A Week Into Devising

Previously: The Initial Steps

Now: A Week Into Devising

A few weeks ago, the premise occurred to me: it’s 2024, and a few years ago, every adult on the planet mysteriously disappeared. Then this happened a second time.

This interested me from a practical standpoint – while I am not opposed to having teenagers portray adults, it’s not as useful as having them play people around their age, and I was excited to create a world that was intentionally young-person-only.

(The same HS theatre teachers who claim that theatre should replicate the professional world are also producing plays where teenagers play, like, 50-year-olds even though these kiddos won’t be cast in these roles for decades. If you are having a teenager play an adult, it should be intentional, and thus you should be commenting on adulthood. Take a look at Very Best Coffee or [a different] Romeo & Juliet if you want to see examples of how I try to activate this concept in a play. In both of these, the fact that you have young people playing these roles creates a commentary on adult world, a fact my friend Patrick Shaw pointed out.)

But it wasn’t just practical. I was interested in the world that a group of teenagers would create. What would disappear – good and bad? What would be utopic? What would dystopic? We’re so consumed by anxiety about our future – as a planet – I thought, well, what would happen if we leaned into this? If we imagined how we’d deal with things?

Prologue

I think it’s important that the students co-create much of this world with me. My nightmare is having a bunch of kids go home and each come up with an idea that they commit themselves to. In a process that uses devising, you have to be willing to give up ideas as quickly as you come up with them. Commitment to an idea outside of the rehearsal room can kill the process.

I held myself to this as well: I wrote a short manifesto I kept to myself, and then intentionally avoided thinking about the premise so I could make room for my collaborators.

Activity 1: Becoming an Adult

The first activity was to separate them into partners. Their job: to create a vignette where someone is experiencing an event of ‘becoming an adult.’ (Yes, a couple kids giggled, but whatever. I knew they wouldn’t go for sex jokes in the devised pieces. That would have been too awkward.) For example, some young person learning to drive.

The second step: make the same vignette, only without an adult impacting the person coming of age. In the example, the character must learn to drive by themselves.

This… kinda worked. Because I didn’t give them context for fear that they would shape it to the concept, they made… stuff. It was okay. It didn’t tell me enough to know we were on the right track.

Activity 2: Apocalypse or Catastrophic Event

I then had them identify a narrative where it’s about the aftermath of an apocalyptic or catastrophic event. Some brought in The Road, which they’d read last year. Some brought in Mad Max. Someone brought in Wall-E. I asked a few questions to get them thinking about these stories from a distance. It’s better to examine the fact that there’s nuclear fallout, authoritarian rule, and desert wasteland in Mad Max. 

From this, we did a poster dialogue about tropes we see in these narratives.

This is where I introduced the premise I was pitching to the students by having them read a monologue based on the manifesto.

Activity 3: Improv and Exploration of Tropes

Most of the students were familiar with improv, but I had a quick refresher activity on the concept of “Yes-and” for those who needed it. We then read over the tropes of apocalyptic narratives so that we could hold that stuff in our brains. Then, over the course of about 30 minutes, I had the students do an improv jam based on these ingredients. I specifically asked them to avoid the initial premise – to just make stuff from the tropes. I would ring a bell when I felt the scene had ended.

It was electric. While most of the time they went for the joke, there were enough moments where fear and stillness became a part of the world that I felt we could make the play.

Also, I would direct this process. I would ask them for specific revisions. This will become key in the future.

Activity 4-ish: A Conversation

I checked in with them. They were on board with the premise. Some had ideas. I realized that even though I’d tried to get away from developing the world without them, I’d failed. There was stuff I’d made and committed to.

But at least they were on board.

Next Up: Some World Building

It’s 2024, and they are coming up with a list of things that have changed. This is via a personal imaginative list of, “What I miss/ What I’m grateful for.” Because I want the students to generate their character relationships in class, I asked that they avoid the people they’d miss. Otherwise, the world becomes entirely consumed by grief. While grief will be a part of it, I want to start by figuring out things like, is there electricity? Internet? Cheese? (No, no, maybe.) We’ll also be reading a selection from The World Without Us so we have some starting point related to the practical impact a world where a good portion of the human biomass has vanished. That book is devastating and could force the play into becoming a treatise on environmentalism, and I am more interested in watching a group of young people connect and disconnect with each other, so I will only bring in chapters about what happens to cities without humans.

On Documenting

So. I’ll periodically update on the process, but the next part involves me doing a RIDICULOUS AMOUNT OF WRITING. This means that I can’t spend time writing about the work here.

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A new semester, a new play

As you may know, I generate my plays-for-teens with and for my students. A new semester means a new play. This isn’t to say I have a specific process that I always follow: in fact, I often reinvent the process, tailoring it not just to the people in the room but also to my artistic interests. The process is part of the art itself.

