Sunday, December 17, 2017

Teaching Theater / Building Empathy


This past week ended the Monologue Unit in my Theater Intro classes.  

For the past month, students have been working on understanding how to interpret their monologues and embody their characters. They’ve been using mini-lessons that I present to find the thought/emotion shifts that exist within their scripts, establish a clear “moment before” the words even come out of their mouths so as to develop urgency and purpose for their characters, figure out what characters are trying to do through the words they’re speaking.  

Basically, I’ve been trying to move them from being a teenager reading some words on a page to an actual character living, thinking, feeling, and expressing some moment of their world to us.

And it’s been awesome!  Lots of laughter, tears, applause, snaps of encouragement to help them when they freeze up onstage, and a feedback session of supportive comments for each actor after they perform. 

I love being a theater teacher.

This year, 2 students decided to write their own original pieces, instead of using one of the hundreds that I make available.  Since it’s not a creative writing class and I don’t have the class time to go in-depth about quality playwriting, I normally try to get them to just find one written by someone else. That way, they are focusing more on the acting and interpretation skills that I’m teaching.  But these girls were insistent, so I allowed them the space to perform their original work.

The first girl, Sierra*, performed a monologue from the perspective of a Black mother whose son had been murdered by the police.  She demonstrated deep emotions, and spoke into the room the pain, anger, and steely recognition of the ubiquity of police killings of young Black people. 

The second girl, Aaliyah, performed a piece she had been working on since last year, about the murder of her younger brother.  She quietly shared her story, body shaking and fighting back tears, spelling out her journey of hatred, a want for revenge, and a desire to move toward acceptance and forgiveness. 

And the room changed.  

We were silent.  We were crying.  We wanted to share with one another.

One guy, who had lost 2 of his friends this year to shootings, said that it really hit him hard.  He had been coping with his loss this year by actively not facing his emotions, but that Aaliyah’s story was bringing up everything he knew he felt.  He recognized that she must have put herself deeply into her feelings, and he, being scared of doing just that same thing, was incredibly proud of her her for doing it.

Several other boys in the class agreed with him, faces tensed up, tears brewing just beneath the surface.  A few shared that they also had lost people who were shot on the streets of our city, and that they never got enough space or time to process their feelings. They were expressing a reluctant gratitude for getting time with their emotions.

We passed them the Kleenex box.

Another girl, tears streaming down her face, shared that Aaliyah’s monologue made her think about her own brother. “He’s getting into dumb stuff,” she shared with us. “Reacting without thinking. Getting into fights.  I’m so scared for him. I want him to think. I don’t want him to get killed.”  We hugged her, and she agreed to go home and talk to him about these feelings that had just been made clear to her. Instead of “nagging,” she wanted to be honest with him about her love and fear for him.

The guy who played the role of the white cop during Sierra’s scene said that he was moved by having to stand there, silent and uncaring, while she expressed her feelings of rage and loss.  He said that he realized that that’s actually how some white police officers act, and that he had a visceral reaction of anger that they could care so little.  He said, “I don’t ever want another Black mother to have to go through that experience.”  It was powerful that he was pushed in his own perspective as a white person by Sierra’s words.

I thanked these 2 young women.  I told them that their words and performances offered us a gift of their vulnerability, and it had moved us, as a community, through an opening into our own vulnerability. 

When we perform for one another, I always make my students put away their phones, saying, “For the next __ minutes, we will be participating in our shared humanity.”  It had become, in some ways, a little joke in the class.  But this week’s performances showed us that is exactly what we’re doing.  

That is the point of theater, of getting in front of a group of people and showing a slice of life, of expressing our shared humanity.  At a time when our young people are seeing a deep lack of humanity playing out in the public discourse of our country, when many economic and socio-political decisions are being made that, in fact, undercut the prioritizing of a shared humanity, I feel even more committed to holding these spaces for them. 

This week, many students said that they felt more connected to one another, that they had more empathy for what others are going through.  One said, “This is exactly why I love coming to this class.”  

I couldn’t agree more. 


* Names have been changed.

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