A trio of young men took to the stage in an imagined classroom scene. Mayhem ensued to the great delight of the audience. Initially the scene consisted of just one boy who lay on the ground in defiance of his teacher’s request to work quietly at his desk. Over the course of the creation process, the group decided the scene needed a stronger presence. And so, when the short play premiered, it featured three boys. Two sat at their imagined desks as the teacher told them to work quietly while she stepped out of the room. Upon her exit, the two boys shucked their studies and began reading a local legend to pass the time. The third entered, pantomiming to the audience to be quiet as he snuck up on the other two. As he surprised them, the mayhem erupted. When the teacher reentered, the audience went delirious as the scene turned into a Three Stooges-like routine. The entire routine was designed by the young performers with their audience very much in mind. Essentially a minor scene in this short play, it proved to be an effective counterpart to the seriousness of the rest of the play. These boys discovered the power of their ideas and subsequently, in the few performances we played, continually built off of the audiences’ responses to shape an engaging, accessible, and purposeful scene that served both the moment and their overall short play.
When faced with the task of training a group to create and perform theatre in a place with no theatre tradition and where 100 percent of the participants have never attended live theatre, what choices does one make? I recently faced this question for the third time when I visited the island state of Pohnpei, to work with a youth-oriented agency. Located in the Pacific Ocean just north of the equator, Pohnpei is the government center of the Federated States of Micronesia, a nation of five distinct island cultures. The experience got me to thinking back through my previous experiences and the impact on both my students and me. I should say that when I write “never attended live theatre” I exaggerate, for although there was no formal theatre tradition, meaning Western style performance in a so-designated space, there were examples of more informal events that might be better labeled “skits” performed in churches or through nontheatre organizations.
My own early training and experience was very traditional. I had few nontraditional models, save maybe the fifth grade camp program in which we staged an original version of the film The Point surrounding the audience. When the opportunity arose for me to work with a youth-focused social service organization in the Republic of the Marshall Islands (RMI), it came quickly and with little time to plan. RMI, a singular cultural entity which consists of some 1,200 tiny islands, lies southwest of Hawaii just above the equator. I was enticed into a situation that I now am not sure I was then fully prepared to address.
The Marshall Islands
Tasked to train and create with a small group of youth in their late teens and early twenties, I initially experimented by default. My kneejerk desire was to build from local performance traditions such as song, dance and storytelling. We improvisationally developed short playlets while simultaneously shaping an oral cultural story into a performance incorporating song. We did all this in their language. Although they spoke English well enough to work with me, they created their short plays all in their language. We stumbled into success and the organization invited me back. I say stumbled because there was no clearly defined process or approach. We had to devise (a word I didn’t know then) because the dramas needed to focus on local issues and I literally had a day and a half to prepare once I got there.
After repeating the process a second time, and gaining a better sense of how such a process could work, I surprisingly decided to develop written scripts in order to, as I thought at the time, “advance the size and scope of what we could achieve.” This failed. The culminating work lacked the spontaneity, personal focus, and personality of the initial experiences. I believe I “stole” ownership of a process from my young collaborators that had allowed for accomplishment in ways I was only beginning to understand.
So I immediately reinstituted the devising approach. Over subsequent summer trainings, I saw how the devising approach provided opportunities for both personal development and issue understanding at every step in the process. There exists a clear trajectory through the project, one that rises very slowly in the beginning phases of the process but then turns quite steep near the very end. That trajectory demonstrates the need for the students to have time to work through their novice understanding, shyness, and reluctance to take risk as well as make sense of the issues and how to transform their ideas into dramatic realities. The time to work through this is necessary and the instructor/director needs to trust that the early slow growth will eventually pay off, even if the participants themselves feel some frustration with the process. In addition, the collaborative openness of the process encourages the performers to not only speak in their own words, but in their own style, humor, cultural, and personal references. This is a point I cannot emphasize enough. As I stood back and watched how the audiences reacted, I learned to let go, trusting that my young collaborators would discover and uncover moments that would reach their friends and neighbors in ways that I could not imagine.
As the partnership progressed, we collaboratively constructed a process in which I trained the staff as devising leaders/directors and the participants as cocreators through this process. We simultaneously developed a structure we regularly used for our presentations that included multiple small playlets that each ended with a song serving to both punctuate the core idea of the play and as a kind of curtain that reset the stage for the subsequent piece. This became important because most of our performances occurred outside with minimal production support and no breaks.
When offered, some twelve years later, the opportunity to contribute to the development of a new theatre group in American Samoa, I readily embraced the offer. After my years in the Marshall Islands, this seemed a chance to apply all I had learned, but now with a group that would be more consistently involved, as they had a hired staff of novice performers. I arrived soon after another theatre practitioner visited. She had started with a lecture series on the history of theatre intended to give them an understanding of the foundations of how and why theatre is created. She then engaged them in writing scenes. Only in the final week of their three-week process did they get up on their feet to stage the play. As I began, the group begged me, yes begged is the correct word, not to lecture.
I put my previous experience into play. And struggled. The process was new for them, but for me the small group devising process that worked so well in the Marshalls wasn’t ringing true here. This group desired the focus of working as one and very quickly we found ourselves working in pairs or trios on small parts of a larger, single story. The group soon asked who was to be cast as which character, and I discovered that, without casting first, we all developed a greater investment in the story as a whole. In addition, the characters didn’t become just extensions of the actors themselves, but became characters in their own right that the actors needed to honor once they were cast, which essentially was honoring the work of their collaborators. When we then wove together the sketched out scenes, everyone became collaborative directors as each had a stake in the overall purpose of the piece.
Interestingly, in the early stages of the process the group asked “when will we get the script..” My answer was, “you have it. And you know it already.” Concerned that they wouldn’t “remember the lines” without seeing them on paper, they soon discovered the flexibility of an ever developing play and just as soon embraced it as their process. In fact when we did work with a script at one point, they laughingly wondered what that beast was. Over the course of developing a working process with this group, we discovered that leaving our stories open-ended allowed us to engage the audience in deep and extensive post-performance conversations. It became the mark of this company’s style.
I have not conducted a scientific study comparing scripted work and devising, but my experiences have pointed up one dynamic that feeds my dedication to a devising-based process, no matter the structure: ownership. While I recognize there can be ownership of any process of work, the ownership I have witnessed is fed by deep understanding and investment arrived at through an authentic collaborative process in which participants work diligently to make personal, relevant sense of ideas and situations resulting in culminations infused with, even encouraging, joyous freedom. The points I make may be arguable; I occasionally argue with myself since I have more than once experienced the opposite effect in comparative endeavors in the United States. What I came to notice in the Pacific-based, and a bit in recently begun Asia-based work, is the freedom and challenge to create from personal experience is a powerful motivator, since the work becomes so clearly representative of the individuals, community, and cultures involved.
As I stepped in front of the group of twenty-eight young people in Pohnpei, I felt ready to learn again. What would motivate this group? Right away I saw a more subdued approach to and greater intellectual engagement in the process. Our time was short, but this group readily embraced the devising process and proved to be engaged by multi-lingual experimentation, since that is representative of their island nation. They gravitated toward a mid-point from my previous experiences; they liked working in small groups to create multiple short playlets, but then wanted to engage the entire group in broadening out the scenes to capture the realism of school hallways, markets, parties, and Sunday services.
In my early endeavors, the groups and I grew into and with the devising process, developing our style as we progressed. With the advent of this latest collaboration, the group feels as they are truly being born right into this approach. As I ended my brief time with them, the members noted they were quite ready to dive right back in and begin developing new work in this, to them, new style.