Playbuilding: Director vs. Dictator

My husband said it freaked him out.

“It” is the cover of Playbuilding, a guide for group creation of plays with young people, by Errol Bray. The book was published in 1991 and yes, the cover is odd and somewhat disturbing. It features a photograph of a young boy wearing nothing but a garment reminiscent of a diaper. His image is blurry because he is falling through the air, arms spread wide. Two people hold onto his legs as he falls and a group of others hold the edges of a blanket, stretched below him. It appears as if the group is going to catch the boy in the blanket, but, as my husband pointed out, they don’t seem all that alert. Besides, the blanket looks flimsy. From the picture, we can tell that the boy is falling. But we’re left to wonder, how did he land?

It might not be a high quality image, but the photo on the cover of this book beautifully encapsulates the feeling a director often has in the middle of any production’s rehearsal process. Will this play stick the landing or fall flat on its face? This is even more the case with playbuilt shows.

Bray defines “playbuilding” as the “creative process of assembling a dramatic performance or presentation from the building blocks of drama and theatre, through improvisation, discussion, and rehearsal” (1). Essentially, it’s a group of people creating their own show. As a teaching artist, I have directed young people in several playbuilding projects. It’s rewarding work and it’s hard. Very hard. Even if the group is developing their piece from a specific prompt, such as “What is family?” the sky is virtually the limit. Knowing where to start can be daunting.

Bray urges playbuilders to first pick what type of play they want to create and use that as a guide for selecting which material will then fit into the show. He outlines four types of plays: theme plays (on a general topic), story plays (where the plot is the main thread), character plays (examines specific characters), and setting plays (explores a specific location) (5). I’ve worked with each of these play types, some more successfully than others. Upon reflection, I realize that the type of show we were trying to build wasn’t always completely clear. And when the type of show was fuzzy, that led to having an equally fuzzy end goal. Without a very clear goal, a goal that grows more defined and specific as the play takes shape, it’s difficult to determine which ideas the group will explore and which ones will be tossed. Soon everyone gets tangled in the thicket of ideas.

It’s the director’s job to help keep things on track.

The trick is not to be too controlling in the process. The final product must belong to the group of creators and not the director. Throughout the book, Bray continually reminds the director of playbuilt shows to establish boundaries and to protect the group from over-direction. In his chapter on structuring the playbuilt show, he outlines the development of the director’s relationship to the group in the following steps: initiator, leader, encourager, approver, expert, critic at all times, equal creator, teacher of skills, director, outsider. He says, “The ideal director structure is that of gradually rubbing yourself out of the project” (52).

Easier said than done. Looking back, I can see that the most frustrating rehearsals that I have been a part of felt stagnant or chaotic because of a lack of clarity. I often attributed the frustration to the group not being clear on what it was they really wanted to say or accomplish in their final piece. This was true to an extent, but really the problem was deeper than that. I wasn’t clear enough about my role as the director. Too often, ideas for the play would spin wildly out of control and suddenly, smack dab in the middle of the rehearsal process, I and any co-directors I was working with, would have to step in and exert some “I’m the expert” force to try to salvage a decent product out of the mess. And suddenly, no matter what I tried to say or do after that, the play became mine. Not the group’s.

I’ve come to realize that I had things backwards. I was so concerned about preserving the group’s creative freedom that I gave them too much leeway and not enough structured support at the critical beginning stages of the playbuilding process. I started out with too much emphasis on being an encourager and not enough on being a leader. By starting with too much freedom, I set my students up to fail or at least to flail.  If only I had been clearer about choosing the type of show, establishing goals, and outlining my role at the beginning, perhaps I could have avoided becoming any semblance of a dictator in the end. Although, to be fair, I occasionally worked with particularly obstinate groups of young people who, no matter how hands off I tried to be, thought that any guidance meant that I was threatening their creative control of the play. Even so, being clearer from the outset could have helped.

