Urban Theater Project | Session 5

The Urban Theater Project is a partnership between the Virginia Stage Company and the Friends of the Virginia Beach Juvenile and Domestic Relations Court. Through games, improvisation, and other exercises, our teaching artists try to help each student discover life lessons that will help them rediscover a sense of imagination and play and to become part of the larger community. At the root of the program is the idea that theatre can bring encouragement, purpose, and an artistic outlet to teenagers in trouble.

My energy had been off all day. I awoke feeling extremely exhausted and had felt faint at one point during the day whilst running errands. Allowing that exhaustion to take over my class, however, was a “no-no.” So I arrived at 6:15 to Renaissance Academy just to get myself in gear mentally and emotionally. After coping with the madness of last week’s class, I wanted to enter into tonight’s session with new/productive energy. Considering that tonight, I would have the assistance of my boss in the classroom, I felt that it would definitely be a turnaround from last week. That 180 degree turn would also be due to the absence of my toxic element from last Monday, who would not be making a return to the program. 

My boss arrived ten minutes before class with the materials I’d asked him to bring for tonight’s class. We had a discussion to sort out what the rest of the sessions would look like and decided that tonight was about keeping the students active from start to finish. This batch of students was not fond of self-reflection or empowering themselves or others. They’d prefer to be asleep or buried in their technology at home, so I needed to provide them with fun.

Seven o’clock came and no students had arrived. My Boss and I were worried. I remembered the van with the students had been late before, so I figured that we would wait until 7:15 and see what happened. I could still make tonight’s session doable in an hour and forty-five minutes versus a full two hours. At 7:10, a car pulled up, and out hopped my Gentleman, one of the only students to attend each session. I was proud of him for sticking to his commitments, even if he didn’t want to. If I wasn’t teaching him that lesson, someone outside of my classroom was definitely hammering that lesson home. Someone had missed, however, his bloodshot eyes, which told me immediately that I was going to be dealing with my first “high” high schooler. 

You’ve lived in NYC, Tommy. Someone being high isn’t a shock to you…you’ve seen worse. I shrugged off the fact that my student was under the influence and had him come into the theater while we waited for the van to arrive. I checked in with him briefly. We spoke about him applying for jobs. He very much wants to enter the work force, and I told him to aim high, (Oh, the irony). We spoke about different options, and he made a confession to me that proved a point of sorts. 

I know that Gentleman likes clothes and shoes, and I suggested he work in retail, but he was applying to grocery stores. He told me that he didn’t feel he’d “fit in” with those types of establishments and that he’d rather do more hands-on work. Now, I doubt he’d have articulated himself so easily weeks earlier, but he was talking to me in a way that seemed comfortable. I was pleased…but no one else had arrived. 

At 7:25, I’d told Gentleman he could call his ride home. I was afraid that no one had gotten on the van and that the class had folded. No soon as I allowed the phone call, the van showed up and out came Disgruntled, Young Lady, and Braces (who missed class last week). Though I was sad to have only four students show up, I was actually happy it was this particular group of four. All of them, even the most problematic of the bunch, have a degree of trust in me that I can sense. This makes teaching them a bit easier. After being informed of the reason why the van was late (due to a fatal accident on the interstate that left traffic at a standstill for hours), it was time to start. 

We began class with no reference of last week. Instead, I gave them a reason to breathe easily. I told them that there will be no performance with this group. They will not do what is usual for the program: brainstorm ideas, have a rehearsal, and perform for their family and Parole Officers. They will instead have a mock class and invite their P.O.’s and family to participate and engage like we do. In addition, their session would end one week earlier than normal. This has to do with the fact that originally, their final day would’ve been Memorial Day and the Renaissance Academy would not be available. Also, to postpone this program for one more week would mean losing the attention span of these students. Attendance was already sporadic at best. I didn’t want to encourage any more of it. 

I goad the students onstage for warm-ups. We did a quick physical shake followed by jumping jacks. The jumping jacks were new, so my students looked at me with shock. I then gave them a Shakespearean phrase to say while doing the jumping jacks:

“Oh what a rogue and peasant slave am I.”

I explained to the students that it keeps our minds in two places: we are aware of our actions, but we must also speak. Basically, “Can you walk and chew gum at the same time?” I also told them that I once did this exact exercise in college when in rehearsals for a play. Then, the goal was to make the cast a unit of in-sync actors. Our director wanted us focused and connected. We spent a full rehearsal doing jumping jacks and saying that phrase so we’d done over 600 jumping jacks in 2 hours before even reading a script. I wouldn’t make my students do 600, but I did want them to know exercise and focus are key tools for any artist. 

We moved on from the physical warm up to tongue twisters, everyone’s favorite activity. We tried something new with Proper Cup of Coffee. I explained to my students the definition of “objectives.” I told them that “on stage and in life, whenever we are speaking to another human being, we are always DOING something to them. We aren’t speaking just to speak, but instead to garner some sort of response.” So I had them attack that tongue twister by having an objective. “Sell the coffee. Intimidate someone. Try not to wake the baby.” These were all ideas, and I was hoping that the students would accept the challenges put forth. They did the bare minimum…which was fine. I had to be okay with it because they weren’t resisting me. 

We blasted through the three tongue twisters we’ve been using all spring, and I added in a new one.

“I slit a sheet. A sheet I slit.
And on that slitted sheet, I sit.”

