~by Jessica Lander
On the grass behind the theater – once a fire station – two teenagers embraced each other and slow-danced. They wore sheepish grins as they took each other’s hands, swaying and revolving to the music. Iron & Wine and Graffiti6 and Elliot Smith floated from my portable speakers. Curious dog walkers with waddling pugs and sweaty joggers threw sidelong glances.
It was week four, opening day, only hours before curtain. Our Romeo and our Juliet were nervous. Would their performance be believable?
The three of us met behind the theater to explore the act of falling in love. The two teenagers began by locking eyes, standing quiet for twenty minutes without once letting their glances dart sideways. Most students would feel too awkward to dance along the streets of Charlestown. But these two seventeen-year-old actors were willing to try.
In theater such willingness is called “saying yes.”
Saying yes is the number one rule of improv. If your improv partner says: “That soup you’re eating looks delicious!” and you respond, “I’m not eating soup,” the skit falls flat. In our converted black box theater saying yes became the first rule and promise of our ensemble.
Last summer, as a teaching artist for Actors Shakespeare Project, my July crackled with witches and Scottish thanes. This year we – ten students and four teachers – took up residence in the bloody streets of Verona. Our students were a demographic chart of the Boston area. Our ensemble came from the suburbs and from the heart of the city; from public schools, from exams schools and from private schools. Some had previously lived in youth detention centers. Some had years of acting experience in camps and school plays and some came with no formal theatrical training. What set them apart from their peers was that these ten teenagers were willing, even eager, to say yes.
Saying yes can be challenging in any setting, particularly in the confines of a traditional school classroom. Raising your hand, offering up the answer to a math problem, sharing a poem, proposing a hypothesis – they all open you to vulnerability. I have had 6th graders and college students of mine say no. I have had students as far as Thailand and Cambodia and as close as Charlestown say no. School textbooks and tests are lined with “right” and “wrong” answers and school halls are varnished in peer pressure and the shine of social status.
The black box exists outside this norm.
Over the course of four weeks I watched as ten teenagers chose instead to just say yes.
They said yes to playing improv games that required them to squirm like jello and row furiously like Viking warriors.
They said yes to walking and running and crawling through our theater to explore the space.
Two young men said yes to locking hands and attempting to push each other across a room while yelling their lines and furrowing their brows.
One young woman said yes to chortling like an old man with a beer belly and then cooing like a baby girl.
Everyone said yes to playing games of Mafia every day (four weeks straight) during lunch, holding heated debates and flinging accusations, in each subsequent game, about who might be suspect.
One young man said yes to swinging his arms in the air for an entire monologue. Another young woman said yes to trying not to smile (a real feat for her).
In four weeks our students said yes to dancing in the rain, to singing, to arguing about character backstories, to fake punching each other in the nose, to sharing painful stories, to laughing out loud and crying out loud.
It is not easy saying yes. You need three things. You need peers that won’t snicker, you need teachers who won’t seek “correct” answers, and you need a space wide open to allow students to spin and floors strong enough to encourage students to leap.
And if you are lucky enough for such a convergence, then Romeo and Juliet waltz in a park, while dog walkers stare and at least one teacher smiles.
What can you and your students say YES to? Let us know in the comments!
Jessica Lander is a teacher and writer in Cambridge, MA. She has taught, among other things, Shakespeare and critical thinking to college students in the Cambodian Capital of Phnom Penh and the northern city of Chiang Mai, Thailand. Closer to home she has taught math and Shakespeare to 6th graders in the Boston inner city. She has written for the Boston Globe Magazine and keeps an education blog, Chalk Dust: http://jessicalander.blogspot.com