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?
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.
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.