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SELLING YOUR GRANDMA: Making the Personal Public on Stage

This workshop was created for the third year drama and playwriting students at University of Ulster, 12th March, 2007. The objective was to create for them the experience of seeing their lives as  raw material for theatre writing. It was a part of their Practical Week, exposing students to the techniques and experience of theatre professionals.

10 15 – 11 00 Warm up

Name exercises:

Name repetition: Students form a circle. One says her own name then turns to the person on her right; he says his own name as well as hers, turning to the person on his right who says her own name, his name and hers, etc. Finishes with the instructor.

Name plus gesture: Adding the visual and kinaesthetic to the aural exercise, the student says her name and adds a gesture to indicate something she likes. The student next to her does the same while repeating the first student’s name and gesture. Finishes with the instructor.

‘Help me – come here’:  Students form a circle. A volunteer goes to the centre then approaches a student. Before the volunteer makes contact, the student must turn to another in the circle, say ‘Help me, Meredith’ whereupon she answers ‘Come here, Chuck.’ As Chuck approaches Meredith, Meredith turns to another in the circle saying ‘Help me Robin’ whereupon Robin says ‘Come here Meredith’, then asks for help as Meredith approaches. As familiarity with names increases, the game speeds up.

‘Zip – Boing – Kapow’ or Pass the Gesture: Students form a circle. A sweeping hand gesture  called ZIP passes from one student to the next. Students pass ZIP around the circle. A blocking hand gesture called BOING is introduced which turns ZIP back. The gesture ZIPS and BOINGS around the circle. A cross-circle gesture is introduced called KAPOW which allows a student to pass the gesture anywhere in the circle. The gesture can then be ZIPPED, BOINGED or KAPOWED in any direction.

Breath exercises:

Students sit in a circle. They close their eyes and become aware of their breathing. They breathe through claustrophobia, if they feel it, and simply feel what their bodies feel like as they breathe in and out: an exercise in not thinking but being. This state of being will be re-visited at the end of the day as crucial to all creative work.

11 00 – 11 10 Rules of Engagement

Share with the students that phones need to be turned off, there will be a five minute break at 12:00, lunch will be from 1:00 to 2:00. Students are to take notes, keep pens and paper to the ready at all times and it will be understood at any moment in which they need to jot something down, they will. Not so long that it will interrupt the flow of an exercise but long enough to record an important point or feeling. Time will be scheduled for note taking after every exercise but sometimes thoughts occur, unscheduled. There will be an exercise later in the morning which requires complete silence on the part of the participants, the instructor will offer the experience of that silence to the whole room.

Share with the students the paradigm of a comfort zone beyond which is a stretch zone which itself borders on panic. Describe the symptoms of panic, ways of recognising and dealing with it. Offer dialogue: ‘I feel very uncomfortable with this right now’. If the instructor sees the symptoms of panic she will acknowledge it, understand and offer the student the choice of how or if s/he wishes to continue.

11 10 – 11 20     Share the Objective

 ‘To create the experience of feeling that your life is the stuff of theatre.’ Discuss the use of the words in that objective. What does it mean? Why ‘create’? Does it make sense? Do you think it’s true? Is your life the stuff of theatre? Is there a word you don’t like or do like? How else could I have said this, how would YOU have said this? What did you think when you read the workshop description? What does it mean to you when I said ‘Selling Your Grandma’? How does selling your Grandma relate to your life being material for your work?

11 20 – 11 30     What Is A Playwright’s Job?

What is new writing? Who are the playwrights of this world? Have you ever met one? What do you think they look like, what do they wear? How do they spend their days? What kind of person do you have to be to be a playwright? What the heck is their gift to the world? Is it valuable? Are you valuable, as a writer? Why?

11 30 – 12 00     Reading and Text Work
A piece of text will be read by two different students. What did you notice first reading? Second reading? What did each of the actors bring to the text? How much was in the text and how much was in the reading? Ask one student to describe the ‘movie’ in their head as they listened. Was it clear? Did they have an image of the scene? Could they draw it? Would they realise it? Put students in groups and ask them to realise portions of the speech. Draw on theatrical tools to realise their ascribed lines. Choral work, physical work, you can each take all the lines, one person can do all the lines while the rest of you comment. You can sing it, dance it. Students have a five line play to produce in ten minutes. Realise this moment in the life of the character. Decide what she is feeling and how you are going to evoke that for us. After they have each presented their small versions of the life of the character ask if the story is believable. Does this feel like theatre to you? Can you imagine seeing this on stage?

12 00 – 12 05      Break

12 10 – 1 00     Object exercises and Share the Theme

The following object based exercise was first devised by the Art of Change workshop leaders at Theatre Clwyd in February 2007, and is used with their permission. 

