Scaffolding Story: Becoming Devisers

Participants at OSU Be the Street January 2018 APTP Workshop in a game of Yes!

Be the Street welcomed Albany Park Theater Project a second time over the Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday weekend. Producing Artistic Director David Feiner, Associate Director Maggie Popadiak, and Resident Director Stephanie Paul guided the core Be the Street team of faculty and graduate students, as well as several newcomers, through exercises in theatrical devising. They were joined by APTP ensemble members Dayana Soto and Ashlie Hankins, and alum Maidenwena Alba, who is in her freshman year at Columbia College in Chicago.

Whereas our August 2017 workshop had focused on using games to build ensemble, this time we focused on using those games and developing other exercises to begin crafting–or devising–scenes. Unlike traditional stage-based theater and dance practices, where performers follow a script or a set choreography, in devising, the members of the ensemble generate the performance material. This process allows the strengths of each participant to shine through. It also enables a more direct and timely response to the issues and concerns facing particular communities. For Be the Street, we are interested in how residents in the Hilltop neighborhood of Columbus, OH make a home for themselves, whether they are long-time community members or more recent arrivals to the area.

For this workshop, we revisited some familiar games–Mingle Mingle, Cross the Line, Yes!–as well as some ensemble-building exercises like the I Come From circle. New games included Silent Me, in which participants exchange places in a circle after making eye contact (it’s harder than it sounds!), and Soul Train Remix, in which pairs travel down a “Soul Train Line” while one half of the pair generates a soundscape to which the other half of the pair responds in movement. Another new exercise was 5x5x5, for which each of us thought of a task or chore, which we broke into 5 separate steps or gestures, and then performed it three times, with each execution increasing in size. (Sunday morning was Starbucks-themed, so these sizes were labeled tall, grande, and venti. A later fourth size was added to conclude the exercise, which Maggie called cortado.)

photo of participants walking with arms raised.

Participants at OSU Be the Street January 2018 APTP Workshop in a game of Yes!

Monday we spent more time with games that can be done in small groups, like Music & Lyrics, in which some participants read, sing, or recite lyrics to a song (the Internet is a huge help for this), while other participants respond to the lyrics with movement, and Story Fight, a high-octane form of simultaneous story-telling in which pairs face-off and try to outwit their storytelling opponent and get them to stop their own story in order to listen. This game can also be played with a “referee” who tries to listen to both stories as they are simultaneously recounted, and then tries to re-tell both stories. Verbatim and Mind-Meld are also played in pairs. For Verbatim, one person tells a story (our prompt was about a moment when we felt threatened), and their partner shares in the story by trying to both speak the storyteller’s words as they are being spoken, as well as to mirror the storyteller’s gestures and expressions. This exercise requires incredible attention and empathy. Mind-Meld is more light-hearted; after counting themselves in–1, 2, 3–each member of a pair shouts out a word at the same time. This process repeats–count in, offer a word–with each participant trying to verbalize the common ground between their terms until finally both members of the pair shout the same word. This game is as gratifying as it is silly. We also played the death-defying game Hot Chocolate River, in which a group crosses a “bridge” of chairs, with the caveat that each chair must have at least one person on it or it floats away, making the group crossing more and more treacherous. Advanced versions of the game add burdens and tasks such as blindfolding some of the participants, restricting the movements of others (for example by tying their shoes together), or carrying heavy loads.

photo of participants walking and crawling across a bridge of chairs

Participants at OSU Be the Street January 2018 APTP Workshop in Hot Chocolate River

These games were all fun and an important part of the continuous work of building an ensemble, without which devising could not proceed! But the bulk of the workshop focused on giving devisers more tools to work with their ensembles. We especially focused on analyzing transcripts from interviews conducted with Hilltop community members, developing and teaching exercises to support creative exploration, and learning how to structure workshops so that they would build toward a desired outcome. APTP challenged us to consider not only the content (what do you do?) and structure (in what order?) of the workshops, but also the specific people who are in our ensembles (what do they respond to? what do they bring? what boundaries or constraints do we need to anticipate and respect?).

Interviews and interview transcripts provide the foundation for APTP’s own creative process, and we spent a lot of our time together pouring over interviews conducted by Be the Street faculty in anticipation of this workshop. Such interviews support devising by offering concrete details of people’s experiences, providing a rich layer of descriptive detail to work with rather than generalizations. In analyzing these transcripts, we pulled out themes that emerged, images the speakers evoked, and turns of phrase or uses of language that caught our attention. We also assessed the theatrical opportunities and challenges in each transcript, which led to important conversations about how to represent experiences ethically. David reminded us that at APTP, they aren’t engaged in documentary theater; they aren’t looking to portray people’s stories as they were told. Instead, they aim to recreate how they felt when they heard these stories, and to share that feeling with audiences.

We are very much looking forward to our final workshop in March!!

large post-it notes on a window

An interview transcript broken down and analyzed during the OSU Be the Street January 2018 APTP Workshop.