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Mad-Lib Theatre

Making Plays with Audience Stories

For close to five years, I’ve worked as the theatre conservatory director at Working Classroom in Albuquerque, New Mexico. We specialize in providing rigorous training in visual arts, new media, and theatre. We are a thirty-year-old arts and social justice not-for-profit that cultivates the artistic, civic, and academic minds of youth through in-depth arts projects with contemporary artists to amplify historically ignored voices, resist systemic injustices, and imagine a more equitable society. Working Classroom has also given me the gift of the coolest, most innovative, most fun and long-standing collaborators I have had. And make no mistake, the fact that they are between the ages of twelve to twenty-four has everything to do with it.

In early September 2017, the cast of Solving for X: The Education Project was preparing to reunite and go on tour. Solving for X was a year-long investigation into the world of educational equity. The cast trained with Scott Barrow of Tectonic Theater Project, Micha Espinosa from Arizona State University, and writer/ director Milta Ortiz from Borderlands Theater. Over the course of a year the ensemble trained for over 100 hours with these guest artists and conducted research and over forty interviews with local educational stakeholders, ultimately creating our original play, which premiered at the National Hispanic Cultural Center in February of 2017.

I had scheduled a two-week movement and devising workshop with Esme Olivia from Dancing Earth for the cast, just to get them back in the creative flow. In the days before the workshop started, however, I began getting calls, one by one. "I'm sorry Meggan, I really want to be a part of this, but I'm afraid I have to bow out." When the first actor left, I was sad, but I understood. By the fourth call, I was angry. But by the fifth, I realized it was time for a new plan. 

I’ve always been interested in conceptual theatre and have spent much of my life trying to answer the question: how do you represent onstage both the audience who is seeing the show and the communities that you honor by writing about them? During that Dancing Earth workshop, I asked the remaining cast members this question, and just through informal discussion we found a link in interest based on stories. How can the audience tell their stories? How can those stories impact a play? And with that, our cast of eleven for Solving for X became a cast of five for the newly created ________ Historias.

How can the audience tell their stories? How can those stories impact a play?

_______ Historias is a new interactive play where the audience’s stories fill in the blanks of the performance. And by fill in the blanks, I mean we invite the audience to tell personal stories, which our ensemble reinterprets and presents as an image-based performance piece created with very little text. The audiences’ stories are then woven into the play to make it specific and unique to the audience we are performing for. We wanted to make a play with the flexibility to adapt to any number of situations, whether it be language, location, or age of our audience. And with it, we have created an entirely new method for theatremaking called mad-lib theatre.

The name mad-lib came from the amazing playwright Migdalia Cruz. It was her way of understanding the work we were making when we were blessed to have her present during our second rehearsal. While traditional mad-libs are made to be silly and funny, it was always important to our ensemble to approach the stories told with deep respect. _______ Historias takes a more theatrical approach by having a base performance piece that is always the same, and where the audience’s stories help to create meaning for that night’s particular version of the piece. Yes, there can be some very funny moments, but the goal of the piece is to ensure our audience is heard and honored in what they share in a way they would never expect or imagine.

group of youth stand in front of a sign
The Working Classroom theatre ensemble tours ________ Historias at The Peñasco Theatre, in Peñasco, NM. Photo by Meggan Gomez.

There are very little rules to this work. I’d say its main principles are:

  1. Create an image-based work
  2. Find communities that want to host your work
  3. Listen to the audience tell stories and use the intermission to determine how the stories can be woven into your piece
  4. Perform the image-based work, letting the audience’s stories determine the tone and pace of the pre-created piece.

Picture this: you walk into a play and you are greeted by the actors, all asking how your day is going, what you’ve been up to, and also, what kind of stories you want to tell, or at least hear about. Everything about this is counter to the expectations of a traditional theatre performance, and it all helps to inform the viewers that what they are about to see is a different kind of theatre. A different kind of experience all together.

The performance officially begins with the actors returning to the stage, introducing themselves and the experience the audience is about to have, and ultimately finalizing the theme for the evening. The theme is chosen by the audience that day, so not even the actors know what type of story they will tell in advance. Once the theme is chosen, one or two of our actors begin by telling a story based on the theme provided, in five minutes or less. Once the space feels warm and a few actor stories are shared, the audience is invited to tell stories of their own. They are able to come up to the stage, they can tell stories from their seats, and even in one case, an audience member told one of our cast members their story and that cast member shared it with the rest of us.

ensemble performing movement
"Childhood Exchange", The Working Classroom theatre ensemble. Photo by Meggan Gomez.

