I’ve never had nerves on opening night. If anything, I’ve worried my way into a weak stomach in solidarity with my fellow castmates, but, in reality, I’m right as rain in front of a rising curtain.
Yet, as a director, I battle butterflies before every rehearsal.
It is my second year leading a theater collective with the chicas of Chalchi High and our weekly workshops are no exception. Yes, even shower scenes in my skivvies and Shakespearean soliloquies with a Brooklyn accent pale in comparison to my latest role as the directora of a Tzotzil theater troupe—en español, no less, our shared second language. Give me an auditorium of angry critics and I’m cool as a cucumber. But a dozen young actresses requires some pre-ensayo yoga breathing. (Indeed, for obvious reasons, the old trick of picturing my audience in their underwear doesn’t seem too terribly appropriate.)
Since school started, Las Jades and I have been working our way through the building blocks of performance, with an emphasis on Improvisation—a particularly fearsome topic for both me and the girls, who shine with script in hand but shrink from Spolin. Creative thinking is not highly emphasized in Las Jades’ rural classrooms or, más bien, like millions of students all over the world—myself included—who learn within what Freire called the “banking” system of education, Las Jades excel at repetition, not invention.
After watching dozens of exercises pancake in rehearsals past, I became as hostile to Improvisation as Las Jades. The idea is to provide a space where these young women will bloom, not wilt—I thought—so I pulled back on the commedia dell’arte and focused the group’s attention on other styles. (And, dios mío, did they bloom!) Yet, in the back of my mind, I knew that if I were to provide a solid theatrical foundation for these budding artists, Improvisation would have to be part of it. So, with trepidation, I returned to the land of the scriptless, ever-ready to pull the plug should the eerie stillness of awkward silence descend on our rehearsal space once again.
The result was as awkward as I had hoped it wouldn’t be. Each time I sensed that the girls were slightly uncomfortable, I punctured the moment with an enthusiastic “Okay!” accompanied by a wild waving of arms, my whole body a nervous exclamation point. We—I—continued like this for several rehearsals, hitting these staccato segways between exercises like topes—slowing down, speeding up, and slowing down again.
Then, one misty Monday, only a handful of girls showed up to our día de Spolin and I was about to raincheck the rehearsal for a less inclement afternoon when I decided to test out some new games on the smaller group. After our warm-up, I started us off with Environment, a basic bridge exercise from Michael Rohd’s must-read, Theatre For Community, Conflict, and Dialogue, where a player enters the space and silently begins an action (i.e., setting the table, shooting hoops, tending a garden). The other players must then figure out the action that is being performed and join their compañera in the space. Instead of putting one of Las Jades on the spot (a choice which has flopped spectacularly in the past) I broke the ice and entered the space first, hurrying around the room excitedly, as if I were getting ready for an important date. Immediately, the girls started whispering amonst themselves in Tzotzil–a good sign!–they were processing the exercise. And, to my delight, after only a few moments of chatter, a brave Jade entered the space and made the surprisingly strong choice of sitting me down and applying my makeup.
Acceptance! Attention to detail! Relationship! I was thrilled.
With that, we were off and running. I took my place in the audience, picked a volunteer from the group, and we continued, this time introducing more and more Jades into the scene. After a rousing game of silent basketball, we moved onto Emotion Party, to which all the girls were invited, with one rule—each party guest was to enter the fiesta in a highly charged emotional state, which they drew from a hat at the beginning of the game, infecting their host as well as their fellow partygoers. I allowed the girls to pick the emotions we would use for the game, leading to a humorous mix of joy, despair, and lovesickness, as well as valuable insight into which emotions the girls feel comfortable/uncomfortable expressing onstage. But, even more importantly, Las Jades were actually playing together–Las Jades were improvising! I tried to hold down the laughter of the party guests waiting their turn to knock at the door, but, eventually, I gave into the chaos, in exchange for the full engagement of every Jade. Our awkward silence had transformed into a robust merriment, which meant more risk-taking and less second-guessing—director included.
Any actor will tell you, the cardinal rule of Improvisation is—don’t deny! In other words, when presented with a set of circumstances, the response should always be, “Yes, and…” It wasn’t until I was standing in a gaggle of giggling girls, all improvising their hearts out, that I realized it was me—not them!—who had betrayed this well-known commandment. In my crusade against awkward silence, I had produced exactly that, skipping quickly from exercise to exercise, denying Las Jades the opportunity to transcend their nerves and make the choices they had been capable of making all along. In the world of Improv, denial breeds denial, stripping a scene of its energy and watchability. Thus, each time I said no to a struggling dinámica, I robbed the rehearsal—and Las Jades—of honest, impactful scenework. Feel free to wag a finger in my general direction.
Rehearsal was done, but Las Jades weren’t. In fact, a few began calling out the names of their favorite games, the majority Spolin or Boal-inspired. (Yes, and! Yes, and! Yes, and!) So we finished off the afternoon with an exercise I had marked as a maybe—Day In the Life, a game that involves one player detailing the hour-by-hour contents of their daily life and another player re-enacting it. I divided the room into thirds, choosing three Jades to recount their daily routines and three Jades to take the stage. (The idea was to encourage more risk-taking by dispersing the attention between three simultaneous performances.) I gave them a 60 second time limit and a reminder to make strong, committed choices. They rolled their eyes. C’mon. They’re Improv pros.
The game was a hit. I know because the girls shouted at each other without thinking in Tzotzil like a rowdy version of charades. There was anything but awkward silence.
“Yes!” I cried, at the last click of the clock, or “¡Sí!,” rather. (We discussed the “and” together.) See, that’s the thing about breaking the banking method of education—the students are the teachers and the teachers–or maybe just this butterfly-battling teacher–are the ones that learn the lesson.