  • A year and a half ago, I wrote a play that was based on a student’s set design. Our job was to look at this space and conjure up what could happen there. This eventually became And then, She Picks Up the Sword.
  • Last year, we focused on adaptation – generating improvised scenes from public domain stories. We listed out a bunch of public domain works, brought in summaries, and started to improvise around them. This eventually became Icarus Livingstone
  • Before that, I started by bringing in scenes from established works that would invite us to figure out the desired tone of the play – a scene from Angels in America was clearly better for the people in the room than the scene from Eurydice, so the world that we created was tonally in concert with that. The students then brought in images that were inspiring to them, which we then used to generate… stuff. I quickly brought in scenes based on this material that we played with to figure out what was speaking to us and eventually developed what became Basement Demons.
  • Another time, we started with an aesthetic I wanted to explore with them – realism – and followed this by generating a list of locations in the three broad categories of setting in realism: public, private, public/private. We generated scenes in these locations, and eventually set the play in a summer camp. This became Two Truths and Lies. 

This year, I have a proposed situation – in essence, a world with a major complication imbedded in it. This will serve as a container that the students will play around in. A sandbox, to borrow a concept from OKGo.

Now. Here’s the thing. Last year, I thought that we’d wind up devising around a very different story than the one we landed on, and if I’d committed fully to a different text, THE PLAY WOULD HAVE ESSSSPLODED!

Working collaboratively with a group of people means that you MUST be willing to give up on an idea.

It’s hard. I have to do some prep work, but cannot fully build the world without my students.

Tomorrow, I am going to have them start to generate material from the concept of ‘adulthood’ and ‘apocalypse.’ If this works, I’ll present the idea to them (and you), and we’ll be off to the races. If I have to trash it, however, I will.

Onward….

Playwrights Revolution

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Playwrights Revolution at Cap Stage will have a reading of Basement Demons and Trailer Saints 

I wrote this play with my high school students, then developed it further with undergraduates at James Madison University.

The tagline I’ve been using: “In the age of Instagram, what happens when a demon slides into your DMs?”

A lovely article is up at the Davis Enterprise. 

I should note that this is the FIRST time one of my plays for teens has made it onto the stage of professional theatre. A small step as I advocate for the legitimacy of teen theatre as art.

Stage Combat with Teen Theatre

I’ve been tweaking the website to make my “Theatre-for-Teens” page a little more user-friendly.  I haven’t focused on publishing (MFA Playwriting programs emphasize producing and networking), so I want to make my page for teens accessible and approachable.

And as I tweaked, I realized I probably should address something – there’s something of stage combat in every play. This is intentional. I swear.

Swords: And Then, She Picks Up the Sword, The Untitled Pirate Play, Space Carl (plus lasers), [a different] Romeo & Juliet, Nameless in the Desert, Third Street, Basement Demons, Icarus (ish)

Hand-to-Hand: Two Truths and Lies, Icarus, Deleted Scenes from Fairy TalesVery Best Coffee, The Twelve HuntsmenThe Jungle Book

A couple years ago, after we spent hours choreographing a sword fight, a student told me, “I thought I trusted (her scene partner) before, but now I REALLY trust him!” And at that moment, she articulated something I had a sense of, but hadn’t put into words myself – that stage combat required and, thus taught, trust.

And I do love it. Spectacle. Conflict. Tension. If done correctly, if done safely, it’s undergirded by trust. Stage combat teaches the opposite of what you’re pretending to do.

Theatre is, of course, built on trust, so this is hardly a revolutionary thought; however, it does highlight that the dramaturgy of purpose for doing a play goes beyond the audience. Theatre for teens is about the art, it’s about theme and story and character, and about the experience of the actor.

Dramatic Structure

I’ve been obsessed with this clip of a little boy asking Pete Buttigieg a question. I realized why: this video is a masterclass on dramatic structure

  • Starts in medias res
  • Illustrates characters through voice and action. Everything anyone says or does shows who they are.
  • Quickly establishes world and stakes with the parental request, “Ask your question.”
  • Introduces complication.
  • Escalates the complication
  • Has a strong, surprising turn at the climax (the boy jumps from the stage), which is fitting with the ‘bunny’ theme
  • Aces the dismount with Pete’s “button” line.

Note: Chasten, Pete’s husband, is a gay middle school theatre teacher.

*****

In honor of Pride Month, I was on Jimmy Chrismon’s THED Talks again to discuss the LGBTQ+ Romeo & Juliet.

Note to self: never read the transcript of your own interviews. The marbled mess of incomplete sentences and dropped in ‘likes’ will make you crazy.

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Pride Month is over.

Long live Pride!

Praise for THE TWELVE HUNTSMEN

This email from a theatre teacher / director is better than any review I could have gotten. Note: I redacted the teacher’s name out of an abundance of caution for someone who mentions having LGBTQ+ kids in their school.

