Written on October 31st, 2014 , Arts in Community, Plays, The Business of Art, Theatre for Social Change Tags: , ,

Holly-077 copy_cropI have spent much of this Autumn working on creating the violence for an all-female production of  “Julius Caesar”, which opens in November. This type of project is some of my favorite work, and this production in particular has been inspiring, challenging, and visionary.  The challenges the women have struggled with and slowly– with growing fierceness, glory, and concentrated power– overcome have prompted me to post this blog from 2012 once more. Coaxing adult women into taking up more space, striking with surety, turning with quick and safe confidence, weapon in hand…even having to remind them that this warrior does not fear death…. I want girls to have some practice being bold in safe, fun environments! It used to be popular to be boys or pirates or whatever at Hallowe’en, but I watch as the one day a year we can try a persona on, break free from our assigned role and have a bit of wildness turns into another day for girls to be icons of “thingness” rather than “action”. Let this wonderful, wild day of being someone else remind us to give our girls encouragement to swash some buckles! HAPPY HALLOWE’EN!!!

I love pirates. Not, of course, modern real-life pirates, but the pirates of history and fiction with whom I fell in love as a girl. I still remember the thrill I felt when I met my first wild and adventurous pirate, Sinbad the Sailor from 1001 Arabian Nights. I was a shy, bookish, wandering girl of 8 who spent long afternoons alone in the woods to recover from school where having both too much energy and an agile, hungry mind made me ….. well, let’s call it “less than popular”. My discovery of the swashbuckling, adventurous narrative saved me.

To be clear, my love for the buckling swashers and swashing bucklers was not a love born of wanting to be in a moment with them; I wanted to be in a moment AS them. I wanted adventures! I wanted to wave a sword and save people and ride a fast horse or a fast ship or a slow camel under a different canopy of stars. While it’s true that there are more and more girls and women who are allowed to be heroic or adventurous or daring in novels, the stage and the screen still reflect society’s general expectation of females, and there is tremendous resistance to both writing such parts for women and casting women in such roles.

Enter Stage Combat. So delicious! So many techniques and practices that borrow from everything from martial arts to mime to circus tricks, and so many wonderfully pointy objects to wield. There is no room in safe fight practice for ego or a sense of victimhood, nor for hesitation/disempowerment or domination. A good teacher/choreographer also designs a fight for surprise. At this point in my career, teaching stage combat to mixed-gender (mixed-race, mixed-ethnicity, mixed-class….) groups of young people is one of the most joyful, effective, and subversive practices I know. Plus it’s waaaay fun.

Stage combat is also an entrance to roles otherwise denied chicks. The practice (The skills? The mindset?) has allowed me to play a number of swashbuckling roles (including pirates), to direct swashbuckling productions (like “Pirates of Penzance” for Cornell’s Summer Concert series last June), and to find a bravery in my self when I need it.

So, Teaching Artists, Guardians, clamour for the opportunity for your young women to practice saving the day and having adventures. Long live the ladies of the blade!

Written on May 5th, 2014 , Arts in Community, Arts-in-Ed, Plays, Teaching Artistry, Theatre for Social Change Tags: , , , , , ,

The cast of A Class Act!My wonderful and amazing students from “A Class Act” with The Magic Paintbrush Project performed on April 27th (a play they wrote!) and hit the ball out of the park. They were amazing, they were incredible, they brought the house down. And every single one of them has a disability. I wrote about them last fall, when we were just beginning our process (see “Life is Washable”), but as a result of the show, folks have been asking about children, challenges, and performance, especially children who are on the Asperger-Autism spectrum.

I last posted some specific observations and activities about working with children living with such challenges in January of 2013, but it seems relevant to repost, so here it is. Please let me know if I can be of help to you or your group! I have also posted some additional links to resources at the end of the article.

I am a performer and Teaching Artist with a long history and much training in working with people whose perceptual/interactive experience of the world is on the fringe of typical association. In 2012, I was hired by 3 Tier Consulting to do theater workshops with children on the Asperger-Autism spectrum in Watertown and Fort Drum. Most of these children come from families with a spouse in the active armed forces, oftentimes also facing a possible move to another base; although we ran 2 sets of 2 weekly sessions about six months apart, only one boy was in both sets.

