Saturday, April 21, 2012

"Charley's Aunt"

My Adv. Drama class and I skipped 4th period yesterday to head downtown for a theatrical field trip.

It was the usual package I put together with the usual adaptations for schedule, circumstances, and the group I was bringing.  We began with an acting workshop.  The DCTC always asks me what topic I'd like them to cover.  In the past they've put together workshops for my students about using Shakespeare's text to develop character, body language and external characterization, group exercises to build community, and so on.  Since I did not know what show my students would be rehearsing now when I scheduled the workshop back in January, I requested an improv workshop.

Although it wasn't very "instructional" - the actress led them through a series of games with only a little informal discussion of the concept of "Yes, and" - the students had fun and I was pleased with the equal amount of participation from the stronger actors, the goof-offs, and the shy and nervous students in my group, each group of which you can see here:

The Veterans
The Clowns

The Shy

I especially love the girl's pose in the last photo. That wasn't a gesture for the scene; that was how she unconsciously spent the entire round, with her arms wrapped fully around her critical organs. It may give you some idea of how proud I am of her volunteering to play a round of a new improv game in front of a strange professional actress, of how much she's grown since she began my classes last year.

And, in fact, they've all grown, even though I've had no consistency in the groups - there are students in this one who have taken four, five, six drama classes and others who only took the Introduction to Drama prerequisite before this class.  Some had done similar field trips with me in the past, some had never been to DCTC before.

Regardless of the jumble of experience, though, I discovered a heartening growing awareness in their understanding of theater.  When I first started taking students to see plays outside of school (which, while it seems like ages and ages ago, was startlingly just last year), they loved everything.  The plays that I would rate at a generous C got rave reviews from my students.  The costumes!  The sets!  The acting!  The hot actors!  It was so shiny and new and, in their eyes, perfect.

They loved the play last night too.  It was a very silly rendition of Charley's Aunt, a play I actually performed my sophomore year of high school.  As one does with any play in which one acts, I have a certain nostalgic fondness for this show.  I figured my students would like it, although I was concerned.  Our field trip in February was to see The Importance of Being Earnest, and the two plays are very, very similar.  The students enjoyed Earnest, but most of the wit and humor, most of what I love about that show, went right over their heads.

I wondered how much preface I needed to give them, since many of the jokes in Charley's Aunt depend on you knowing the decorum of the day - removing your hat in the presence of a lady; so long as a lady is standing, the men stand too; the nuanced messages a woman sends with her fan; and so on.

While many of those jokes did pass my students by, they had a grand time.  This production was filled with ridiculous nonsense, slapstick, and many jokes that existed solely for the sake of being funny despite making no sense for the characters, the period, or even the plot.  One of the biggest laughs of the show was when Babs (the fellow who masquerades as the eponymous dowager) raced across the stage to escape his suitors.  They chased him off stage right, then Babs reappeared running back to stage left, but this time he carried a broom and sang out "Here am I, defying gravity!" to the audience as he passed.

Normally, I do not like that kind of comedy.  But the actors, and the one playing Babs in particular, executed the bits so well with such deliciously-perfect timing and my students were laughing so hard and having so much fun, I forgave all and just enjoyed the show as well.

As I went into class this morning and began the postmortem discussion, I expected to hear similar high praises for all that they saw.  And they did, of course, begin by repeating their favorite lines and describing the best gags.  But then, cautiously and to my delight, they began to criticize it.  They were hesitant to question what they saw and unsure of how to explain what didn't work for them.  Characterizations felt off, moments fell flat, some sections were hard to understand because the actors were speaking so quickly without clear articulation.  My students hesitated in pointing out these flaws, assuming that their confusion was their own fault, their own ignorance.  So we talked about making choices as actors and directors, about the audience's right to have an opinion about whether or not that choice worked, about the social contract of the suspension of disbelief.  I gave them the vocabulary to talk about these things, and their comments took off.  They had a long discussion about the accents that slipped, the shawl that never stayed in place and that no one ever fixed, the set design.  We talked about theater in general and that production in particular for the entire class period, far longer than I had intended, but so worth the time it took.

I often deliberate over the time such activities take, the time I give.  I enjoy these field trips, but they take an awful lot of time and stress to put together, to execute, and to clean up.  At my lowest moments; the times when my back aches from the uncomfortable school bus seat, when I'm nauseous and headachey from the twisting mountain roads, when I'm exhausted because it's two hours past my bedtime, when I enter my 15th hour of work that day and I suddenly remember that I am not being paid one cent for doing those extra seven hours of work; those moments are when I want to stop taking field trips, stop arranging for group sale tickets, stop spending my time and my money to expose these mountain kids to the culture that is not so very far away.

But then they go and demonstrate real, actual learning.  Then I see how much their conversation and thinking about theater has changed.  Then I see that some, a few, of them are nursing those secret, burning desires to be actors, to stay on stage.  Whether they succeed in doing that isn't what I care about.  I am not very interested in creating professional actors.  What I want are conscious, critical, thinking adults who go see plays because they love the arts and know their value.  I see students who leave class talking about what play they want to see next, arranging rides to go back downtown to try for student rush tickets, arguing still over whether Kitty's accent worked in the show last night.

And so I go back to my classroom and I start making phone calls to arrange for the next show.

Just for my own reference, here is the list of shows my students have had the opportunity to see this last week and the weeks ahead through arrangements I made:

Week 1:
Sweeney Todd (college production downtown)
Law and Order: Fairy Tale Unit (MTHS class production)

Week 2:
Charley's Aunt (graduate acting program production downtown)
Curtains (community theater production near Mountain Town)

Week 3:
Wicked (Broadway touring production)

Week 4:
Twelfth Night (professional production)

Week 5:
The SeussOdyssey (MTHS class production)

Week 6:
No shows

Week 7:
Potted Potter, Newsies, The Phantom of the Opera (New York - Broadway, Off-B'way)

No comments:

Post a Comment