(Find the Twelve Huntsmen here.) 

Hello Brian,

I just wanted to let you know that we recently closed our middle school production of The Twelve Huntsmen up here in MA, and it was a huge success. We had an all-middle school tech crew (and cast, of course), and we managed to work out the randomization of the text and all the exciting challenges that provided…and  stage it on a 3/4 thrust, all of which were new experiences for our young actors. The audience and family members were completely impressed, our students absolutely blew your fantastic script out of the water, and they were SO proud of themselves for taking on such a unique script.
I wanted to thank you, especially, for the work you did in creating this script and getting it onto NPX. I read MANY plays written for this age group and I am consistently disappointed in what I find. It’s a rare playwright who is tapping into the unique voice and views of this generation. I work at a school with a large population of young women and a large population of students who identify as LGBTQIA+, trans, or gender non-conforming. I feel like your script was a magical unicorn in a forest of mediocrity that was the perfect mix of smart, sassy, dark and hilarious, and I am so grateful to you!! Looking forward to following your future work, and just know you have some big fans up here in western Massachusetts.
With gratitude,
(Theatre Teacher)

Happy Pride!

On ye olde facebook, someone in the theatre education sphere asked the community about creating a supportive environment for LGBTQ students, especially if the parents are not accepting. There were some fantastic responses, such as getting a “Safe Place” sign, which is easy and effective. And the person who said, “Love your kids. They will know” makes a graceful point. I had a cross-country flight ahead of me, so I had the time to think and come up with my contribution.

I am posting it here. I want to be able to look back on it and hold myself accountable, and I also think that much of this holds true for making a space for other underrepresented groups. As a mixed-Latino playwright, I also see how only a few of the bullet points below would not apply to, you know, work by mixed-Latino playwrights.

Again, other theatre professionals had some fantastic thoughts that I was adding to, so this is by no means a comprehensive guide.

 

Some Thoughts on How to Be Supportive of LGBTQ+ Theatre Students

1. Mention the gay people in your life. For a gay kid seeking a trusted adult, this is code for ‘this person is cool with gay people.’

2. Look at how your program can be supportive of gay and trans kids.
– Are there gay characters in your plays? How are these characters treated? (While I love The Laramie Project, it’s also about dead gay kid. What impact do you think you’re having if the only gay representation in your program is as a victim of a hate crime?)

– Are you producing plays by gay playwrights, and if so, are you examining how their identity informs the play? (If you’re doing The Importance of Being Ernest without acknowledging that it’s making fun of straight folks from the point of view of someone who was later jailed for being gay, you’re missing a HUGE piece of the play.)

– Are the plays you’re picking strictly from a straight person’s POV? Even plays with gay people are so often lensed through a straight person’s point of view. I love Rent, but this queer world is through (straight male) Mark’s eyes. I’m not cautioning against doing this, but I am suggesting that you make the space to acknowledge this.

– Does the play rely on stereotypes and assumptions? What shortcuts is it making? (Our Town literally has the line, “Almost everyone get married” – which was exclusionary to gay folks when we couldn’t get married and REALLY HURTFUL TO HEAR – is the play making a statement, intentionally or not, that’s built on the assumption that everyone in straight and cis?)

– Are you relying on canon plays, which are generally written by people with an antiquated notion of gender and orientation?

– Are you doing gender-blind or cross gender or gender-conscious casting? What is your casting saying about gender and sexuality? Do you have an idea of what a “leading man” and a “leading lady” is – if so, what assumptions are you making?

– If you have a trans kid whose parents are not accepting, are you casting them in gender neutral parts, or are you casting them in parts that will aggravate their dysphoria? (Here, too, can gender blind casting help.) Is the program and/performer bios honoring their pronouns (or intentionally avoiding this when it will trigger transphobic parents)?

– Are you thinking about the production process from the ground up? I am a playwright, so I make the plays with my students, and so pretty much every LGBTQ+ character we have came from the students originally. This is obviously not feasible for every school, but you can create spaces for LGBTQ+ students to advocate for their stories and help make creative choices.

– Are you creating the space to have the conversations? These conversations could be about what the play is saying or doing. These conversations could be about the kids negotiating their identity and experience in relation to the play.

Now, I wrote a gay Romeo and Juliet for and with my middle schoolers, which we produced, and this was a big deal. But you don’t have to make LGBTQ+ identity at the center of your work to make a play that’s inclusive. I wrote a play where most of the characters are aliens (and I realized aliens can have one, two, or ten genders) and the humans have gone through body switches. I did this so literally anyone could play any part and this would reveal nothing about any character’s gender or orientation. This is not what the play is about – it’s a dorktastic science fiction hero’s journey romp – but the world of the play is intentionally built for gender blind casting. It’s a play that is neither about gay people nor does it make heterosexuality the default.