Middle school students at the International School of Beijing (ISB) performed in a devised theatrical piece, Not a Box, on November 9, 10, and 11. Devising is a collaborative theatrical process, in which an original work emerges from the improvisational and collaborative efforts of a company.
“I began the middle school drama program five years ago here at ISB, and my goal has always been to have the students experience a variety of genres,” said Hannah Northcott, middle school drama and dance teacher, and the director of Not a Box. “This year, I felt students were ready to take on a bigger role as co-creators and co-collaborators in the theatrical process.” Using their own experiences, and taking three texts, Not a Box, Henry’s Freedom Box, and Pandora’s Box as their sources of inspiration, students worked together, and with support from Ms. Northcott, visiting theater artists, and teachers from ISB, created a powerful and provocative performance. ISB community members can watch a video of Not a Box here.
What happens when you unleash the creativity of middle schoolers by asking them to fill a vacuum with their limitless imaginations? What lessons do they draw from participating in such a personal and all-engrossing process? We spoke to six members of the cast, to find out more.
1. Draw inspiration from your past experiences.
In Not a Box, the monster scenes were based on real challenges that middle schoolers face day after day; such as homework, fears, loneliness, and puberty. Grounding our performances in our experiences made it much more authentic and meaningful to others.
Young Soo K.
2. Let your imagination run free.
Nothing is impossible on the stage: anything can be represented. For example, one of our early scenes explored how a box can be transformed into many different things, using our creativity. Some of the things we changed the box into included a plane, train, rollercoaster, and takeaway food.
3. Be open to other people’s ideas and contribute your own.
The middle school monsters were originally created as a series of individually-devised monologues; this allowed each actor to make the work richer, and to have a greater impact on shaping the play. Theater has much more depth and variety when it incorporates the ideas of many people. Contribution also builds a sense of community and belonging.
4. Accept the fact that not all ideas can be used.
For example, in the Pandora’s Box scene, we needed to cut part of the Balinese Kecak to make it more impactful and interesting. When experimenting with ideas, some will succeed, and some won’t work; the important thing is to continue with the process until you find something that fits.
5. Stay focused and committed.
We are all very busy middle schoolers. We had to manage our time and juggle our After-School Activities, schoolwork, and the play, and commit to what was really important to us. The play took up a lot of time, and we had to work out our priorities, and ultimately make some sacrifices, but the outcome was amazing, and it was completely worth the effort.
6. Remain positive even under stressful circumstances.
The process of devising also meant that sometimes ideas we had grown attached to had to be set aside. It was a chance to develop an important real-world skill; learning to let go of rejection, and to come back again and again with a positive attitude and better ideas.
Young Soo K.
7. Be prepared to work with a variety of people.
There were so many people involved in Not a Box, on the stage, and behind the scenes. I got to know and then became friends with students in other grades whom I normally wouldn’t have had any reason to talk to. We became really close; like a family.
8. Acknowledge your audience and their interests to ensure they can relate and are entertained.
The more the audience personally connects to your message, the deeper the impact of the performance on them. We could see the effect the play had on the audience in reactions like little children booing Vincent off the stage when he played the villain. But sometimes, it indicates a really powerful response when the audience is unsettled and doesn’t quite know how to react.
9. Enjoy yourself in each experience.
We became so close as a cast because we had to share parts of ourselves we would never have been called on to share in a scripted play. Devising is a hugely engaging process; you create from your imagination and you really own every idea you bring. This performance was such a success because everyone enjoyed the process, was passionate about the work and had fun while doing it. I looked forward to the rehearsals probably more than to any other part of my school day.
10. It’s okay to make mistakes.
The audience doesn’t know exactly what is going to happen; if you mess up, you can improvise and can play it off. On opening night, one of the actors forgot to go on. We began the scene without them, and when they joined us on stage later, we were able to improv and rework the scene successfully; because we had been prepared to do that throughout this process. Ongoing experimentation makes a concept stronger, and learning resilience and the ability to cope with change goes way beyond the show – those are really important life skills to master.