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.


“Free Association/Group Mind”

I know this is going to sound a little weird.  But do you know what I sometimes tell the kids I work with in Virginia Stage Company’s Urban Theatre Project?  I encourage them to:  “THINK LESS.” 

As part of a mission to develop both empathy and confidence in young people, I look for exercises that will help self-conscious or self-involved teens practice the action of taking their focus off of “SELF” and placing it on “TEAM.”  And when a person is working with a team, especially a creative, theatrical team, it’s important to THINK LESS, to allow a free flow from all the voices and creative ideas of the team.  

That’s a lot to take in.  Let me tell you how I tried to explain it at last night’s class.   We were beginning a game called, “Group Mind Free Association.”  Although the concept of “Group Mind Free Association” is pretty simple, in practice it can be rather difficult.  Especially for many of the at-risk kids I meet.  These kids often begin the program with great apprehension.  They often start my class as the “non-participants.”  These are young people seem to be placing themselves under a sort of “self-censure.”  

Perhaps they are kids who have had one-too-many bad experiences when offering their ideas in the past?  Perhaps these past experiences have built in them an assumption that their offerings will be ignored, silently judged, or possibly even mocked?  Maybe they fear getting caught in a place of social awkwardness and so they keep to themselves, not trusting their own ideas, presenting only what they feel others will see as “cool” or allowing others to control the conversation?  Maybe they’ve found that the best way to avoid the risk of ridicule is to keep their eyes down, their lips tight, and any “uncool” thoughts to themselves?  

That’s the “self-censure” I observe.  And my hope is to offer “games” that will create an environment wherein team trust, a freedom of play, and a spirit of support and acceptance will encourage these kids to take confidence, step out of that place of “self-censure,” and offer themselves and their ideas… no matter how “uncool” they may be.   

It takes a lot of thought to maintain what I call “self-censure” and that facade of “cool.”  So, when I say “THINK LESS” to these kids, it is to emphasize the point that I make before the game.  Once I explain the rules of “Group Mind Free Association,” I put this to the group… 
“Our creative team, our group mind, needs a constant stream of EVERYONE’S ideas and information.  We want to hear all of your FIRST THOUGHTS.  It doesn’t matter if they are good, clever, funny, or cool.  In fact, trying to be clever, funny, or cool just puts snags in our team’s creative process.  So when I say THINK LESS, I mean WORRY LESS.   I mean JUDGE YOUR THOUGHTS LESS.  JUDGE OTHER PEOPLE’S THOUGHTS LESS.  Support your teammates.  You are all part of this GROUP MIND, so give everyone (including yourself) PERMISSION to speak your thoughts.  Even if it is only for the duration of this game, disregard the little critic in your head who makes you question yourself and your ideas.  Instead, try to trust that ANY genuine contribution you make to the team is exactly what is wanted, NEEDED, and of great value to this game and to our team.”

At first, the “Group Mind Free Association” game goes pretty slowly.  The teens are skeptical of this whole business.  But, in a little while, a pace begins to pick up.  The game gets fun.  The team members of our “Group Mind” are finding the rapid-fire rhythm of the game, picking up inspirations from one another’s ideas:  A young man says the word, “Green” to a teammate.  He picks it up and says, “Money” to another.  She picks it up and says, “Rihanna.”
“Why Rihanna?”  someone asks when we take a break.
The girl explains, “My friend and I used to always sing her song.  Bitch better have my MONEY!”  
“The Group Mind Free Association” leads to a similar “Group Mind” game that I call, “Business Project Yes And.”  Now the team passes ideas around with the idea of creating a mock business.  In this example, the circle of imagination spits out thoughts for a Haunted House.
One idea leads to another, leads to another, leads to another.
“Zombies,”  “One eyed zombies moving in a circle,”  “Zombies coming up the wrong way as people go down an escalator.”  

Interesting ideas are picked up and explored.  Those of lesser interest fall away naturally.  These young people are now practicing a positive process of creative collaboration.  They’re smiling, affirming each other, making connections with one another, engaging in good brainstorming.  This is the way creative projects grow.  If they keep with it, who knows what amazing things their “future teams” will create?!  

(Read more about the ideas of the “Group Mind Free Association” Game here)