Were they scared at first? HECK yes. Another opportunity to not understand what is going on and feel out of place. Great. Kids in the show But once they realize that it’s the OPPOSITE of an informal social setting, they take to it like a duck to water. Of course the do! Even in an improv exercise, the facilitator sets out clear, strict relationship, narrative, agenda, and ‘milemarker’ guidelines, often providing ‘line kernels’ when not providing the lines themselves. And scripts? Especially short funny ones full of foibles by “regular” people that involve saying cool things to your peers and impressing dudes/chicks? DOUBLE HECK yeah. Over time, the safety and comfort of the class structure brings a freedom and joy not available elsewhere. One of the joys of performance for anyone is the opportunity to relinquish yourself to the script, to say things and do things that are completely new because you are pretending to be someone else. A perfect place to test drive a response to a social moment for anyone, or to work through, via a character, a problem or fear.

Fabulously enough, targeted performance skills are targeted performance skills, regardless of whether the workshop participants are professional adult actors or children with Asperger’s Syndrome.  Working on a stage-sharing Ensemble, creating and understanding dialogue, unpacking meaning, developing a gesture repertoire or honing gestural language are things ALL actors must constantly revisit, which means that ‘Going to Acting Class’ is something an eleven-year-old boy can talk about at school with pride. It is also a context that can comfortably absorb people with a wide range of social skills, including typically-developing children.

We had two groups, one for children from four to seven years old, and one for children (who turned out to be all boys) from nine to thirteen years old. The younger group had children all over the Asperger-Autism map (I have found that ‘spectrum’ implies a linearality that is not really helpful or accurate in a performance context), and the older group was made up of boys with various manifestations of Asperger’s Syndrome.

With the younger group, I chose the theme of Weather, specifically wind and snow, because it was late fall/early winter, imageand kids ‘on the spectrum’ in particular respond well to themed structure. I knew that they would need the space and a variety of concrete visual, sound and text clues to guide implicitly, so I created a circle with one “opening” made up of soft blankets with differing colors and designs, folded to create a large ‘mat’, knowing the children would gravitate toward them a places to be, lie down, watch, etc, and that they would choose the design and color best for them.

In the middle of the circle were picture books (fiction and non-fiction) and some magazine photographs about winter, as well as crayons, markers, and paper. As children drifted in, they were given the opportunity to draw, listen, read, look, or talk about the weather and the coming winter. Once we were all there, we shifted from drawing, etc to recounting to imagining we were going to go outside and play in the snow.

Each child in turn (the idea of waiting to take your turn and knowing what the appropriate social cue is for that is HUGE) imagesuggested something we had to wear or bring in order to go outside and play (reinforcing life skills). Once we all agreed we were ready, we got off our mats and pretended to do snow things—skate around the circle to music, sit on our mats and go ‘sledding’, make snow angels, and even rip up paper and throw it into the air for it to fall.

The last snow activity we did was make imaginary snow beings and snow creatures in the air, as though the air was the snow that we rolled, stacked and shaped. The children took turns explaining what their snow creature was (“Bunny”) or what their snow man was doing (“throw snow!” or gesturing a pose, sometimes with help). We then took a BIG step. After taking off our pretend outdoor clothes, everyone got a partner.

I demonstrated how I was going to gently turn my partner into a sculpture, we brainstormed some movement ideas and then each child had a turn to turn their partner into something. They could touch, gesture, use words, whatever, but it had to be gentle and it had to be more than one action (we encouraged both arms and legs with optional silly face). The receiver had to wait and then only take the pose suggested. All sculptures were applauded, and then we had quiet music movement time, where children had the option to enjoy the music on their blankets or move around the room to the music as they wished or as the elements of winter I offered (“What if you were a snowflake?”).

imageI try to think of a class plan as being full of the patterns of breathing, inhale and exhale, collect/focus in and expand/focus out, with the pattern of such changing tempo depending on whether I want the ‘heartbeat’ of the group to quicken, steady, or slow. This kind of planning is especially important in working with these children, and one must be constantly on the lookout for when it is time to slow down in stretching ebbs, like mathematical ellipses. The movement-to-music time was necessary to break free the intensity of having to focus on and touch (!) another child, but it had to be gently controlled up to a release and brought ebblingly back to a sweet quiet, each on our blankets after only about 5-7 minutes (which is less than other populations might need).

