Urban Theater Project | Session 3

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.

There was numbness in my heart when gearing up for Monday night’s third session. I had to steel myself a bit and lower my expectations so that I wouldn’t get disappointed if I encountered any more trouble like the last time. Granted, I’d been assured before tonight’s session that things would be fine, but I just needed the emotional armor. Class had been cancelled the week before due to a much needed pow-wow about the events that occurred during session number two. Therefore, I’d lost out on a full week of the program. Lucky for me, there was a week cushion I’d already built into the program, meaning that, though sessions are planned for a full eight weeks, it can be condensed into seven and still reap results. I entered into this night’s lesson knowing that anything I taught from here on out would have to be purposeful and efficient. Losing time ups the ante.

I arrived at Renaissance Academy a half hour early, as per usual to make sure the smart technology was working in the space. Today I’d be showing one of the more significant videos in my lesson plan, and I needed it to work perfectly. Lesson three is usually where I “hook” my students. It’s when they begin to trust me and when they begin to see that this course isn’t frivolous, but instead, one that applies to their present and future selves. So, of course, being that this was one of my favorite lessons to teach, it would go without question that something would go wrong. 

The speakers for the projector were not working. 

Great. Just great. Luckily, the front desk attendant thought fast about utilizing another classroom in the building so that I’d have access to speakers. We connected the appropriate cords and booted the computer in the classroom only to discover that the projector speakers were also not working there.

My default emotion is to remain calm. I don’t huff and puff and throw a fit, because I’m usually thinking about 10 minutes ahead of myself. I’d decided that I’d just have my students gather around the laptop and watch the video when the time came. It was a risk that they might not pay attention, but it was a risk I was willing to take because with the particular video I was showing them, I’d always been successful. 

My supervisor was attending tonight’s class as support. He’d been made aware of the chaos of session two and his presence anchored me and helped me feel as if I could do this job. Hopefully, my students wouldn’t be put off by his attendance, as he was a new person whom they’d either posture for or shrink from. 

When my students arrived, I actually felt relieved. They’d all decided to give me another try. Small victories keep me going. There were five students this time. Every face was familiar which meant, for me, that I wouldn’t have to start over from scratch regaining their trust. I just needed to solidify in their minds that I was indeed, the same teacher that cared about their well being, and who actually wanted to teach them things that were applicable to their daily lives and not strictly in the realm of theater. Theater is my catalyst, but empowerment and expanding their “life knowledge” is my goal. 

I urge all of my students to sit in the front row of our space and come and choose their composition notebooks. From this point forward in my session, the students will have sporadic moments of journaling. It is my way of making sure they are mentally alert, self-reflective, and active in between our activities. We begin.

I ask the students how they are doing. Surprisingly, all of them, except one, go into detail about their days. My Older student, who was absent for the second class, gives me information about the suicide of her best friend and classmate, and how, though she was numb and the severity of the situation hadn’t “hit” her yet, she knew that she wanted to use drama as a way of catharsis. Fitted Cap told me about how he crashed his bike and ended up in a river (which sounded like a farfetched tale…but given my students, it could totally be true). My Young lady was relishing in how great her day was. This amount of over-share almost defeats the purpose of my next question: “How are you, really?” Some of their answers changed. My other two young men, who were brief with me before, gave a bit more insight to their emotions without saying too much. 

We discuss the difference in questions and the difference in answers, and I tell them to keep this activity in mind for later. Afterward, I reiterate to them that they should always keep in mind that they will be presenting something at the end of week 8 (now 7). We then begin an activity called SWOT analysis.

I hand them all a sheet of paper that has four quadrants: Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats. I have them write a goal of theirs at the top of the paper and tell them to fill out each column in regards to that specific goal. They are given 5 minutes on a timer to do the activity. When the time is up, I tell them that even if they didn’t finish, that’s fine. In regards to planning for one’s future, work such as that is never done, and I just wanted them to get the gears rolling.

Now it’s warm up time! All of the students are ready to yell to the back of the room. And though they lament the activity, it seems they are enthusiastic about it, which means I can introduce something new, to shake them up a bit. So we learn a new tongue twister:

“Theophilus Thistleton, a successful thistle sifter,
Sifted three thousand thistles through the tick of his thumb.”

This is a difficult one for them as it requires them to make shapes and sounds they aren’t used to. But they try. It is a challenge for which they all make sure they step up. And having each student say it individually makes the activity more focused and involved. They respond very well to this. 

