North Pocono High: Day 1

Today I and fellow Zuppianni Heather Stuart had our first day as artists in residence at North Pocono High School; we're teaching all this week, four classes a day -- one Shakespeare, two Phys. Ed. (yes, you read that right) and a theatre class. This is our first go teaching under the auspices of the NEIU, and we've been pretty excited about it. So often with the workshops we have to have an intense but brief experience, and never get to follow a progress with a group of students. This week, we'll start what I hope is the first of many chances to help students evolve over some time.

Shakespeare is a new class for us to be teaching, but particularly apt, given our upcoming project. Heather and I decided to offer the students our techniques for developing a show, improvisation and characterization, all through a Shakespearean lens. We were pleasantly surprised to find the students particularly eager and bright at first period. They are working on scenes from Taming of the Shrew, and some have already begun to memorize. Our plan was to review (in a scant 43 minutes) the basic tenets of improvisation, and then structure the rest of the week around those tenets as they apply to exploring and developing Shakespeare. After a quick warm-up, we led the students through a few exercises to get them accepting and building, making the other look good, being specific and breathing and making a physical choice when they got stuck. We ended the period with genres, asking them to perform their scenes in the round and inviting their classmates to jump in to help build the environment when necessary. Then we introduced a genre -- James Bond film, Western, etc. -- for them to adapt the text to. They took to it like they were on fire, and we were very pleased. The rest of the week we can really focus on specific techniques and approaches with this class.

Physical Education we were, I must admit, a bit nervous about. We've taught highly physical classes and workshops before, but never have we needed to incorporate the specific goals of a P.E. program and environment. We would have two rather large classes (30 to 70) in a row in a large, echoed gymnasium, and the classes we see Monday and Tuesday we meet again on Thursday and Friday, due to their rotating-day scheduling. Our approach then was to spend a good amount of time on the stretching and preparatory activities for partner balance, then instruct one-to-two acrobalance moves later in the week. We had the whole class form a circle, and led them through some of our more interesting stretches, making a point of first running them through some aerobic exercises to shake out the initial hyperactivity. It was surprisingly effective to keep the group focused simply by staying in the middle and pausing at key points; Heather and I stayed back-to-back, eyes watchful as though we were defending a hill. As the group warmed up and became accustomed to the activity, we switched to partner stretching, getting them adjusted somewhat to physical contact and communication. The students paired off by approximate height and we took them through pulling assisted stretches. The response was good. In that environment, the most hopeless response you can get is apathy, and we had very little of that. Afterwards, we heard good feedback, which is all the better for us as it spreads into the halls and informs the approach of our future students in these classes.

The last class of our day was a theatre one, after a break, and we also endeavored to teach the students the tenets of good improvisatory theatre, this time in a bit more detail. We were a little surprised to find this class a good deal more bashful than the first period. But then again, it was a greater mix of ages, and by seventh period some of the hyperactive energy so critical to good teenage productivity has worn thin. We warmed them up, then took them through more advanced improvisational exercises than those we used earlier in the day. They responded well, but we still had some showing fear at the end. Our goal with these students is to train them toward learning to work in Zuppa del Giorno's style, to regard a scenario, or a string of actions, as their script and to get a little more comfortable with putting their own ideas into what they're creating, making strong choices that are unique to them.

It was a good start. Tomorrow we have some modifications to add to each class, based on what we learned today. In Shakespeare, we plan to begin looking at methods of creating a strong physicalization for a character, using a combination of textual clues and personal physical exploration. Gym will be basically the same approach, but we'll have our first freshman/sophomore class, which should tell us a lot about how to proceed with the rest of the week. We may also do some demonstration of where our work with them leads, showing off a few of our more impressive acrobalance moves. For the theatre class, we intend to incorporate more game play, to disarm some of their defensive responses and get everyone into a team mindset. To this end, we're teaching some of our comic techniques: threes, one-thing-at-a-time, lazzi and the like. If they get comfortable performing their own work for one another, they'll be a hair's breadth from doing it outside the classroom. There's a strong possibility for our returning in the spring to work with them on their production of A Midsummer Night's Dream; the potential for tracking so many students' development over such a prolonged period of time is a very exciting prospect indeed.