I then skim-read them Jan Brett’s The Mitten, mostly focusing on the next animal, the actions, and asking things like, “Wow! Look at the bunny’s face! How do you think he feels?” or “Oh no! The prickly hedgehog will be squished inside too! What would it be like to be in the mitten with a hedgehog?” or “What do you think will happen next?” targeting reading expressions and gestures, putting oneself in other’s place, and predicting outcome.

Then we started over from the beginning and everyone’s blanket was a mitten! We could be whichever animals we wanted in our mitten, yelling out “Ouch” or “Move Over!” or “Please let me in!” if we chose. The most fun, of course, was exploding out everywhere at the end when the bear (also in the mitten) sneezes. We finished up with me reading/gesture-performing William Steig’s Brave Irene, with all of us chiming in with movements and sounds and phrases as we went along through the story (sort of participatory street-theatre style), and stopping to imagine how the characters felt or what they wanted or what they would do.

With the older boys, we targeted many of the same skills, but in different ways. We began with shadow puppets, and after imageencouraging them to experiment with design and create whatever characters they chose, they had to tell a short story (it could be silent) using the shadow puppets and the other boys as puppeteers. Each child had an opportunity to be the boss, but was not required to be in any one else’s . If they chose to be, however, they had to take direction and not take over the narrative. It was an interesting challenge for them, as the idea of hiding behind a screen and seeing the shadows appear in the dark room is pretty compelling, although the idea of doing what you were asked and not your own idea until it was your turn was daunting indeed. The ‘cool’ factor won out!

From there we progressed to me reading/showing a book with paper-cut illustrations of the Japanese legend The Warrior and the Wiseman. We unpacked the story as we went as well as afterwards, and then created masks of the characters to wear to act out the story. Mask-making was such a hit, we didn’t have a chance to perform the narrative, although the boys would put the masks on and act out as they developed their masks. Boys with Asperger’s are usually well aware by the time they are 10 or 11 that the language of facial gestures, expression, and subtextual meaning is pretty easily interpreted and used by their peers, but still a murky, seemingly disconnected gobbledygook to themselves. They are therefore, very sensibly, generally resistant to taking risks with face/gesture/subtext/meaning; that they spontaneously took risks and played with this crazy alien language is remarkable, and I believe the masks/mask-making made that possible.

Having explored shape a bit with the shadow puppets, they had to think about color and expression and feeling as it was established in the strong characterizations of the Elemental ‘Demons’ and two main (and diametrically opposed) characters. It’s a great book for pre-teens in general, as it is about what the longer term consequences are of taking what you want versus being generous, and what it means to be a man. It’s even more appropriate for pre-teens with Asperger’s Syndrome, as the Demons respond immediately and impetuously to their circumstances and the Wiseman has to deduce from their actions, dialogue, and expressions how they feel, what his brother the Warrior has done, and what he himself can do to set things back on the right path.

Theatre is always an effective and exciting medium in which to explore, discover, and practice emotion, relationships, and social meaning, but it is especially beneficial for children for whom this kind of stuff is like an alien landscape. The main difference is that the ‘steps’ between one idea/practice and the other need to be closer together and more carefully illuminated.

Helpful links!





Written on December 23rd, 2013 , Arts in Community, Plays Tags:

m&a prop 1I write this from a large house in Pennsylvania that my beloved extended family has rented for the week so that we can converge upon our newest member and rejoice in each others’ sweet, silly, insightful and rambunctious company. That we are the types which like to make our own fun or enjoy things somewhat off the beaten path has prompted me to include two links to good cheer best enjoyed in such excellent company at Christmastime.

Although Chanukah, Diwali, and Eid are all past, I also include some links to family-oriented and fun activities for each, including plays. Hopefully folks will save these links to their calendars for those celebrations next year!