We then move on to a game with a controversial title, but one that I’ve been playing since I was on the Forensics Team in high school. It is called “Big Booty”, a game of concentration. The point of the game is to try to knock “Big Booty” off his throne. This is done by passing numbers around a circle. (The game has to be seen, because it’s difficult and confusing to describe). The students initially resist, but find themselves having fun and grasping the concept of the game. Before we break, they have gotten a bit more familiar with how the game is played and we do a lot of laughing. 

During the break, my supervisor leaves, and I prepare the secondary classroom we’ll be using for the rest of the evening. This is also when my student’s energy levels go through the roof. Unbeknownst to me, my students have received incentive in the form of gift cards during the break for their participation, so, feeling as if they’ve done what they needed to for the evening, they try to spend the rest of the night talking and disrupting one another. I will not recount the many times during the second hour that I needed to stop and say, “I’ll wait,” but I can tell you that it happened more times than I would’ve liked. 

Hour two begins with a Writing prompt #1: “I hide my personal truths because…” The students have five minutes to expound upon this topic. I tell them that I don’t care whether or not they stay on topic, but I want them to write for five minutes straight…even if they say “um” multiple times…I want whatever is in their mind on their paper. I tell them that if they take the activity seriously, it can only benefit them. In my mind and past experience, however, I’m well aware that my males will resist this activity and slack off…but I try to keep hope alive. 

With their notebooks, I do not require the students to share their entries with me or one another. They are solely for themselves. But I tell them that I will keep their notebooks each week so they do not have to be responsible to taking them home and bringing them back to class every week.

Next we do our first serious activity of the evening. It is listed below:

“Two truths and a lie”
Ask all players to arrange themselves in a circle. Instruct each player to think of three statements about themselves. Two must be true statements, and one must be false. For each person, he or she shares the three statements (in any order) to the group. The goal of the icebreaker game is to determine which statement is false. The group votes on which one they feel is a lie, and at the end of each round, the person reveals which one was the lie.

  • How did you determine the lies? (Tone? Body language? Rhythm/vocal cadence- i.e. hesitance? What you know to be true about them?)
  • Actors have to be investigators at all times, as well as active listeners. They must also be observant. If they are recreating emotions, they should be familiar with them, yes? 
  • How does this investigative work come into play with dance? With music? What medium do you feel is easier to convey emotion? Speak for yourself and do not give an answer you think I will like. Give one that comes from you!
  • We know there are lies that can spiral out of control, but are there lies that people control that can be just as dangerous?

This activity is successful and fun. It is also highly revealing for our Older student who shares some information very close to her heart. She says she doesn’t mind sharing with our group because she trusts us (which is a testament to the environment I’ve created and to her maturity level) and that she’s wanted her truths to be revealed for a long time now. I applaud her. Losing her best friend seems to have catapulted her into a new chapter of honesty in her life. Fitted Cap chooses to be the class clown with a very raunchy version of the game. But even he tones himself down and decides on a more appropriate version of himself. 

Tonight, our Older student has a great deal to say, which I enjoy because she truly wants to engage. What this means, however, is that time is slipping away from us, and I have yet to show THE video that will catch their attention. So with the time I have left, I have them gather around a laptop and I play tonight’s clip. It is from Season 3 of Being Mary Jane, a very popular prime time television show on BET. In the scene, Mary Jane Paul is speaking at her best friend, Lisa’s, funeral. Lisa committed suicide, and Mary Jane gives a eulogy of sorts that is heartfelt, honest, and shocking. She laments asking the question “How are you doing?” and not truly listening or wanting to hear the answer from others. She talks about the value of life and the detriment of keeping secrets. She tells the people in attendance that her friend Lisa had been molested by her father all through her youth and that she carried that pain with her all of her life. Lisa’s father was in attendance at the funeral.

It is a very heavy video to show a class, but as someone who was once their age, I responded to honesty over saccharine sweet platitudes. So I chose to be real with them. In the same way Mary Jane was real with her family and friends. 

Once the video is over, I hurriedly have my students go back to their notebooks for their next writing prompt: “The actions I will take to reverse pain and anger in my life are…” they had 3 minutes to write about this, and then we briefly discussed what we could of the video for our final 5 minutes. I must mention that one of my students, a gentleman who’s been in attendance since the first class, was a bit perturbed with me for making him turn his cell phone into the Parole Officer on duty (he and Braces could not separate themselves from their technology). But as we ended class…he looked at me and said, “Thank you for tonight’s lesson, yo.”

Could it be that I might be getting though to my students? Finally? 

I feel like I can breathe easier for the rest of this program. If these are to be my students for the duration of what’s left…I think we can make magic!