ARCHIVE - 12 DAYS, 41 TEENAGERS, AND THE PRESSURE OF СПЕКТАКЛЬ: DEVISING THEATRE PRACTICE IN PAPA ROSTOV(1-22-14)

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On October 7th, 2011 Professor Manon van de Water and I boarded a plane headed for Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport in preparation for a two-week master class with group of Russian orphans in the industrial city of Ростов-на-Дону (Rostov-on-Don). At least, that was our plan when we started the twenty-four hour journey from Madison to Rostov-on-Don. In reality, the conditions of our work would be much different than expected, but the experiences of our 12 days in Ростов-на-Дону would transform my understanding and appreciation of the challenges and, more importantly, the rewards of drama in schools.

 As part of the Minifest children’s theatre festival, organizers invited Dr. van de Water and an assistant, me, to engage in a series of workshops with young people. When we started planning this workshop in the summer of 2011, we understood that we would work with orphans, a group of young people whose voices are often silenced in discussions, both inside and outside Russia, about children’s rights. This work would extend Dr. van de Water’s continued research about theatre with young people in volatile regions, and we carefully planned a curriculum that combined Theatre of the Oppressed techniques, creative drama, and devising practices in a process-oriented series of workshops that would honor and respect the experiences of the young people with whom we planned to work.

The best laid plans… After our travel to Moscow, we connected to our final destination in Rostov-on-Don, a port city 1,000km south of Moscow known as the rough-and-tumble gateway to the volatile Caucasus region. Upon meeting with the festival organizers, we learned the surprising details of our work. Instead of devising theatre in a process-oriented setting with small group of young orphans, we would be working with a group of Russian teenagers from the local English-language high school, школа №65 (School 65)What a change! As this news settled, Dr. van de Water and I quickly revised our plans. We could adapt the plan to any young person. Everything would be fine! Well, the organizers shared a few additional details of our work.

aW1hZ2VfbWlkZGxlOjEzNTAxNDEvL2ltYWdlX21pZGRsZToxMzUwMTQxUnexpectedly, approximately 41 students had signed up for our classes, drawn in by our potential connection to Hollywood. And, we would be expected to produce a спектакль, a performance, that would be the culminating event of festival’s closing ceremonies. In addition to an audience that included all theatre festival participants, a collection of artists from France, St. Petersburg, Poland, and beyond, the closing performance would also host local politicians including the Minister of Culture. And best of all? Dr. van de Water and I would depart Rostov- on-Don three days before the final ceremony, so the product would have to polished and reproducible without our support. The best laid plans, indeed.

Naturally, Dr. van de Water and I scrambled to assess the situation, modify our plans, and adapt to the needs of the festival organizers, our 41 would-be stars, and the gracious hosts at школа№65. A quick conversation helped us to articulate our values for this work:

  • We wanted every student to understand that we had no connection to Hollywood.
  • We wanted every student who still wanted to participate to be included in the workshops.
  • We wanted everyone, from student participants to festival organizers, to understand the process-oriented, student-centered nature of our work and the reality of an unpredictable outcome in regards to polished performances when engaging in this kind of theatre practice.

And with that, we cleared up our expectations with organizers, engaged in a healthy dose of compromise, and prepared to greet our 41 teenagers in the school’s expansive gymnasium next morning. The next twelve days would prove to be an inspiring, creative, and profoundly transformative time centered around the work of creating theatre with, by, for, and about young people.

 Teenagers are the same everywhere– except when they’re completely different.

As a PhD student with an interest in theatre and drama with teenagers and young adults, I was particularly intrigued to observe the similarities and differences between Russian teens and the teenagers with whom I had worked in the United States. How did these teens’ values reflect their Russian culture and heritage? How did they challenge or confirm supposedly universal understandings of adolescence? How did Russian understandings of the space between ages 13- 18 differ from those understandings found in the United States? How did global influences shape these young peoples lives? Each of these questions motivated my observation and interactions with our young participants, and I can safely say that Russian teens are just the same as every other teen I’ve encountered—except when they’re completely different. For example, on the first day of our workshops, Dr. van de Water and I had to enact the all-too-familiar no-cellphone policy to deter our participants from texting back and forth during group work. We also held a discussion about appropriate attire for movement, as many of our female participants teetered into the workshops on impossibly high heels and impressively short skirts. During breaks, the students broke out IPods to share Nirvana and Coldplay with the group. The younger guys huddled together, nervous about sharing openly with the group, and the older girls appeared wise beyond their years and generally frustrated with the guys’ lack of focus. Many of the students expressed concerns about issues so often associated with adolescence: drug and alcohol use, cheating on exams, managing workloads, disappointing family. Some students were highly engaged and some needed a reminder that their participation was optional. Some students dropped out, others came in, and some students transformed during our time together. In many ways, these teens seemed a lot like their US counterparts.

At the same time, these Russian teens were notably different than US teens in several ways. For example, students in Russia seemed to care less about individualism and more about the collective whole. I noted this trend while leading a game designed to build cooperation skills amongst the group during the first day. I have played this game hundreds of times in the US with similar results; the group engaged in fierce individual competition until they realized that I’d rigged the game to result in no winners. The moment where we all ended up equally in and out of the game always proved a transformative moment as the group realized the difference between competition and cooperation and the limits of both. In Russia, the group kept everyone in from the beginning, refusing to leave anyone behind. I acknowledged, much to the teens’ pleasure,  that I’d never seen the game that direction. This dynamic played out during group work as well. Our participants more quickly established their roles within smaller groups and spent less time squabbling or debating over ideas. It was a refreshing change to see students move on quickly if their idea was dismissed by the group or hear the participants quickly acknowledge their strengths and weaknesses. So, yes Russian teens are very different, but they’re also just like every other teen out there, and there is a great deal to be learned in discovering those similarities and differences.