This first act lasts between thirty to forty minutes, depending on how eager the audience is. We have had people tell anywhere from ten second stories to five minute stories, with five minutes being the maximum time any one person speaks. After this first act ends (hopefully on a high note of whatever story just ended) the audience is given a ten-minute intermission and the actors get to work.

In the ten-minute break, the actors furiously negotiate what quotes from people’s stories can fit into our piece, bringing new meaning to both the story told and the image created. So when the actors return for the second act they have a truly unique version of our play they have never done before, not even rehearsed before, and that will never exist again. The goal is that at least one line from every story is in some way represented in the performance. The result is the most ultra-live theatre collaboration I have ever experienced.

'________ Historias' was a reminder to me that we can make the rules. We are not confined by the work that has come before us.

One of the most popular forms most closely related to our work is Playback Theatre. Playback Theatre also uses the stories of the audience to create their performances. The key difference to mad-lib theatre is that where Playback Theatre relies entirely on the audience for content and where the intent is to represent nearly verbatim what the audience has given the actors, mad-lib theatre is defined by having a pre-constructed theatrical piece that could hold up on its own, but uses the audience’s stories to elevate and creatively interpret the base work.

young girl smiling
"Grown for Success" featuring Aylin Payen. Photo by Meggan Gomez.

Our piece was created in just five weeks, with rehearsal three times a week. The first four were devoted to generating work, the last week we set the piece. Our premiere of the piece took place in our own theatre as part of our annual Day of the Dead celebration. This past year we lost our founder, Nan Elsasser, so the event was in tribute to her. It was an impactful way to begin this journey, as all the stories from that evening were about Nan and her influence on every person who spoke. It filled the space with honor and responsibility, to each other, to the work, to her legacy.

_______ Historias has been performed ten times in ten different venues all over New Mexico. We put out a call for collaborators in September 2017 and performed in a variety of venues all the way through January 2018. Community collaborators were an essential piece to this theatrical experiment. We wanted to perform for people who really valued the work we were making, and who had their own captive audience to share with us. We always adapt to whatever space we are given, and whatever demographic makes up the audience. Our pieces can be performed in English and/or Spanish, and the story telling portion is often in both languages as well. We have never been invited to a community who speaks a language other than English or Spanish, but I’d like to believe we could adapt to most any environment with enough time and planning.

In addition to others taking on this type of theatremaking, we continue to wonder what other kinds of life this work could have. We wonder how would this work be different if instead of ten minutes, we had a whole hour, a whole day, or even a whole week to create the theatrical response. Could there be a third act of the play where after seeing the image-based work the storytellers and other audience members are invited to reimage the images and stories along with us as collaborators? Are there collaborations to be had between artists and audience in different parts of the country or world? These are just some of the questions we are still asking.

Often in the theatre world, young people are completely excluded from the conversations of what makes “good” theatre. I could not have created this model for theatremaking on my own, I needed my ensemble, all of which are considered youth. The Working Classroom theatre ensemble includes Aylin Payen (twelve years old), Michelle Perez (fifteen years old), Joy “Jess” Liesveld (eighteen years old), Raul Antonio Granillo (twenty years old), and Marianna Gallegos (twenty-four years old); our Stage Manager is Nicol Couch, who is twenty years old. And truly, it was their creativity, and my desire to establish space for them to lead that made this experiment possible.

________ Historias was a reminder to me that we can make the rules. We are not confined by the work that has come before us. We can be innovators, we can take risks, we really can give up on an idea when it is no longer working, and in the end, create something special and messy and perfect in its own way. And while there is still much more work that can be done ahead, the fact that we created this new approach to community-based theatre drives me in a way that I really needed at the time. It is my hope that it will serve others with their own need to break the rules in the future. And maybe, just maybe, connect us all a little more in the process.

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Trying out a similar format in Detroit with Meggan's blessing. Black and Brown Theatre is calling it "What Had Happened Was..." Excited for our debut performance in November and thanks to Meggan for the wonderful impetus! www.BlackandBrownTheatre.org SM: @BandBTheatre

I feel it, I feel it, I feel it. I second all these comments. A truly inspiring example of nimble and effective theatremaking. I'll think of this in my next adventures. Way to go, Meggan!

I would love to see this in action! Are you still touring NM or have any plans to go to other states, California to be exact?
Loved the article and the work you are doing.

Thank you for writing about this project and the way your took a challenge and turned it into an opportunity. I've certainly been in similar situations when your original idea goes dead in the water. It is inspiring to see how your shift in perspective led to a unique and very successful result. Your concept behind mad lib theatre is super interesting to me. Thank you for sharing it.