I had them all say it very slowly, as I was well aware that this is a tongue twister that could get one in trouble. They remained focused, and for the bulk of them, especially Disgruntled, they were able to say the tongue twister, as is…without the curse words that could accidentally happen. What brought them a bit of joy, as well, was my Boss’s participation. Knowing that they weren’t the only ones struggling with tongue twisters seemed to loosen them up. Lesson for me: It’s okay to be the one in the room with all the answers, but it’s okay to also not be so “together.” Being a flawed human being is welcomed…and possibly by the students as well. 

The last tongue twister was my favorite. It is one that you can use to challenge others. 

“I am a mother pheasant plucker!
I pluck mother pheasants!
I am the best mother pheasant plucker
That ever plucked a mother phesasant!”

We managed to make it through this too, without accidental curse words. The students were laughing and engaged. It was a pleasant atmosphere for the most part, and I was feeling less tense about everything. My boys, Gentleman and Braces, however, have a bit of an addiction to their phones and a constant need for the bathroom (they’ll do whatever they can to leave when possible), but the occasional “focus” or “pay attention, please” tended to get them in order. 

We revisited the game “Zip, Zap, Shazam,” and everyone was into the game. I became aware very quickly that Gentleman was deliberately thwarting his efforts to remain in the game, so he got himself eliminated so he can sit down and SnapChat or text. It is so unfortunate that technology is such a dominant force in our everyday lives. Yet, as an educator, I’ve not found effective ways to get around it or to utilize it during my limited course. Maybe in the future, I’ll have to find a way to incorporate apps or something interactive.

My boss introduced a new game called “Up Down Dude,” which is a unique game. When he gives the command, “Down,” everyone is to look down. When he says “Up,” everyone is to look up and in the direction of someone random in the circle. If any two people make direct eye contact, they exclaim, “Duuuuude,” and exit the circle. Basically, “Look at me, but don’t look at my eyes or you’re out.” We did a few trial runs of the game and it was fun. We also agreed that the game might be much more fun with more than 6 participants. But we’ve tried something new, and there was little hesitation. Actually, tonight has had the least hesitation with activities that I’ve experienced over the course of this spring session. I don’t dwell in the joy of this, but I acknowledge it.

Next we played a game of “Big Booty.” It felt good to revisit this game now that we have many of the key players who were around when the game was introduced. We managed to do well as a group, but it occured to me that anything perceived as “corny” by this group was met with lackluster effort. Also, this game is competitive, and it hit me even more…many of my games are about showing up and doing your absolute best. Actually, I try to live my life that way as I am a bit of a perfectionist. I’m dealing with students who are not competitive in this aspect. They aren’t trying to be better than they were yesterday. They are just happy to “be.” But that also makes it easy for them to be complacent. I wonder when the complacency bug settles in…and how does an individual get out of it? What is the spark that makes someone progress? What will spark change in my students? It won’t be me…but I do wonder what it will be that will make them believe in themselves.

After a 5 minute break, we came together again to do an activity that is very much like charades, but was created to have the students act. We had three hats. The students had three slips of paper (my Boss and I also participated in this activity). On one slip of paper, we wrote a NOUN, on the next a LOCATION, and on the third, we wrote a VERB.  All slips were folded and placed into their respective hats and each student drew a slip from each. The object of the game is to have the audience guess all three things. This means the students would have to act or give some basic clues as to what their words were. I went first to show the students how it was done. I acted all three of my words as best as I could, and they guessed them. My boss did the same. The young ladies attempted to make the activity a challenge by actually putting thought into it, which was fun to watch. My young men took the easy way out and almost gave away the answers for their words. I was learning something again…my students didn’t mind trying…but they weren’t going to try hard. Again, they didn’t have it in them to show effort. Not when it comes to the “corn” that I employ. Maybe the one thing they are learning from me is that they’ll never be performers. Learning what you don’t like is also learning…

There were fifteen minutes left and I’d managed to get through this new lesson plan for today. So I told the students we had five minutes to fill. Here was the fun part: the students decided to mimic me. Braces stood at the back of the room and commanded that the students speak loudly and make their voices hit the wall. I laughed. Maybe they actually liked that activity. So we all took turns yelling to the back of the room while another student told us whether or not they could hear us clearly. The last person to throw his voice to the back of the room was my Boss, who was booming and clear. We all laughed.

With five minutes left in the class, I decided to end class early. They’d earned it today. They rushed out of the theater, but though they’d never admit it, I know they had fun. 

What a difference a week can make! Next week is the final week of this session and with all that has occurred…we’ll see what these students manage to achieve with their Parole Officers and parents in attendance…

For those interested in what my original lesson plan looks like for Session 5, here it is:

Writing Prompt 1: (5 min)
MISSION EXTRAORDINARY: (Word Association List)

  • We’ve discussed identity in the past, and we’ve discussed identifiers. Think about words that are associated with you. 
  • Make two columns on your paper. One column is Postive. One is Negative.
  • Write down all the positive words you can think of that are associated with you. (3 min)
  • Write down all the negative words that have been associated with you. (3 min)
  • Take a look at these columns. Which one BEST describes you? Which one of these columns would you like to be more like? How can we turn our negatives into positives? Are there ways for us to work on being our best every day? 
  • Has the word “extraordinary” been used to describe any of you? If not, then today is the day we put that word to work. WE will start being extraordinary, by creating something extraordinary! And it will be ENOUGH because YOU are enough. (Say “I am Enough and I am Powerful” until you believe it!) 


Elements of Storytelling from the week before. 

Begin Brainstorm.

Start with Ideas/Theme.