August 16, 2009KR BlogKR

Maine’s Young Makers of Fabulous Weirdos

For the past two weeks I’ve been in Maine. I have never been to Maine before. I shall now go to Maine as often as possible.
(For a disturbing Maine digression, click on the picture above.)

I’ve been in Maine teaching in a beautiful, rustic, barn-like theater/ music center/ gallery in the woods outside of Harrison, Deertrees Cultural Center. A brook runs through it. It’s got a little outdoor stage on a rolling lawn. There is a tiny waterfall.

I had two classes, one each week, with kids ages 6 to 14. Both groups were well-behaved and responsive, like good puppies, so I was able to let each class plan its own trajectory. They chose what they’d present to family and friends on Friday from the following options:

1. A collection of scenes they’d worked on, written by some playwright or other.

2. A collection of monologs they’d worked on, written by some playwright or other.

3. A presentation of monologs they wrote for themselves.

4. A play they wrote together.

Both classes chose 4. But guess what? Every class I’ve ever taught who has had the option has chosen 4.

I find this weird for the following reasons:

1. They always choose on the first day, when nobody knows each other; yet they choose the most collaborative project on the list.

2. Monologs would allow each of them to stand center stage and be the star for a moment.

3. Most of them associate scenes with real acting, as most of the TV and film they watch happens in scene form.

4. I would have never made that choice as a child. It would’ve meant I would have had to talk to every kid in the room. Probably more than once.

I like to think this proves that the pull to collaborate, to build something together from the ground up, is buried deep in every young thespian. But I think they just figure that if they make something together, the whole group gets blamed if it sucks, and nobody single person gets mocked individually. Either way, I love that they choose the make-a-play option because it’s the most fun for me, which is obviously what’s most important.

For this kind of project we start with character. With the guiding question, “Who have you always wanted to play onstage?”, the students go off and make somebody up.

Usually their first impulse is to rip off an existing character or archetype, which I find as a writer I do subconsciously in first drafts. But when we get past that, they come up with some wild personae: A 92-year-old arsonist from Alabama, a 16-year-old half-Neptunian whose father is lying in wait to blow up the Earth, a teenage burnout with a ferret who lives on his shoulder, an ancient cat-lady kidnapping victim who wakes up in a shack in the middle of the desert, a ghost who died choking on a ping-pong ball in a championship game, a pilot who’s terrified of heights, a Russian scientist who comes to America to become a “professional rock star”…you know, the usual.

The fun part is trying to weave a good story from all these fantastic weirdos. This is when you might expect it to get tough, because some of these guys have to take it for the team in the name of narrative cohesion and good storytelling. The Neptunian will be asked to become a mere Earthling orphan and take on a long-lost sister, and the pilot will need to fall in love (gross!) with the high-society girl who’s secretly a hippie. But I find– again, every time (so far)– that instead of fighting these adjustments, these Young Masters of Theater are eager to both take them on and run with them. The ex-Neptunian becomes an orphan whose long-lost mother happens to be an ancient cat-lady kidnapping victim who wakes up in a shack in the middle of the desert. The teenage burnout with a ferret on his shoulder gets a job as a surly waiter who works on a cruise ship, only to satisfy his obsession with ping pong… and who, in the hazy past, seems to have killed a man with a ping-pong ball in a championship game. And so on.

So thus, in a couple of days, we’ve got a play tangled with narrative hairpin turns and bulging with erratic personae. Our opuses are usually rough around the edges, but full of bold choices and raw energy. I’m proud. Their parents are prouder. The greatest thing about it is that through their one-week collaboration they’ve accomplished both a complex social dance and an intricate artistic task– and not one of them even knows it.