This week I went to the extraordinary town of Ballitore in Co Kildare to take part in ‘Joining the Dots’ a youth theatre project which this week is offering learning in alternative performance skills not always part of the youth theatre vocabulary , or if they are, to be given a bit of space to be explored at a deeper level. I and Sarah O’Toole went there to introduce the young people to some Chekhov principles. Griese Youth Theatre which is the focus of this project, run by the inspirational Leish Burke, is an extraordinary mix of professionalism , care giving and social inclusion , and this project is supported by the County Council and the Arts Council [and hopefully others]. It was and is absolutely brilliant. I say is because the 30 young people are spending their final day with Louise Lowe making site-specific work. If anyone is in the slightest doubt about the efficacy of drama to encourage more rounded and joyful human beings, they should pay this youth theatre a visit.
The sixteen young people in my group of 16 – 20 year olds came to explore some basic Chekhov technique and I could see instantly how the easy access to the feelings through gesture appealed to them. Once working with qualities of movement , it filled me with a great sense of positivity and joy as a number of them started to really let go and and more fully experience what it is to be fully awake in the way Chekhov understands it, which is important not only for performance but for experiencing the world in a more full way. Often when working with radiating and receiving , young people get a touch embarrassed and giggle but there was remarkably little of this. Above all though, it was watching them respond to the exercises which reconnect to the imagination which were really powerful.
What I love about teaching theatre , and especially Chekhov are these moments of breakthrough when people realise something about themselves, the sheer power of their imaginations and their acting skills which they never felt before. It is more exciting for me than almost anything.
To show or not to show? that is the question…
This teaching question as to whether on a short course you can or should develop a performance, however rough it might be, is a perennial one. In this case, this is particularly true when you are primarily exploring skills. The danger is that if you introduce a perfomance element then for the young people ( and sometimes yourself) this is all the weekend can be about. After all, surely you need as much of your precious time as you can to teach skills? The issue is though, that you have to be honest with yourself and understand that you are only exploring the skills, so that actually trying to use them is all part of the process. The young people almost always like to perform, and if they are truly enjoying it, some of the things you are teaching them are likely to stick. It gives the course a structure too.
We opted for low key performance, just to the other group, [Sarah took the younger group of incredibly imaginative and funny 13 – 15 year olds] so there was very little pressure. A main goal of making the piece was that they might experience how radiating/ Receiving, qualities and atmosphere might be applied. We also did a little work on gesture.
Whilst ultimately the areas I chose to work on, became somewhat governed by what I thought the young people might be able to use within the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice I had brought in, it was vital that the introductory exercises which made up two thirds of our time together were completely free, imaginative and not tied to the piece . This was an important discipline otherwise they would have got no sense of the power of the work overall . It had to be Technique first, piece second. This discipline is as hard for the facilitator as it is for the group! It was also important to explain to them them that the Technique could be used, indeed was primarily for work with more conventional plays.
Whilst developing a piece does not mean that these skills can always be utilised fully because the participant has not had the time to master them, but only meet and hopefully experience them, it does give them an idea of where the work might lead. This is a vital component of youth theatre work when one is so often only introducing an experience, technique or way of working to a person. In other words you have to make sure that it works for them to some extent right there, after only a few hours. To be crude , they need once or twice at least an instant ‘hit’ in order to retain faith with the work. This is more true in youth theatre than other of the many fields I have worked in. Then you might be in with a chance that they might seek out more classes, read, practise etc.
In order to make the piece valuable for our learning however, I was very structured about the style of the content and our goals because I wanted to keep the skills they had explored uppermost. By using the skills they of course went deeper which made them [I think] feel good. Had I allowed them complete license with the story ( to send it up for instance ) the performing exercise would have had a totally different focus.
Having said that, they still had a lot of creative choices to make. We used very clear building blocks; three subgroups of five making four tableaux of their part of the story, We then added transitions which were then developed for qualities of movement, rhythms and atmosphere. We then added ensemble work which involved qualities and atmosphere, then finally one short dramatic exchange of dialogue within each group which involved psychological gesture. Our opening was a use of archetypes, another area we explored in our exercises. This strongly structured creation is something I will use again when teaching Chekhov to young people, because it gave very definite indicators as to ways of using the technique, whilst at the same time presenting a serious and powerful 8 minute piece with which I hope they were pleased.
An absolutely fantastic two days. Leish Burke and Griese Youth Theatre I salute you.