10 October 2008
North Pocono High: Day 5
It is done. Our five-day residency at North Pocono High School under the auspices of the NEIU wrapped today, and I must admit that it has been even more of a learning experience for me than I had anticipated. It's a good policy the NEIU has, of ensuring at least an initial five days' work for new rostered artists. It was coincidence that ETC had an association with Geri Featherby, and she snatched us up for these free (for the school, that is) introductory days. It may have a made things easier on us, ultimately, to be supported and endorsed by a teacher who knew so well what kind of work we had created, and what we could offer the school. I still feel that we learned an incredibly useful lesson or two about curriculum-building and teaching within a high school setting. Going in, I felt fairly prepared, backed up by years of experience teaching workshops to all manner of groups. Now I know how wrong I had been, and how much I've not only learned, but have yet to learn.
Wherever possible, we wanted to make today about pulling together the various experiences of the week into unified, practical application. The approach we took in the Shakespeare class was to put a lot of control into the students' hands. We began warming up before the period began, and spent very little time with it in the actual class period, in order to maximize class time for scene work. We divided them into their groups for their assigned scenes for Taming of the Shrew, then split them in two halves for Heather and I to work amongst. For approximately half an hour we moved from group to group, offering suggestions for the work they would present to their peers at the end of the period, emphasizing the lessons in specificity, improvisation and character-building that we taught throughout the week. I had three groups, and had to move rapidly between them. If it hadn't been so busy, it would have been frustrating, to have so little time. However, we saw progress, and at the end every group performed a part of a scene to good improvement. I watched and enjoyed, bitter-sweet with the desire to continue working with them, excited to think of Zuppa del Giorno's approaching foray into Shakespeare's world. At the end, we thanked them, and they thanked us back, all like fellow collaborators. I hope to see them again before too long.
The gym classes, of course, didn't have the same daily consistency of our other courses, so there was very little emotional context to our work for those two periods. We learned some good lessons on how to wrangle massive groups for acrobalance yesterday, and applied them to good effect. Both yesterday and today I used squat-thrusts for the initial warm-up, and noticed that these worked well if you didn't warn the students what they'd be doing. I asked them to squat, then go into a plank (or push-up position), then squat again and stand. Then I just did the same thing all together with a four count, and everyone quickly got the idea with a minimum of commentary. It helps with such exercises to be a little competitive with the teenagers. (Helps, that is, until the next morning.) Aptly enough, both classes were disrupted in one way or another. The first lost their seniors for a group picture, nearly halving our group size. Something of a relief, frankly, for at least my voice. At the end of the second class, a fire drill went off. Still, we got good training squeezed in there. Even if we didn't get to know our students much in these classes, we did become pretty friendly with the teachers, and that was very rewarding. I really feel there was a progress in which they were skeptical of us to begin with -- having very little information as to what to expect from us -- and ultimately came to be satisfied with what we had to teach and how effectively we did it. We discussed teaching techniques for such bizarre circumstances as only a P.E. class can offer, and a couple of the teachers even volunteered that they'd love to get a group to see The Very Nearly Perfect Comedy of Romeo & Juliet.
Exactly how to culminate our work in the acting class, our last class of the whole experience, was a subject of much discussion betwixt Heather and I. Ultimately, we agreed that it would be good to structure it as much as possible, but to hand the actual creation of a scene or scenes over to the students. We began them with another game, then worked on group counting up to 20 (in which they succeeded). Then we did some "Yes, and..." storytelling in a circle, in which each person contributes a line to a developing story. This ended up being a little superfluous to what they created, but it was our idea that they could use whatever story was told there for source material for their assignment. The assignment was to, within assigned groups ("assigned" because even by the end of the week clear divisions were visible in the class social dynamic), create a scene with a beginning, middle and end, incorporating one rhythm of three, one pratfall and specific first and last lines of spoken dialogue that would be the same for all groups. The topper was that they had only one minute to discuss this scene -- enough to sketch an outline, not enough to avoid improvisation. We did a couple of rounds of this. It was effective insofar as it got the students working together with a minimum of fuss and put an emphasis on improvisation as an acting tool. I still wanted to take them a little farther out of their safety zones, somehow, but have to concede that for many of them this is an ambitious goal for five days' work. I smiled a lot in their presentations, thinking of how much they had to offer to this work, how real they are when they are (however momentarily) focused on the problem at hand more so than their own insecurity. At the class' close, we thanked one another, and a couple of the students who had peeped maybe twice during the whole week went out of their way to say goodbye. I respect my teachers so much more today than I had before this experience.
I don't know what the future holds for the relationship between Zuppa del Giorno and the NEIU. It had been our hope that this partnership would allow us to enhance our presence in a community at large, and compensate us to a degree that made a full-time commitment to that outreach sustainable. However, the NEIU paid us for this initial contract as though Heather and I were a single artist, under the heading "Zuppa del Giorno." The pay is still decent (which just goes to show what a generous organization they are), but won't quite justify my continuous participation when weighed against the time spent away from employment in New York. So, unless we can reach a different understanding, Heather may be in large part taking over the practice of this particular branch of Zuppa del Giorno. I hope not, though. I hope not, because through this experience I can see the tremendous potential for taking our work to another environment and integrating it and ourselves. I hope not because this week has been tremendous for all involved, I believe, and I also believe it will only get better with more experiences. Most of all, it's simply wonderful to participate in discovery.