Theatre is a break from reality, a laboratory of and for the imagination. As such, it has great power to knock down walls and foster community through the act of making meaning as a collective. Everything is whatever we collectively decide it is, everything means whatever we collectively decide it means. If we make something together, we will all understand what it means, because in the act of making it together we have together created that meaning. Therefore, theatre should be accessible to all; and teaching through theatre should open up ideas and concepts that may have otherwise remained obfuscated or locked away by allowing students to create and therefore own those concepts themselves. The key word in the previous sentence is, of course, “should.” We put that “should” to the test every December, when ASC Education brings a workshop on Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol to the Commonwealth Center for Children and Adolescents (CCCA), “an acute care mental health facility for youth under the age of 18 years, operated by the Virginia Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Services”. This year, I spoke with Richard Elias, Secondary English and History teacher at CCCA, about the workshop to gauge whether any of those “shoulds” proved true.
He assured me that my instincts regarding higher levels of student participation in the workshop versus the classroom were correct. “Student participation did change,” he told me. “They were more engaged vocally and physically as an interacting group than they typically are in our classrooms.” As an “interacting group,” the students demonstrated a willingness to play that Elias didn’t normally see in them. “We try throughout the year to provide cross-curricular learning opportunities for our students, but it is rare that one breaks across all grade levels also—which yours did so well,” he said. “Additionally, our classroom experiences are generally more traditionally structured except for Art & Music where activities like the ones you brought are more frequently utilized.” Almost by definition, theatre steps out of the “traditionally structured” design of most classroom settings. At its most basic level, theatre is people in a room together telling stories; a place where both actor and audience (or teacher and student) are invited to step together into a different story than the one they live in each day and to embody that story without fear or judgment.
The lack of fear and judgment is key. We give the students permission to make big vocal and physical choices by first doing so ourselves, and then continuing to do so with them and encouraging them to do so together. Elias mentioned, for example, “the vocalizing exercises that you got the students up and doing were a wonderful way to get them involved and not something that they typically find here.” At one point, Education Associate Aubrey Whitlock led the group through exercises that would help them feel their different vocal resonators and the different sounds they can make just with their bodies. She paired the different vocal resonators with different physical “centers” or “leads,” inviting the students to feel the difference in their bodies as they moved around the room with heads forward or back, bellies pushed out or sucked in, butts waggling behind them or tucked up protectively under their spines. We moved with them, sticking out our butts or our noses and alternately squeaking or bellowing from our different resonators. According to Richard, “There was a huge benefit for the kids to be communally making vocal noises, as one, without judgment.” The exercise was fun and funny, but more than that it was an exercise in fellowship. We were all experiencing the transformative power of theatre together.
I think this transformative power creates a distance, an empty space for each participant to fill up however they’d like with whatever they have (or can pretend to have). “I was struck, too,” said Elias, “by the way you created a safe space for these vulnerable and often reluctant students to freely express themselves. You got them to take down the walls of distrust almost immediately and I commend you for that.” Which makes sense given the transformative distance created by theatrical activities: theatre is both manifestly of the self (that’s your body up on that stage, after all) and not of the self (that body up on stage no longer represents me, it represents my character, who both is and is not actually “me”). Theatre is an opportunity to be someone or something else; in theatre, we give each other the permission to make big choices that might fail spectacularly without the fear of personal reprisals because it’s not me up here, it’s Jacob Marley or Bob Cratchit or Hamlet or whoever I’m pretending to be. By the process of collective make-believe, we give each other permission to try and fail by labeling the endeavor as play. “The way in which you got that mix of personalities and ages to so willingly put aside fear and judgment and participate was wonderful to witness,” Elias said. We gave them permission to play, and that went a long way towards eradicating fear, which often gets in the way of learning and living.
We begin with a question we can investigate together: how do mere mortals convince each other that we are in the presence not of other regular humans but of ghosts and spirits with magical powers? Our Christmas Carol workshop uses elements of our introductory workshop to Shakespeare’s Staging Conditions: using various methods of inquiry, we invite the students to imagine with us how a story makes its way from one format (the page) to another (the stage — or more specifically, our thrust stage in the Blackfriars Playhouse, with its universal lighting and minimal set design). Unlike most of the workshops in our “Curing ShakesFear” series, the Christmas Carol workshop relies less on the power of the text alone to play on our imaginations (though Dickens’ prose is certainly the backbone of our exploration) and more on the transformative power of the theatrical trimmings that accompany a production: props, costumes, instruments, makeup, and the vocal and physical choices an actor can make with their bodies that can turn them, briefly, into anyone or anything else they want to be. We lay all the stuff out for the students to see — cloaks and hats and scarves and bells and flowers and fake food and a big chime and a thunder tube and a fake fireplace — so as they file into the gymnasium and take their seats, we’re extending them an invitation to join us as we launch right into the story of A Christmas Carol.
Elias remarked on the multifaceted nature of our approach, what he called “the cohesive, inclusive, differentiated nature of what you brought to our school. The seamless flow from one activity to another and how you drew the children in was noteworthy.” This year, we read excerpts from the novel out loud together, pulling students up to play characters as the story introduced them. For some CCCA students, reading aloud can be scary. Elias noted, “During the reading of the script I saw one student never known for reading out loud, take the opportunity to speak lines, and when he faltered you made it okay –enough so he felt comfortable enough to try again when his turn came around.” By doing it together and giving everyone permission to try, fail, and survive to try again, we created a safe space for exploration and creation. Once the space was safe, we got to work creating.
Together, the whole group created the spirit of Jacob Marley. We began with the text, as we always do, using Dickens’ description of the ghostly apparition as our foundation. We used the description to choose costume pieces and instrumentation that would make sense for the Marley we were manifesting, and when our vision was complete the student layered on the final pieces, choosing a vocal register and a physical center and roaring to life as the suffering spirit, thundering around the room in his chains and his groaning misery. Having seen the example of what we could all do together, the group then divided into three smaller groups to do the same for each of Dickens’ three ghosts. Each small group read through the descriptions in the novel of the Ghost of either Past, Present, or Future. Together, we chose costume pieces and instrumentation that would bring the narrative descriptions to sensory life, and made choices about how each ghost moved and what they sounded like.
At the end, we came back together and presented our ghosts to the whole group. It was loud and full of laughter and a little scary and a little shocking. At the end, we were out of breath, the students were smiling, and the teachers in the room were beaming. It seemed that theatre had done what theatre should do: replaced fear with permission to play together, and everyone felt the benefits. “Without question, I believe the students benefited from the workshop but the reasons are as varied as the students who participated,” said Elias. “Our students have all experienced trauma and process events each in their own individual ways. While some may be stimulated intellectually, others may just find peace participating in a joyful, safe activity.” Theatre lets us reach everyone where they were and bring them together into a collective space of inquiry and discovery, and nowhere is this more evident than at CCCA, where teachers and students alike discover the permission to (and the rewards of) play, because (as Elias points out), “We as teachers also benefit from seeing our students engaging in activities outside our normally scheduled routines because we get to see facets of our student’s personalities that might not otherwise have been revealed.” Everybody needs a chance to step outside of their own skin; everybody can benefit from viewing the world through the eyes of an “other.” Theatre makes that opportunity accessible to everyone, and the benefits of doing so are never more evident than in an environment like CCCA.