As part of a 3-day conference on drama, I was in a community center gym, welcoming a group of junior and senior high school English teachers to my workshop, ‘Exploring Imagination and Creativity Through Drama.’ I was more than a little nervous because a group of internationally known drama leaders were watching me conduct the session from the bleachers. Suddenly, a group of kids burst into the gym, bouncing a ball between them, playing some kind of game, laughing and shouting to one another.
My first reaction was to tell them to get the hell out of there, that the space had been reserved for the conference. I had enough to worry about. I didn’t need uninvited kids to add to the mix. I could feel the participants scrutinizing me. I was too aware of the drama teachers in the bleachers observing me. I wanted the participants to enjoy the workshop. I needed the drama leaders to think well of me. I had to figure out how to deal with the situation. Fast.
I walked up to the group, and, as luck would have it, intercepted the ball and caught it. “This gym has been reserved for a three-day session on creative drama.” I waited to see if this was enough for them to leave. It wasn’t. I had their ball and their attention. I didn’t know how to politely ask them to leave, and I didn’t want to start a confrontation, so I said the only thing I could think of. “Would you like to join our drama workshop?”
“We don’t know nuthin’ about drama,” said one of the guys, whose name I later learned was Alex.
I threw the ball to him. “You’re fine. You don’t need to know anything. You’re welcome to participate.” I hoped I sounded sincere. I hoped I seemed welcoming. I hoped they’d say no thanks and leave. The silence while they looked at each other seemed to take forever.
Alex asked, “You sure?”
Trying to look as if I meant it, I said, “Yup, I’m sure.” He put the ball down near the bleachers, huddled with the rest of his buddies, and then, I guess by mutual consent, joined the participants.
The three-hour session loomed long and problematical. What I had planned to do depended in part on the participants being familiar with educational terms I’d be using, as well as knowing something about my work. Now almost a third of the group were kids whose attitudes and reasons for agreeing to join were unknown. I scrapped the plans I’d made, really looked at the group, and spontaneously created a plan in my head.
Whether teaching a class or leading a workshop, the first activity I do is to help create a sense of community. I often do this by telling a world tale and right now, this seemed more necessary and important than ever. After the introductions, I asked the group to sit comfortably, that I would tell them a world tale, a story, centuries old, passed down from generation to generation. I knew the English teachers would know this but I counted on their understanding that I had to find a way to integrate the kids with the adults.
The group listened with rapt attention, giving me a sense that the everyone could work together, which, much to my surprise and relief, they did.
For the rest of the session it was as if the kids had been specially selected and specifically invited. The English teachers treated the kids as peers; the kids treated the teachers with respect. My newly hatched plans worked well, better than I could have hoped.
At the end of a session or class, I always leave room for reflection. Today was no exception, yet I worried what the kids might say, given that they’d come into the room to play ball and ended up creating drama, which they’d never done, with adults they didn’t know.
Alex was the first to speak. “This was the strangest experience I ever had.” I couldn’t tell if he meant it as good or bad so I had to ask him to tell us more. “Well, we ran in, ready to play ball, and there were a bunch of adults on our court. I was mad. ‘What the hell are they doing here?’ I asked Grady. This is our space. We always play here. Then you invited us to join in and that was even weirder.” He scratched his head, looking puzzled. “But, it was fun.”
One of the participants asked, “So what was this afternoon like for the rest of you?”
Moira volunteered. “I never been with a group of adults who treated me like a person. I kept expecting you all to make fun of us, but it was like we were the same as you, even though we aren’t.”
Some of the participants admitted they were initially annoyed at the intrusion and wondered how I was going to handle it. Some even admitted they would have thrown the kids out. They laughed. Jamie said, “I expected to be thrown out once I saw all of you staring at us, like who the fuck are you?”
Lilly raised her hand, then put it down. I encouraged her to say what she was thinking. “I never done creative drama. I was scared someone would make fun of me, but the group I was in kept encouraging me to say what I thought. I never expected grownups would want me to do stuff with them.
One of the English teachers said, “I think I can speak for the group. I don’t know what Nancy planned to do before you joined us, but what we did, and your participation made creative drama come alive for me in a new way. Being with you,” she looked at the kids who were sitting together, “was a new experience. It gave me a chance to appreciate the power of making drama with young people as a peer, rather than a teacher.
The session ended with Alex getting the ball and throwing it around the group. He invited us to come back after the conference and play with them. A fine note to end on.
What do you do when your first reaction is anger, but you know that won’t solve the problem?
Life tales from a woman different living in The City Different.