So here we go with some Yuletide delights. I do love many of the holiday-themed films, but there is something about radio that captures me and feels more real. Here is a link to my favorite Christmas radio episode, the Christmas Show of 1955 of Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy. The rendition of “T’was the Night Before Christmas” is not to be missed. Love the genre? Here’s another link to more Christmas Radio Shows, collated by Bill Hillman.

Secondly, I simply must have some Dickens, whether that means being in a staged version, a radio version, watching a film, or simply reading “A Christmas Carol” (or excerpts). Below is the opening of this wonderful little tidbit, followed

from the Stormfax website

by a link to the work in its entirety, complete with Victorian illustrations.

“I have endeavoured in this Ghostly little book, to raise the Ghost of an Idea, which shall not put my readers out of humour with themselves, with each other, with the season, or with me. May it haunt their houses pleasantly, and no one wish to lay it.

Their faithful Friend and Servant,
C. D.
December, 1843.

Marley was dead: to begin with. There is no doubt whatever about that. The register of his burial was signed by the clergyman, the clerk, the undertaker, and the chief mourner. Scrooge signed it: and Scrooge’s name was good upon ‘Change, for anything he chose to put his hand to. Old Marley was as dead as a door-nail.

Mind! I don’t mean to say that I know, of my own knowledge, what there is particularly dead about a door-nail. I might have been inclined, myself, to regard a coffin-nail as the deadest piece of ironmongery in the trade. But the wisdom of our ancestors is in the simile; and my unhallowed hands shall not disturb it, or the Country’s done for. You will therefore permit me to repeat, emphatically, that Marley was as dead as a door-nail.”

Here’s the link to Dickens (thanks Stormfax)!

Lastly, links for fun stuff to do at other light-oriented celebrations that often come this time of year:

candles 1Diwali (Hindu Festival of Lights); this year it was November 3rd.

BBC, Let’s Celebrate Diwali 

Eid al Adha, also celebration typically in the fall winter. This year “Little Eid” was in August, and “Big Eid” began on October 15:

Jordan Times, Eid is Fun


Priyo News, Comedy Play


Arab News, Comedy Plays

Chanukah/Hanukkah, which was at the end of November this year:

Untitled Theater, Plays About Hanukkah


Hanukkah Plays


PS. The Dickens image is from the Stormfax website, which is the website that houses the work itself. The other images are by Thomas Hoebbel Photography and used with permission.

Written on November 29th, 2013 , Arts in Community, Performing, Plays Tags: , ,

At this point in my life, I have worked in many environments, including being a teaching artist in Kabul without much Dari, working with folks with pretty much any atypical situation you can think of, and had crazy weather do its very best to wreak havoc. Generally, we find a way to manifest a successful outcome, and I am able to be in the smooth problem-solving zone (especially as I gain experience with age).

That being said, my latest project has me laughing as I realize that the boy ‘on the spectrum’, the girl with Muscular Dystrophy, and all the other kids with their wide-ranging challenges are teaching me to what it really means to be patient, roll with the punches, and remember that life is washable.

Here’s the backstory. “Life is Washable” is the tagline for the wonderful, ability-inclusive organization called The Magic Paintbrush (www.magicpaintbrushproject.org) that is sponsoring this latest project. I quote their website:

The Magic Paintbrush Project provides family and community engagement programs that serve individuals of all ages with special needs. Our programs include innovative workshops, activities and materials designed to creatively engage ability and invite involvement with families and caregivers.  The Magic Paintbrush Project creatively connects those we serve, including individual families, agencies, integrative programs and classrooms. We have successfully served thousands of individuals leaving a lasting impression for all.”

The Magic Paintbrush Project is run by the delightful Jen O’Brien, who originated it years ago as a response to a lack of creative opportunities for her own children with special needs. Jen and I had worked together at a few symposiums and helped each other with resources over the past half-dozen years, and when she contacted me last spring, I figured it would be another one of those types of calls.

But no.

She wanted to create a theatre company with kids with special needs. They would meet once a week (not counting holiday weeks), would learn about performing and playwriting, write their own piece, and finally perform it in a professional theatre… within about three months. She was hoping I would be willing to be the person to lead the workshops, facilitate the script development, and direct the show. Exciting and a lot to accomplish under any circumstances, never mind that although theatres have wheelchair-accessible seating, they do not often have wheel-chair accessible greenrooms and so on. But, what the heck, life is washable, right? I said, “THAT SOUNDS AWESOME!!!!!!!”

