Dallas — On July 30, NPR reported on a study of the Most Popular High School Plays and Musicals from the past six decades, offering a very predictable selection of family-friendly fare. The list is filled with fairy tales or “classics” of the American canon and the creators of 97 percent of them are white men. (I put classics in quotations because I find difficulty in labeling anything a classic when it is only 60 years old.) From the teens I know, only one or two of these works actually represent teenagers—Bye Bye Birdie and Grease (I just cringed a little, pardon me). Productions like these lightly hint or glide over topics like violence, friendship or body issues, which teens face on a daily basis. Is that how we should confront our problems?
If you look up any news outlet, you will most likely find some story about a teenager: a teen who creates a brand new idea for the world, a teen who commits suicide because the see no way out, a teen that has stood up for their beliefs in dire circumstances, a teen making destructive choices to cope with body issues, a teen engaged in violence, a teen who is the victim of violence. The list can go on forever. Looking at that list of theatrical works I have to ask where is the correlation between the actual experiences of these teen performers and the symbolic world of these musicals and plays? Without this connection between the artist and content, the arts devolve into an escape instead of a powerful vehicle for human expression. I believe that these feel good musicals are chosen because that is how adults want to perceive these teens: with shallow or easily fixed problems. This leads me to a much larger question that I will probably spend a lifetime answering, “How can we suggest that the arts are a necessary mode of expression and humanity when the content of the most popular productions is so far removed from our actual day-to-day experience?”
When I heard about Junior Players Transformation Project, what intrigued me was the plan to make teens an active role in the creation of content in the dances. Last week, I had a chance to chat with co-choreographer Sara Romersberger, as well as three of the 12 teen dancers who will perform in the production. Romersberger, on faculty at SMU, came to Junior Players with the idea to create this new dance initiative because she wanted to work with this age group. Romersberger lights up when she discusses the passion and pliability of working with teens, noting that they are eager to meet challenges and have endless energy for the work. The process of developing the dances started by initiating conversations with the teens at auditions and inviting the students to write down their issues anonymously, noting that “people will write stuff down that they won’t actually say.”
Students wrote about violence, competition, silencing themselves, negative feelings, identity, family and constant change. The assembled group of dancers have taken to the project with enthusiasm, particularly with the opportunity to connect their personal experience to the performance. Naomi Baloney, a senior at West Mesquite says that “I think in this time, in this generation a lot of things are happening.” The subjects in the dances illuminate the variety of directions the teens are pulled in, and it is a complex web that they navigate on a daily basis. Romersberger and co-choreographer Taylor McKie read each of the teens responses by pulling them out of a hat and created ten dances to confront these emotional topics.
In the auditions, the choreographers were not looking for “super serious” dancers, but performers who could move and were open to talk about their issues. They have a diverse group of teens, some with years of dance training, some with only a theatre background. From these teens’ experience in the dance and theatre world, this way of creating a production has been an invigorating process. Julie Allegro, a junior at Flower Mound, notes: “When you go to dance auditions, they are looking for a specific kind of girl with a specific kind of shape to fit a specific kind of role, and here we all look totally different from each other but we can all tell the same story.” The project has been less about “fitting a role,” which is a refreshing notion for many of these teens. Instead, they feel freer to confront contemporary issues in their own skin. The medium of dance is also a unique language that extends beyond the verbal and logic-based knowledge that our culture tends to favor. For some of these teens, they need more than words to express themselves. Allegro shares “ I feel like the movement in my body communicates more than my mind does [in regards] to the way I’m feeling.”
The choreographers picked songs that would be familiar to contemporary audiences, so that “when the song starts, you won’t be so focused on listening to the lyrics, but watching the dance” as Allegro notes. For one of the dances, the girls in the company are dancing to “Pretty Hurts” by Beyoncé to explore the expectations of the “ideal woman.” The song has a dual meaning for Baloney and Allegro; on the surface it’s about girls trying to become the idealized—and impossible—image of the perfect female. Allegro notes from her experience in school, “everyone is expected to have their hair perfect, their makeup perfect, wear expensive jewelry, and I show up to school in sweats, a tank top and a wet bun.”
She experiences pressure to fit in, but chooses not to conform to it. Going further into the identity of a dancer, Baloney realizes that “In ballet classes, I am not skinny, long, and flat; I don’t have that shape. So when I move, I move differently. It’s so freeing to be able to dance to that song saying “I’m not going to be perfect.” I’m not going to be who you want me to be, but I am beautiful in my own skin.”
Romersberger’s approach to the project (and her whole body of work) has been greatly influenced by her training with renowned physical theatre innovator Jacques Lecoq. She trained at the Ecole Internationale Théâtre Jacques Lecoq for two years—for those of you who don’t know, making it through to the second year of training is a major achievement. Lecoq trains students to make the body and theatrical mind as pliable and innovative as possible through constant creation of theatre and performances. During their weekly performances, if Lecoq lost interest even two minutes in, the students would have to sit down. This process illuminated how every moment has to be engaging to the audience, even in a five-minute work. The dances in the Transformation Project reflect this visceral, physical storytelling hat Romersberger took from Lecoq. The dance work for this program also extends beyond simple dance routines, as they also include include stage combat to reflect the violence that teens experience.
We compartmentalize so much in our own culture that the average person may not see their body as a means to communicate. Romersberger notes that through engaging the body, a new kind of knowledge can emerge in each participant: “If they can conquer something physically or move in a way they haven’t moved, or express themselves whether it’s anger or love or release, then they can go beyond what they think they can do mentally, emotionally, or educationally.”
Having a program that allows teens to use their own voices and confront difficulties is far more meaningful to each participant. In a city as diverse as Dallas I’m very encouraged to see performing arts organizations that are bringing students to the creative table to form something brand new; it gives them ownership of the work. It is certainly more time consuming and difficult to create this kind of art; but it is more rewarding than following the crowds of people doing the same stuff over and over and over again.
» You can see The Transformation project at 7 p.m. Friday and Saturday at the Wyly Theatre.
» Shelby-Allison Hibbs is a Dallas-based teaching artist, playwright, director and performer. Each month in TheaterJones, she'll write about a different North Texas organization that teaches some aspect of theater and the craft to students of all ages. Below is a list of previous columns:
- February 2015 "Teacher/Artist" (Capers for Kids)
- March 2015 "Parental Guidance Suggested" (WaterTower Theatre)
- April 2015 "DaVersify Your Life" (DaVerse Lounge)
- May 2015 "The Work in Art" (Tax time for an independent artist)
- June 2015 "Learning to Say YES" (Cara Mía Theatre)
- July 2015 "Exploring Language" (Dallas Children's Theater and Junior Players)