. We decided to do a test run of a few scenes with the same ASA students who contributed writing excerpts to the show. The male teenagers present in the room were reluctant to say much, but we were told by most of the female students to make obvious physical choices to clarify when we were playing male roles. So, when Haley portrayed Dan, the Boyfriend, she wore a baseball hat with the word “Guy” written on it, and made specific vocal and physical choices. Obviously, having a male actor would have clearly resolved our concerns and would have added more dimensions to our piece, but since this was a class project with about six weeks of rehearsal two mornings a week, it wasn’t an option.
In rehearsal we were finding our process: sometimes individually creating a monologue from a story, sometimes working in pairs to create a short scene inspired by a writing prompt. However, while we were united by our gender and our passion for theater, once the rehearsal process was underway, we became aware of acute divisions between us. With completely different theatrical backgrounds, undergraduate, and professional experiences, we encountered the same conflicts as third-graders forced to work in assigned groups in class. Shouldn’t this have been different? We are adults! We are professionals! And, we cared deeply about honoring the stories that had been shared with us, and creating a piece we could all be proud of. We talked and talked, but who was listening? We set out to create and establish roles to try and mitigate power conflicts. This worked for a short while, but we found that although we had divided ourselves into the traditional roles of Playwright, Set Designer, Sound Designer, Teaching Artist, Director, Stage Manager, and Education Director, those titles meant different things to each of us.
Our roles became accusations: “You were the stage manager, so you should have done that.” “Well, you decided to be education director, so it’s your job to call all the schools in the greater Phoenix area.” “I’m the director, so I’m going to cut this scene your wrote.” Since there were only four of us, and we were switching hats so frequently, it became difficult to keep track of everything that was going on. There was work that was happening that was never discussed, so we didn’t recognize the effort that went into making it happen. Some decisions were made in a vacuum, which made it harder for them to be accepted by the group. Efforts that were more visible, like email or the script, seemed more valuable than the time spent thinking about staging, or brainstorming the aesthetic of the show.
In many ways, our educational backgrounds, production skills, and combined decades of theater experience, served as limitations in the collaborative process. We knew too much, and listened too little. We were raw beginners in the skill set of working together. But we had an obligation (and a production date). So the clobberation began.
There were rehearsals where it seemed like a lost cause; when we thought it would never come together. “Just get it done” became our motto. But can you ever “just get art done”? There is a vulnerability and tenderness that is necessary in a devised process that takes time and care, but we had beaten that openness out of one another. After one particularly bad blowout, we attempted (again) to begin (again). We sat in a circle and, with arms crossed, finally discussed what each of us wanted to get out of this experience, how each of us defined success for this touring show. Unfortunately, this came a little too late in the process. Looking back, had we had this basic and seemingly obvious conversation about our individual and shared expectations surrounding the work during the preliminary workshop process perhaps everyone would have been happier with our product. Instead, we had reached a point where our personalities and pride had gotten in the way of the work. We had come so far, and had great feedback from the teenagers we worked with, but at what cost? Is theater worth making, if it nearly (or completely) destroys the relationships of those involved?
Regardless of our feelings, we finally completed a script and created a show. We moved forward in a more collaborative direction in the last couple days of rehearsal. Instead of one of us calling all the shots as director, we realized the four of us could collaborate as directors/actors, with our professor standing by to guide us. By the time the day arrived for our performance at Arizona Conservatory for the Arts and Academics (ACAA), our group dynamic was shaky, but stable. The students were engaged and interactive. They eagerly participated in the Forum Theatre scene and offered insightful and mature solutions to the conflicts in the play. We had felt a great responsibility to stay true to the ASA students’ words, problems, and suggestions, which was evident in the script. Apparently our inability to listen was limited only to one another, and not to the population of students with whom we were fortunate enough to work.
In spite of all the times in the process that we thought the play wasn’t going to come together, it did. And despite the messy clobberation we faced as four artists, students, and friends—yes, creating #24TEEN was a worthwhile experience.
The importance of transparency and vulnerability in the rehearsal room cannot be overstressed. If we had discussed our definitions of success and what we wanted to gain from the process, perhaps we could have avoided some of the abuse of clobberation. It was the limitations we faced, the conversations (and fights) we had, and the clobberation we enacted upon one another, that ultimately functioned as catalysts in forcing us to approach the script (and the entire process) in ways we may not have otherwise. Perhaps relearning the lessons our elementary teachers sought to impart: share your gifts and learn to work together, allowed us the freedom to be even more creative. Communication should get easier as we gain more language and experience, but the opposite often happens. The more we try to communicate, the more frequently we talk past one another and make assumptions. Fortunately through the process of the course, we fought to begin and begin again. Frustrations aside, and however many times we needed to start and stop, we learned that working collaboratively means checking ego, expectations, and personal agendas at the door. Our final performance of #24TEEN may not have been polished or pretty, and our egos may have been battered and bruised, but we accomplished what we had set out to do: create a touring show about what it meant to be a young adult in 2014.