Then we had what I think many of us have experienced: ‘floating stakeholder syndrome’,  followed by outreach challenges, and everyone’s perennial favorite, scheduling obstacles. I had nearly given up of having the project happen at all, when Jen phoned the day before our first day to say we had four kids for sure. Not what I was hoping for, and four kids is the bare minimum needed for a fun and full theatrical endeavor. Add to that a cold day, an outdoor delay, and a broken thermostat in our working space…


Magic Paintbrush Project logo

I brought that stress into the arena. I shouldn’t have and I know that, but the best I could do was keep it on the inside, and wonder how I could meet everyone’s needs and forward the project so we could somehow meet stakeholder expectations and various deadlines. I began to do what I know how to do, begin the process of becoming a writing/performing ensemble. The kids began to do what they know how to do: listen for the important things, find their own way to connect, and not mind the mess/chaos…because life is messy, life is crazy. Nothing is designed for this particular group of differently-abled kids whose physical needs are so varied, and they are ready to roll with that because we have decided as a team that this is our trajectory. We will create our and perform our show, because I will teach them what I know about theatre, and they will teach me what they know about living vibrantly in a messy world.

Written on July 7th, 2013 , Arts-in-Ed, Plays Tags: ,

There are at least three excellent books on playbuilding: Playbuilding by Errol Bray, Building Plays by Michaels and Tarrington, and Theatre, Dialogue and Community: The Hope is Vital Training Manual by Michael Rohd.

In a nutshell, there are three steps:

I. Building a common skill base and creating a project outline.

III. Filling in the scenes and developing the script.

IV. Troubleshooting/Keeping the faith (rehearsing).

Most of you have your own rehearsal practices and probably have targeted performance skills you/your artist are teaching, but I have learned that the idea of having the kids ‘write the play’ is still daunting. So, I wanted to take a brief look at some scene-making tips.

Remember: KEEP EVERYTHING!!!!!! It can all become part of your hallway display, a project timeline, or part of an assessment portfolio.

Start with your Outline, which should be slightly filled in with agreed-upon ideas from your Brainstorm page. Have the kids break into groups containing 4, 5, or 6 kids, and have them create a tableaux (frozen picture—great idea to do some exercises with tableaux and faery tales before this) of one of the moments in your outline. Good idea to have them check in with you to avoid too many repetitions, and the groups that choose quickest get first dibs!

When they share, remember to ask the audience of other kids, “What did you notice?” and “What else did you notice?” Make sure we can all tell which moment it is, then ask, “How did you know?” Help them notice small frozen gestures, spacing, facial expressions, et cetera that give clues as to emotion, feeling, age, indoor/outdoor, relationships…. I usually ‘notice what I can notice’ silently to myself, then ask something like “How old is this character? A grown up? A teen? Your age? How about this other character? What is different between these two?”

Have them repeat the exercise (with new ‘moments’), and this time, on the second group (or so—judge best) wonder aloud what would happen if you ‘hit the action button’. Then do. You could also wonder aloud what the characters might say if you clicked them ‘on’, or even spontaneously interview them. Works great!

Next have each group choose a scene they saw poses for, and practice bringing it to life—they should write down their ideas (choose a scribe) and can include what each person says. When they perform, I choose scribes to write down what gets said in a scene–I tell the 4th graders that we are dialogue catching and assign one child as a scribe for each actor. That child writes as best s/he can, what their actor says. If they can’t catch it all, the actor goes up to the scribe at the end and they discuss it and work it out together. Occasionally, I encourage them to add, but usually it is best just to keep moving. Having scribes is helpful to the group for all kinds of reasons: it’s “group binder”; it helps maintain focus; it is good practice in really listening to and writing actual speech patterns etc(most people do not start out writing they way people really talk); it is fun literacy practice.

These first scene bits will be skinny—don’t worry. Think of the skinny scenes as prewriting or “toe in the cold water”. Playwrighting is scary FOR EVERYONE. Grow them from there with some guided improv or some supportive writing structures of your own!