 Drama in Education practitioners and artists are celebrities in Russia.

 I know it sounds strange, but theatre artists are celebrities in Russia. During each day of our workshops with the students, a bench in the gymnasium would eventually fill with news reporters, TV personalities, school officials, professors from the teachers’ college, pre-service educators, and a myriad of other unknown visitors. At first, Dr. van de Water and I tried to keep up with who entered, observed, and left, but by the end, the trickle was so steady, we just ignored the guests and continued with our work. In addition to the perpetual gaze of onlookers while in class, we also participated in countless interviews, including radio, television, and newspaper interviews; we sat on panels and press conferences; and we were the guests of honor at several dinners and performances. A profound change of pace! One evening, our translator commented on Dr. van de Water’s poise after an impromptu television interview, stating, “You must have a lot of experience doing this!” We both laughed at the idea of being interviewed by a television crew in the United States for drama in education work. Still, the experience of being valued as artists and teachers spoke to the value of theatre in Russian culture, particularly in regards to young people. In Russia, the arts are not ancillary components of the school day or of cultural life. Instead, theatre is an invaluable component of citizenship, and many people, from our sixteen-year-old workshop student who spent his weekly allowance to attend a performance of a hip-hop version of the Odyssey one night of the festival to the teachers who crowded into a hot classroom and sat on the floor to hear a lecture about drama in education strategies after their school day, deeply care about how the arts shape the lives of young people.

Steve Jobs.

Teenagers insight into the world always surprises and inspires me. Their unique perspectives, the new ways they make me think, laugh, and reflect, are the primary reasons I find this work so challenging and rewarding. The teenage worldview, with its raw emotional core, with its excitingly fresh imagination, with its critique of adult-centered spaces, provides one of the most important motivations I have to create theatre with young people. Russian teens are no exception. An example? Steve Jobs. Yes, Steve Jobs. As much as teens in the US love their IPhones, their devotion to Apple products pales in comparison to Russian teenagers. During our second week of work with our students, Dr. van de Water and I transitioned into a devising project using TO techniques, and we thought we’d effectively prepared our students for the emotionally engaging work of creating theatre about the oppression in their lives. During an introductory activity, we asked the students to comment on the most important news event that directly affect their lives in Rostov-on-Don. We stressed that this event had to have a direct and personal connection to their lives—they had to feel the impact daily and react with strong emotions. The students’ response? Steve Jobs. A few days prior, Jobs had succumbed to cancer, and the students, much to our surprise, collectively grieved this loss. Dr. van de Water and I expected something about the violence or corruption in the city, a problem that was so prolific that our host referred to the city as “Papa Rostov,” the Russian equivalent of “Rostov’s Your Daddy.” Or drugs or alcohol. Or even something about Putin. But Steve Jobs?

Needless to say, the selection of Steve Jobs’s death as the single most important event in these young people’s lives took us by humbling surprise. Nevertheless, we went with it, and soon, powerful tableaux emerged as students represented the loss of innovation and creativity  associated with Jobs’s work at Apple. The students displayed an honest, occasionally humorous, but deeply genuine emotional connection to Jobs. It was an unexpected moment of discovery both for the young participants and for us as the leaders. Afterward, the Steve Jobs moment caused Dr. van de Water and I to reflect, to think about how these Russian young people interrogated, explored, and made sense of their increasingly interconnected and globally intertwined world, where Steve Jobs’s death can be the most important event in a world so deeply affected by poverty and civil unrest– where they find a voice to talk about a new kind of Russian identity.

aW1hZ2VfbWlkZGxlOjEzNTAwOTUvL2ltYWdlX21pZGRsZToxMzUwMDk1Through the Steve Jobs moment, an honesty and openness developed with our group of 41 Russian teenagers. Slowly, they realized that we cared about what they thought, not just about their ability to perform, and they started to share and explore. Even with the pressure of спектакль looming, even with the language barriers, even with the expansive and echoing gymnasium in which we worked, and even with the trickle of visitors trying to understand what exactly we were doing, the students of School 65 created beautiful theatre about their lives in Rostov-on-Don. Tableaux came to life showing corruption in the state testing system. Voices spoke about the desire to play jazz when clubs only wanted rock and roll or techno. Bodies displayed the pain of waiting for medical treatment in a financially taxed and overcrowded hospital system. Through theatre, these young people demonstrated their hopes, their fears, their questions, and their dreams. On our final day, we prepped our performance, a collage of different activities agreed upon by the group. After our somewhat harrowing rehearsal, replete with all the tension and cat-herding one would imagine when putting together a sharing of 41 teenagers’ work in three hours, we ended our time together with songs, flowers, hugs, and an embarrassing number of tears.

Our time spent with the students at школа №65 (School 65) proved to be some of the most professionally, emotionally, and artistically sustaining work I’ve participated in during my time as theatre maker, performer, and teacher. These Russian teens reminded me that drama, particularly in schools, provides young people a chance to be heard, to listen, to show, to feel, to have an opinion, to dialogue, to develop relationships, to explore the unexplored, and to imagine different worlds.


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Mary McAvoy is an independent scholar based in Chicago, IL. She regularly works with young people as a theatre educator and teaching artist. She received her PhD in Theatre and Drama at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 2013, and her articles have appeared in Youth Theatre Journal and the Journal of American Drama and Theatre. Her research and art practice focuses on radical and experimental theatre with, by, and for young people in the United States and Russia.

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