The Next Generation of Theatre

Part 2 of 3

This post is part two of a three-part series on Allison's experiences teaching a three-week course to students at Northwestern University's Center for Talent Development. Find the first post here.

As I finished my second week at the Center for Talent Development, two questions stood out in my mind: What kind of material can I expect children to produce? How far can I push them to dig deeper? I tend to write the kinds of plays that leave audiences feeling “shell-shocked,” so it is a goal of mine to teach these girls how to find the real humanity of a piece. I wanted to help them reach into their hearts and delicately splatter their innermost thoughts throughout a play. Of course, most preteens have difficulty admitting that they have actual feelings at all. Thus began the journey of creating a balance between guiding them forward and letting them lean back.


I wanted to help them reach into their hearts and delicately splatter their innermost thoughts throughout a play. Of course, most preteens have difficulty admitting that they have actual feelings at all.


Some may wonder why it’s even necessary to breach more personal topics in a three-week summer enrichment class. But the type of work that can be produced from a little prodding is a major part of why I love working with children in theatre. I quickly learned to never bring up the phrase “tell your deepest secret” around preteens unless the idea is to scare them away. But once I focused on understanding the circumstances of their everyday lives I managed to land on the right prompt. They were off and running.

They latched onto the topic of bullying. Every hand was in the air when I asked if anyone had experiences with bullies in their lives. Some had been bullied, several admitted to having once been bullies, the rest had seen friends picked on at close range. Not only had they come into contact with bullying, they had very strong opinions about what do to when faced with defending yourself. I knew I’d hit on something important with them. Before we could delve more into personal experiences our class time was over. But I would have loved to ask them some questions: What is driving the bullies to act this way? Why hasn’t it stopped? Whose responsibility is it to stop this type of behavior? Who does bullying affect? These are the types of questions that can help formulate the backbone of a play. Finding the answers would be an adventure for these girls.

If I could show my students that plays are the stories of character journeys then perhaps they could begin to understand how to put themselves into a character’s shoes. Not only is this a viable skill for life as it teaches them compassion, its also essential for writing beyond ones own life. Writers imagine the “what ifs.” We may take experiences from our own lives and give them to our characters but what separates a memoir from fiction is the ability to explore what could happen in the world you’ve created instead of merely documenting what has already happened in the real world.

In reading The Playwright’s Guide by Stuart Spencer this week, I came across a term I was not familiar with but that I connected to deeply. The ur-play. “The ultimately unknowable play that is buried deep in your own subconscious; your actual play, as written will bear as close a resemblance to the ur-play as possible.” It’s the theme that keeps popping back up in each new work, or the plot line that always takes precedence no matter what. I’ve strived to be realistic with what my girls could handle. Do I think that they can grasp the idea that everything they’re writing is hinting at what their subconscious actually wants them to write? I don’t think it’s fair to expect that of them when they’re still at an age where crushes aren’t even fathomable. But do I think they are capable of understanding how to relate to characters around their own age? Absolutely. Through guidance and some gentle pressure it’s been possible to help most of the girls gain a stronger connection to the characters they are trying to portray.

The goal is to move them away from seeing words as something to be read off a page. Each consonant represents the voice of the character they are channeling. I’ve come to several conclusions about how I will approach students in the future about the writing of intense material. It is completely plausible to believe they can discuss more meaningful topics. But I had to remember to allow them to focus on issues that hit close to home. There is no point in urging them to reveal their families’ darkest secrets. At this time in their lives, they can’t even comprehend that there will be a day when their parents won’t embarrass them. My key in helping them step into darker areas is getting to know them and truly taking an interest in what they have to say. Next week we move into writing a ten-minute murder mystery. It’s going to be amazing to show them how exciting the production process can be.

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Thoughts from the curator

A series on raising and engaging with the next generation of theatremakers.

The Next Generation of Theatre

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great piece, allison. i like what you say about striking a balance between giving the preteens a little push, yet letting them set their own pace. it's a very careful balance and you seem to be handling it with grace. it's one reason why i think i would not be particularly good at working with children (i nonetheless do on some occasions, but not with the depth that your teaching sessions sound like they have). i agree that preteens do have the ability to explore emotional depth, and it sounds like with a bit of trial and error (i don't think this is a bad thing!) you found an effective way to access it that they found engaging as well. sounds like you're doing an excellent job with being proactive, learning through the process of teaching, and not being afraid to revise your approach!

After reading David Shield's Reality Huger: A Manifesto, my eyes have been opened to drawing from not only 'What If' but faithfully as possible recording 'What Did' happen. Inspiration and prompts can be found everywhere. I wonder think students would benefit from writing down overheard conversations, detailed descriptions of daily events and using them as fodder for new plays. I'm thinking of Albee's Fragments, as an example. What if student's anonymously shared fragments of their own lives and wrote plays using a fellow student's entries as a prompt/starting point?

What strikes me about this is the idea of an ur-play. I am interested in working as a theatre teacher myself and have worked with young students before, too. I think encouraging these girls to write what their subconscious wants will help them not only learn to allow a certain freedom to their writing, but to discover things about themselves they would have not know before. Letting the have an outlet to discover their own inner selves will not only foster a love of playwriting, but a love of themselves, too.

Ive had to ask myself some of the same questions when Im working with my students. Its harder to work in public schools and try to get personal. I wish some of my strongest students had the chance to go to a program like this. Good article. Gave me some things to think bout.

I met Allison in college 4 years ago. Since then I have watched her go from something small as leading the Film Club and writing for the school newspaper in the college we attended to producing her plays. She has helped me express my creative thought and has been a good friend to me ever since I met her. She is award winning play writer and has been mentioned in the local paper for her success. If you want your children to learn how to express their creativity then I highly recommend her for her skills in writing and her ability to connect with children. She is a good friend and an amazing writer. I highly recommend enrolling your kids in her class.