Working with the theme of ‘intense feeling’ students choose a random object, walk around the room considering the object and find a way to relate it to an important memory.  It is important to treat the objects as metaphor, i.e.:  this candle reminds me of my last year at school where I burnt mine at ‘both ends. I  dated two boys and tried to star in the 6th form musical and ended up hospitalised for exhaustion.  They share the memory with three other students, all walking around the room, refining the story each time they speak until they can condense it to a sentence.

Discussion and note time: Did it get hard to summarise your feeling and experience or was it easy? Were you happy with your object or did you wish you’d chosen another? Was there a reason you thought another object would be better? Did anyone find there was a theme to the stories he or she was hearing? Did it feel completely contrived and difficult or natural and quite straight forward?

Students are put into groups and told to share memories on the theme of ‘intense feeling’. As they speak an object is placed amongst them. They use the object as an inspiration for further memories. They continue to share as three more objects are placed before them, more memories and associations follow.

These memories will be condensed and acted out using only the objects and gestures as though appearing in the frame of a silent movie, always referring to the theme of ‘intense feeling’ with no words or sounds. Objects can be stroked, tossed, lightly set down, repeatedly brought into the frame – whatever will illustrate the narrative they, as a group, have created. Each group will show its silent film then teach the pattern of their silent stories to another group. That group, after lunch,  will be asked to interpret the ‘dumb show’ with dialogue and action.

1 00 – 2 00     Lunch

2 00 – 2 20    Share the Narrative

Students will share their interpretations of the ‘silent movies’ they have learned from their partner group.

2 20 – 2 40    Unpick the Relevance for Writers

Explore the ideas raised by the fact that whatever narrative had been intended, the group who created dialogue had invented their own. Does this have any ramifications for the writer? Does it invalidate the work to have it interpreted in a way you hadn’t meant? What is important – what is received or what is intended? Given that you cannot control how the audience will respond, what is your responsibility? It’s okay for things to be discovered, for things not to happen the way you had planned. Let’s say you’d told a memory that involved something to do with your Grandma. You could have – she is part of your memory. What if the story needed that Grandma to be an axe murderer? What is the difference between the Granny in your imagination and the Granny you need to tell the story? Do you have to tell your Granny? Discuss your motive for using Granny or your best friend or husband or sister. Eugene O’Neill waited until his family was dead.

2 40 – 250    Story

Read ‘heroine’s quest’ from Robert McKee's Story p196. Ask if they recognise the structure. Put the elements of story on paper: inciting incident, progressive complications, crisis, climax, resolution. Re-tell Red Riding Hood and see if the plot adheres to that structure.

2 50 – 3 30    Drawings

 Speak of how we’ve been working tribally, which is what theatre people must love, but most of the work happens in solitude, which we must cherish. Return the students to the memories of high feeling. Ask them to choose one memory, one of the more involved ones with deepest resonance and draw five pictures, with their non-dominant hands,  that illustrate the stages of that story or aspects of it. Points of view, other characters, scenery, light, passage of time, any five aspects of the story.

When they have finished they write five words about each picture, still using their non dominant hands, then put the pictures in sequence, either randomly or bearing the heroine’s quest in mind.  When there is a shape they flip the pictures over and write one sentence on the back of each.

Now, choosing any element of any one of the drawings, begin an interview using your dominant hand for the questions and your non-dominant hand for the answers. If you have a person in your drawings, use a clean sheet of paper to ask him or her questions. How do you feel? What do you want? Where are you going? What are you afraid of? What do you hope for? You can ask the same questions of inanimate objects and will be surprised at the answers you might get.

3 30        Break

3 45 – 4 15    Sharing the Story

 Put in partners, share with one person your drawings, your words and your dialogue. Then, as simply as possible, tell the story of that memory. Your partner will then do the same.

Return to the circle with your partners. You will each tell each others’ story, using the drawings and words as inspiration and cues.

4 15 – 4 45    Transcribe

Each student will be given half an hour to transcribe the story they have just relayed, adding, subtracting, inventing, changing, heightening or negating anything they choose. Making it science fiction, romance, realism, fairy tale – using any genre that excites and appeals to him or her, they will use their memory as a spring board to create a monologue, looking to fulfil the elements of  structure.

4 45 – 5 05    Wrap up

Discuss feelings aroused throughout the course of the day. Contain and acknowledge any uncertainty, embrace and encourage expression. Leave with the two maxims of writing that have proved useful: to get to the grassy knoll of truth you must cross the bridge of crap; does this theatrical choice reveal the theme in significant action? You should be left with a vision or a sense of value about intense feeling. You may find it highly suspect and think it should be contained with rational discourse and reasonable choice. You may think it should be let run freely as its own wild self. You may think there should be a balance, you may find the whole topic uncomfortable. The best result of the day would be knowing you can explore a theme through the context of your own experience and decide your own vision. You can feel your own values by that voice inside that rises up and says ‘I love this’ or ‘I fear this’.