Final Devised Theatre Piece - Exploring Oppression
Copyright 2015 by Katie Speed
Context: This session plan was created for my Acting II Class at Deerfield Academy. The class normally meets four times a week (three times for 45 minutes and once for 70 minutes), although the first week of this unit was shortened because the students had workshops for Martin Luther King, Jr. Day all through Tuesday in lieu of classes. The class consisted of 14 sophomore students and one senior. There were a few students of color, although most were white. A few students in the class identified as actors, but most had little to no experience coming into the class. Acting I is not a pre-requisite for this class.
The students had been working together for four months already and had developed a strong ensemble built on trust and acceptance. Since returning from the winter holiday break, the students had been working on a unit on devised theatre, focusing on using improvisation to create characters and relationship, forum theatre, reminiscence theatre, and the impact that theatre can have on social issues. This project was the culmination of their devised theatre unit - a piece that would take any direction they wanted, focusing on whatever issues they wanted to focus on. Given that Martin Luther King, Jr. Day was just around the corner, I tied in the theme of social justice by using MLK, Jr. quotes for inspiration, but I was content to let their piece take whatever direction they wanted in the end. The session plans were loosely structured so as to allow the students to guide their own creative process. Rather, the goal of having a session plan was to give them structure under which to create their piece and scaffold their understanding of collaborative devising.
Overall Learning Goals:
- Explore themes of oppression and activism, inspired by the legacy MLK left in his wake.
- Work collaboratively as a whole class to create one cohesive piece of theatre.
- Explore differing perspectives of oppression.
- Become comfortable with vague direction.
- Create characters and relationships that exist for a short time but have long-term impact.
- Less TALKING, more DOING.
Day 1 – Monday, January 19
- Students will begin to think about the abstract concepts of justice, morality, challenge, and the good/evil dichotomy.
- Students will express these abstract concepts in physical form.
- Students will exercise their emotional intelligence by interpreting images and texts.
- Students will engage in group decision-making that leaves everyone feeling satisfied with their final product and that their voices have been heard.
· Students lead themselves in our typical warm-up. This gives them agency over their readiness as actors and acknowledges my trust in them to be able to do things on their own.
· Quotes on the board, all attributed to Martin Luther King, Jr.:
o “Darkness cannot drive out darkness. Only light can do that.”
o “No one really knows why they are alive until they know what they’d die for.”
o “Any law that uplifts human personality is just. Any law that degrades human personality is unjust.”
o “The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands in times of challenge and controversy.”
· Students freewrite on these quotes for ten minutes.
· From the freewrite they just did, students choose two of their favorite things that they wrote and write them, clearly and legibly, on pieces of paper without signing their names to them. These pieces of paper are scattered on the floor around the room.
· For five minutes, students move about the room, reading the (now anonymous) quotes that their peers pulled from their freewriting. After a few minutes, each student chooses one quote that resonates most with him or her.
· In groups of about 4 or 5, students complete a task posed to them as such: “Use the quotes you picked up to create one still image that represents MLK’s legacy as it is represented in this class.” They have 5-10 minutes to complete this task.
· Each group shares its still image with the class. Teacher prompt: “What do you see?” or “What do you think is happening in this image?”
· For each still image, after a short discussion on what students see, teacher prompts: “If you think you know what one character in this still image might be saying, approach that character, touch his or her shoulder, and speak his or her line of text out loud.”
Day 2 – Thursday, January 22
- Students will learn to put aside their own wants for the greater good of the group.
- Students will exercise patience, cooperation, and advocacy.
- Students will evaluate their own work and the work of their peers without judgment, focusing on the positive aspects of this work.
- Students will examine thematic elements in their own work and create new pieces from those elements.
· Traditional warm-up
· Ensemble counting: students lay on the floor, face-up, with their eyes closed. The goal is to count as high as they can as an ensemble. If two people speak at the same time, they have to go back to the beginning.
· Watch video and take notes – I videoed their still images, discussions, and text-aloud on Monday, and to refresh their memories on what they did, they watch the video and take notes, considering the following:
o Which characters in these images are most compelling to you?
o What points did people make in the discussion that were interesting to you?
· A short discussion of our notes (about 7 min)
o From this discussion, we discerned that all three still images contained three characters: the Oppressor, the Oppressed, and the Bystander. As a class, we decided to make these three perspectives the jumping off point for our piece.
· Final assignment given, with the following parameters:
o Piece must start and end with a still image
o Piece must include at least one out-of-body moment
o Piece must include the perspective of at least three characters.
· Based on the discussion of the three perspectives of the Oppressor, the Oppressed, and the Bystander, students broke into three groups by interest in exploring one perspective. They used the rest of the class to devise a short piece that explores this perspective.
o As I moved about and observed, I encouraged them to move out of the realm of realism and more into the abstract. How can we make these perspectives more clear?
Day 3 – Friday, January 23
- Students will evaluate the work of their peers, focusing on giving constructive feedback that includes both aspects of the piece that worked well and what could be improved.
- Students will draw connections between the differing pieces.
- Students will loosely structure the piece using these connections in order to create a script.
· Week highs and lows (Friday tradition)
· Break back into groups and take 10 minutes to refresh and put the finishing touches on the Perspectives.
· Share with class. Discuss: “What was effective about this piece? What feelings or situations or thoughts were brought up as a result of watching this piece?”
· I took notes on conversation in order to hopefully glean some quotes to be used in the script.
· Group brainstorm. How can we connect these three Perspectives into one piece?
Context and teacher weekend prep:
The three pieces that came out of the “Perspectives” pieces were very different. One focused on the Victim of Oppression, a woman who listens to her family discussing a neighbor who is a lesbian using vitriolic language and feels silenced because she, herself, is a closeted lesbian. The second scene, focusing on the Oppressors, explored the many reasons why a woman may be harassed at work in a high-level position – being told that her outfit is inappropriate, having her abilities questioned because of her gender, being sexually harassed through comments by her coworkers. The final scene was from the perspectives of many Bystanders who witness an incidence of domestic violence, exploring why they do nothing to stop something they know is wrong.
The students wanted to include all of these perspectives into a piece that would encourage people to try to understand that Oppression, in all forms, has these three parts, and that all people have the ability to step in and change instances of Oppression. Ultimately, they wanted the piece to be a call to action that confronts the audience.
They decided to set the piece at a neighborhood cook-out. As a class, they determined a dramatic structure that would allow these relationships to develop over time until they reached a climax where the audience would feel compelled to act. Over the weekend, I wrote a loose script for the introduction and conclusion of the piece, including places where these scenes would happen. The script can be downloaded here.
Week 2 – Improvisation and Rehearsal
· Students will give clear, concise direction to their peers that does not focus on personal attacks but instead on sticking to the message of the piece.
· Students will make decisions on what to cut from the piece and what needs to be added.
· Students will improvise dialogue that simultaneously furthers the plot of the piece and develops characters and relationships.
· Students will change characters quickly and clearly.
Throughout the week, the students improvised the scenes not written clearly in the script. I facilitated these improvised scenes, the scene changes, and gave direction on the overall look of the piece, but the students ultimately had the final say on the product. In the end, the piece they created was created using only their own text – words they had spoken in the improvised scenes, reflections they had made in group discussions, and the quotes they had scattered on the ground during their freewrite on the first day. It was evocative, insightful, and, as they had desired, a call to action.