Friday, May 08, 2009

Saint Joseph's Students ROCK Their Final Projects

On Thursday, May 7th, students of the "Introduction to Theater" course at Saint Joseph's University presented their final projects before an audience of their supportive and enthusiastic classmates (and me).

Their final projects were to take at least three of the (nine) plays we've read over the course of the semester, to smash them together in some way, and create a performance out of their collision. The rest of the details were up to them.

The biggest expectations I impressed upon them was to make use of what they'd learned over the course of the semester about the plays they've read, their understanding of the uniquely theatrical elements ("what is theater?"), their observations made from witnessing live events, and their in-class experiences with performance, somehow creatively expressing all of this semester-long learning in a 15-20 minute original work of live performance.

But most importantly, I just wanted them to have fun engaging their own creativity.

I deeply believed in all of them, yet the class still exceeded my expectations.

And because I am so thrilled with the projects they came up with and presented to each other on Thursday, I wanted to share them publicly.

Project One was an episode of "Celebrity Jeopardy", hosted by Alex Trebek, with contestants Romeo, Georges Seurat, and Willy Loman. They answered questions from categories like "Plays by Stephen Sondheim", "Shakespearian Tragedies", humorously expressing the tragic flaws of all three of these leading men. Loman wins the final, decisive round, as Romeo and Seurat (bursting into song) both answer incorrectly the question, "what is theatre?". Loman is thrilled that he can now support his family and tell his boss to stick it.

Project Two was a parallel telling of three plays-- Crimes of the Heart, Romeo and Juliet, and Oedipus Rex, as Mafia/crime family adaptations. Re-imagining the McGrath sisters as "three incompetent New Jersey brothers who eagerly await the return of their father from prison", Crimes of the Cannoli was a five-minute play exploring the "main themes of family, loyalty and misfortune". Group Two's second play re-visioned the opening moment of Romeo and Juliet with servants Sampson and Gregory and Montague kinsman Benvolio instead as two warring mafia families (the Lucianos and Costellos), with "Vinnie"/Benvolio as an associate from the Luciano family. A fight breaks out (instigated by "Frankie"/Tybalt), prompting the head of the Gambino family (Prince Escalus as "Nicky Gambino") to threaten the warring families into peace with each other. Their third adaptation was the moment in which Tiresius (as wise "Dr. Milano") reveals the prophecy to Oedipus/"Vinnie Bruno" about his doomed fate as his wife/mother Jocasta/"Concetta Bruno" attempts to console him.

Project Three presented two short plays-- a smashing together of two plays each. The first, Romeo & Juliet: The Seven Year Itch, transformed the final moment of A Doll's House, expressing the Ibsen's Torvald and Nora through Shakespeare's young lovers, thirteen years after their re-imagined union in the Elizabethan tragedy. Juliet tells Romeo she's leaving, that she knows of his affair with Rosalind, and that the young lovers have grown older and distant. She exits amidst Torvald/Romeo's protests, slamming the door in his face. The group's second piece places Crimes of the Heart's Babe (McGrath) Botrelle in a therapy session with Equus's Martin Dysart, in which they both continue to question and come to an understanding about healing and passion and "normal" behavior.

Project Four, titled: Attrition, imagines Babe Botrelle again, this time during her fifth year of institutionalization in Whitfield Asylum. She's visited by Dora Strang, five years after the final curtain of Equus (and now separated from her husband) on a soul-saving mission to the mental hospital. The students took a lot of inspiration from Shaffer's use of space, creating in the classroom an encircled playing area in which the two live actors were divided by a single partition (a piano bench). The third performer (a member of the SJU Softball team and out of town at a tournament) was summoned via an Ipod and narrated the emotional action through the character of Tartuffe's Elmire Pernelle (and in ryhming couplets!). As Babe and Dora gained emotional closeness, the actors invisibly crept forward in their rolling chairs, expressing their emotional distance physically (they also changed time and space during sections of the play by adjusting themselves differently in their chairs and directly addressing the audience with their inner thoughts).

Project Five was a couples group therapy session led by Equus's Martin Dysart. The play opens with Dysart questioning his ability to counsel while the four couples all sit on stage, much like the chorus/horses in Shaffer's drama. Dysart attempts to counsel the Helmers (Nora and Torvald), the Lomans (Willy and Linda), the Maxsons (Troy and Rose from August Wilson's Fences), and Georges Seurat and his pregnant mistress, Dot. The couples find places of intersection and disconnect (even within themselves-- Willy continues searching for his brother Ben, Georges at one point places a cardboard cut-out of himself while he leaves to "finish the hat"), eventually resisting Dysart's counsel and exit, leaving the psychiatrist to contine questioning himself alone on stage.

In short, the students did wonderful work digging into their creative reservoirs and birthing new ways to inhabit and present these plays. They tapped into their creativity in ways that surprised them, and expressed themselves in ways they thought impossible. And more thrilling, it was evident that were really ENJOYING it, evidenced by their hard work, attention to detail, and the sparkle in which they presented themselves.

As an additional assignment, I asked the students to reflect upon their experience working on these creative projects, and I was thrilled with their personal discoveries. Of these, I wanted to share a couple:

"After about 20 minutes into writing, we began to have a great time with the script. We were coming up with new, fresh ideas and the project did not seem to be a burden at all. The problem of not being able to write enough quickly turned into a problem of writing too much and having to edit many parts out to be conscious of time. We became so engulfed in our work that if we were permitted to, would have continued to write an entire script because we were having so much fun with it. Never did I imagine I would have this much fun with the project and so much curiosity would be sparked in me. I learned many things from this project. The main thing I learned was to approach all things with an open mind. Secondly, I learned that I had a creative side of me that I never really thought I had."

"Overall, throughout the length of the semester, I learned how theater in and of itself is a continued experience of the creative journey; and I have a much deeper appreciation for theatrical works. While I learned a great deal, I am well aware that the learning process will only continue long into the future."

These reflections from my students are the highest reward they can offer their instructor, because it demonstrates that they have been transformed by their experiences, and feel more alive because of them. Witnessing their revelations teaches me to continue to search for my own, and to continue finding the joy inside my own creative expression and teaching.

For them, it is my hope that they continue and deepen their dance with this awareness and with their creative selves, as it is clear to me that they all became brave, curious, and joyful learners, open and engaged and full of light.

Thank you again, HAWKS, for a lovely semester.