by Natalie Goodnow, Artistic Associate
I’m so excited for this opportunity to get to share the fantastic experience I had with 9 young women (ages 10-13) earlier this month at Theatre Action Project and the University of Texas (UT) collaboration, a week-long camp focusing on “Hero Myths and Legends from Around the World.”
UT’s Drama and Theatre for Youth and Communities program (DTY) hosts an annual Summer Institute, in which both pre-service and in-service educators from all over the state and even the nation come to learn more about how to integrate and utilize theatre techniques in education. Meanwhile, TAP collaborates with UT to recruit young people for a week-long summer camp, with not only TAP staff teaching artists, but also lots of fun guest teachers from the Institute who are trying out their new skills and lesson plan ideas – a win-win-win situation!
My students spent the first day of camp getting to know one another, establishing guidelines and expectations for our group, team building, and then, the fabulous Katie Dawson led us in a fantastically fun process drama, in which each student created her own superhero character, all guests on a super special superhero talk show. The superheroes got to explore, through this improvisation and also through numerous still tableau’s, short scenes, through writing, and through drawing, what it was that inspired their superhero characters, what frightened them, and what kept them going in times of adversity. On this day and in this lesson, we introduced the central question of our camp – what is a hero?
In the following days, we learned stories of the Trojan War, an ancient Aztec myth of how the sun and moon came to be in the sky, and also portions of an ancient Indian epic – the Ramayana. Our guest teachers from UT’s Summer Institute did an amazing job of crafting lesson plans which prompted students to explore these stories in depth, from multiple perspectives and viewpoints. Through this exploration, we learned that one group’s “hero” could be another group’s “villain,” depending on your point of view; we learned that though a hero might pride him/herself on doing the “right” thing, there’s often more than one “right” thing to do! We also noticed that an awful lot of the heroes we were learning about were boys, and not girls! And hey, “What is up with that?!” we asked ourselves! So, we crafted some “girl-power” versions of the myths and legends we were learning about.
In the second half of the week, the girls and I collaborated to create a performance which showcased all of our explorations. I played the role of a talk show host, who had invited both superheroes and mythical heroes from around the world and throughout time to come chat about what it really means to be hero. We paused throughout the talk show for short “video clips” in which the girls shared our many different versions of the myths we had learned about. We shared two versions of the Trojan war – one from the perspective of the Greeks, and one from the perspectives of the Trojans. We shared a rendition of the Ramayana which showed not only what happened, but also how it was that the heroic characters made decisions about what was the right thing to do in the face of competing ethical obligations; we did this by dramatizing and physicalizing the many “voices in the head” of the characters. We also shared both a “his-story” and “her-story” version of the Aztec myth we had learned about.
I loved getting to showcase all these short plays that the girls had created; they are so talented and so hard-working! I was absolutely stunned by the stage presence that they had, and by their dedication and enthusiasm for theatre, from day one. While many students spend their break time running around or playing games on their cell phone (and yes, there was some of that), my group of girls spent most of their lunch and snack breaks creating their own original performances without any help at all from me! I even had to remind them to make time to eat! They are total hams and they did an amazing job of acting out the many different versions of the myths we had learned about, and of working together to synthesize our many, many, many creative ideas.
I also loved the “talk show” format, as it gave us a chance to highlight the kind of problem-posing education that I believe both TAP and UT’s DTY program do so well. Not once did any of our teaching staff tell the youth what a hero “should” be, nor did we position the myths we shared with the youth as prescriptive, as telling them how they should behave. We brought the stories into the classroom as a starting point, a place to begin asking questions, exploring diverse perspectives, and thinking critically about the messages the world hands us. I was so proud to get to ask onstage, in front of the girls’ families and friends, what they thought it meant to be a hero, and if they thought that a hero could “become” a villain if they treated their enemies in the same way that they see villains treat other people, because this meant that the audience got to hear a variety of intelligent responses from our young people, and to see that they were learning not only how to become actors and playwrights, but how to become critical media consumers and active, deep-thinking citizens!
My favorite part of the play was the very end. It was revealed that my character was, in fact, a supervillain in disguise, who had invited all of these heroes to the talk show in order to capture and destroy them (gasp!)! In order to set our superheroes and mythical heroes free, our two “spy” characters found that they had to find some “real” heroes to help them out. So, they went into the audience and asked family members and friends about things that they had done that made them heroes. It was important to our ensemble to communicate that anyone could be a hero, that it didn’t necessarily have anything to do with superpowers or beating bad guys up, and that the definition of “hero” really can depend on the person and on the context. I’m so proud. They did a fabulous job.
I can’t believe the week flew by so quickly! As a feminist playwright and solo performer myself, who, in my own work, loves to re-imagine the stories of both mythical and legendary figures from history, I found so many points of connection and inspiration from these young ladies. I wish I could work with them again! But of course, it’s not at all uncommon that in the work we do with young people at TAP, we find we end up learning just as much, if not more, from our students as they do from us. I can’t wait to get back in the classroom this fall.