Dallas — “I know that I’m going to fail at some point.”
“I have never skateboarded before.”
“I don’t have any idea how to do this.”
Teenagers. They are in a limbo of sorts, no longer a child, but not considered an adult either. They push towards an identity of their own choosing while also pulled back into what others wish for them. These curious in-betweens want to be daring, to explore uncharted territory on a journey that is as unique and meaningful as they perceive themselves to be. But they are also held back by obstacles outside and within, surging continuously towards autonomy but never quite seeming to reach it.
To capture this experience and give teens a voice of their own, Mara Richards Bim created Cry Havoc Theater Company. What makes the group unique is the aim of creating complex and provocative theatre, rather than simple or non-intellectually stimulating work. Their second production, Shut Up and Listen, will perform at the Margo Jones Theatre in Fair Park in January and I am serving as associate director for the project. It’s a devised work modeled on the structure of Belgian theater company Ontroerend Goed’s Once and for All… This physical theatre work, with very little language at all, presents teenagers acting as themselves as if no one is watching. Chaos ensues as we see the group evolve through destruction and anarchy, and reset themselves in unexpected moments. As a work in progress, this column and the next will focus on the development of the project, starting with the first rehearsal.
A group of 11 teens gathered in Spark!, a creative arts space in South Side on Lamar. After brief introductions to the project, we started a simple Meisner exercise using objects. Each person was given a task to accomplish, and the actor had to keep focused on their activity for a duration of at least two minutes while others observed. Some of the activities were physically challenging—hula hooping, riding a skateboard, building a house of cards. There’s no training, no explanation. Here are the objects and two minutes on the clock: go.
At first, the concern of “showing” the activity was discussed, as some new actors are prone to display their actions rather than simply be. That quickly dissolved as the teens became engrossed in their tasks. They became more driven to achieve their goal, even if it was probably impossible.
Each person was searching for a process, a way into the challenge with no guarantee of finding success, just the command to try. You keep trying to maintain the object in air, you keep trying to have just two cards standing, you keep trying to not fall flat on your face. You persist, pushing through the missteps. As I watched, I realized that I was peeping into a moment of vulnerability. The chance of success and failure vacillates in each pair of eyes, until a moment of resolve forms: the hula-hoop falls to the ground, the cards toppled over, or the skateboard rolls away.
The clock keeps going. They try again, find new methods. The process of reaching, making decisions, contemplating risk makes two minutes seem as rich as an hour. They continue to push through limitations. It’s this push that I’m fascinated with, the continuous pursuit is always mesmerizing.
After completing the exercise, we move forward with a free exploration session. The teens choose objects to manipulate—such as commonplace items to water guns to boxing gloves. In this exploration, they interact with others, using the objects to establish what kind of relationships could form between each performer. After a few minutes of unstructured play, the company reflected on the activity under Bim’s guidance. I took notes on cards, jotting down actions that sparked invigoration with the teens and accumulating 100 separate cards very easily. We repeated this several times through the course of the day, and noted the amount of stamina needed for this kind of work.
These first few rehearsals are dedicated to building the foundation or “mother” sequence of the performance, which only lasts for minutes but becomes a vital part of the entire work. We have no idea what it will look like in January, as the process will evolve moment to moment.
It’s much different than reading a script, where it seems that a majority of the creative thought has already been completed for you by some mysterious “other.” It is up to the teens to make discoveries, and maintain an active pursuit of what could be. I observed that the first couple of minutes include a heightened sense of possibility, but moving forward is difficult because of a hurdle: boredom.
Where does this boredom come from? What makes something boring to us? When do we become dismissive of something to the point where we decide: this bored me? From watching the actors, it think it relates to ambivalence: giving shallow attention, rejecting the evolution of decisions, or avoiding choice altogether. The full commitment to the activity implies the act of receiving the consequences (accepting cause and effect), and responding to the consequence honestly. If you send an action into the world, it will give something back, then return it again and again. The chain reaction is always interesting. There’s nothing more frustrating than watching a performer who is clearly not responding to the environment around them. An example that comes to mind is when something accidental on stage happens like a cup falls to the floor and no one acknowledges it.
But think of that as a metaphor for life. If something negative happens to us, is our best course of action to pretend like it didn’t happen? Even in theatre, where we are creating a fabricated world, there is still some truth within that. When I observed the teens in the activities, they learned by listening with every part of themselves to the objects that served as their metaphorical obstacle. They accept the defeat and find new strategies. I found this small activity as such a powerful lens for their future. Soon, even those with a few years of school left, they will be out on their own. They will have to fall, trip, make mistakes on their own and push through those challenges. They will have to keep listening to the reactions and develop new methodologies for their maneuvering through the world, just like all of us adults who are still figuring it out.
We’ve only had one rehearsal so far, an intense but seemingly quick seven hours. As we layer on more actions, I hope this piece will become a reflection of these eleven teens’ authentic experiences.
» Shelby-Allison Hibbs is a Dallas-based teaching artist, playwright, director, performer and a Clinical Assistant Professor at the University of Texas at Dallas. Each month in TheaterJones, she writes about a North Texas organization that teaches some aspect of theater and the craft to students of all ages; or anything teaching-related that's on her mind. 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)
- August 2015 "Transforming Through Dance" (Junior Players)
- September 2015 "Walking Tall" (Amphibian Stage Productions' Tad Poles)
- October 2015 "They Care a Lot" (Kids Who Care, Fort Worth)
- November 2015 "Who Tells Your Story" (male narratives and gender disparity)