This is not to say that I have never successfully guided a group of young playmakers in creating their own show. I’ve helped many groups create something that they are proud of. I just see the opportunity to improve. I want to grow and deepen my understanding of what really works in the vulnerable beauty of the creative process. Reading this book has me itching to direct another playbuilt show. Maybe next time, I will be able to follow Bray’s steps for the director’s involvement. I probably won’t. At least not perfectly. But guiding young people in making a play of their own creation is an adventure worth stumbling through over and over again. I hope that, with every stumbling success story, I will get closer to achieving clarity in the process and in my ever-adapting role as a director. After all, even directors fall flat on their faces sometimes.

SOURCE MATERIAL: Bray, Errol. Playbuilding. Portsmouth: Heinemann, 1991. Print.
Bray Playbuilding


Shifting Gears

So I moved to Canada.

We moved to Toronto last month because of my husband’s job and that, on top of having a baby in April, is part of the reason why this blog was hibernating until two days ago. Now that we have mostly settled into our new home and my 3-month-old is passed out on the floor, I finally have the time, energy, and head space to tackle the “What now?” question.

In January, I proudly announced my plan to start a mystery party business. I still hope to build Merry Mystery Playmakers someday, but the tricky thing about moving to Canada is that I can’t work. Not for now anyway. This means that the business side of this blog and this teaching artist is temporarily on hold.

But I’m not going to let that stop me. Now that I’ve gotten over the initial “Ahhhhh!!!!” stage, I am looking at this chapter in my life as a wonderful opportunity to experiment. Professional development, here I come! Toronto is a thriving center of arts and culture. There are museums to explore, shows to see, arts organizations to join, and school programs that just might need the creative spicing up that only a teaching artist can bring.

Volunteering is a beautiful thing and a bonus is that it removes a lot of pressure and anxiety. If I’m not being paid, I feel a little more free to test some projects that aren’t necessarily tried and true. For someone who has a real problem with failing and letting people down, this might be just what I need to really develop my art making–new styles of mystery games, trying new art forms, making new connections, finally learning to play my ukulele and maybe even the piano that we inherited with our new house. I won’t allow my new working conditions to limit me. I choose to let them liberate me.

Furthermore, I’m not going to run out of things to write about here. For starters, I am going to seize this chance to finally dig into the incredible library of performing arts education books that now fill our new home office bookshelves. I’m embarrassed to admit that I have barely dented the collection of books that my dear college professor passed down to me before she died. Well, they won’t be gathering dust anymore.

Here’s my new phase of life resolution; I am going to read through my fountain of yet untapped resources. I am going to reflect on these books in writing, on this blog. I’m going to find ways to play with what I learn.

And there you have it. My new country, new mom, new life, new teaching artist resolution. You can hold me to it. Stay tuned.

Dramatic Tension: Improvising and Playing in Relationships

NOTE: I started this post in February and had a baby in early April, hence the ridiculously late publication.

On Valentine’s Day, my husband and I led a playshop at a local Marriage Conference. This conference has been held annually in our community for the last ten years and centers on celebrating and caring for marriage. We were thrilled to have the chance to partner up and lead a class together. After all, I usually teach solo or with another teaching artist and it was exciting to work with my favorite partner of all, doing something that I love.

For our workshop, we decided to play around with using improvisation techniques to navigate dramatic tension in relationships. While they’re not exactly the same, creating an improvised scene and communicating effectively in our relationships actually have some fun parallels. Drama doesn’t happen without conflict and relationships can have plenty of both. Improvisation only works when players adhere to a few rules to make sure that the scene doesn’t fall apart. The same could be said of communication in our relationships. If we all played by the same set of rules for communicating in everyday life, maybe we would be better able to work through conflict, without “making a scene.” In other words, we might be better able to save the drama for the stage.

So what are these “rules” of improvisation? There are countless theories about what makes improvisation work best, but for our workshop we focused on four simple tenets:

1. Yes, and…

“Yes, and…” is the single most important rule of successfully creating an improvised scene. The concept is very simple; accept what you have been offered and then build on it. As egocentric human beings, we often tend to lean towards more of a “no, but…” or “yes, but…” mentality, but this tactic doesn’t always work so well when trying to constructively communicate with someone. “But” automatically signals that you aren’t really listening to what the other person just said. You have your own ideas and your own plan to implement, regardless of what your partner has to offer. “Yes, and…” means that you respond positively to your partner’s ideas AND you get to layer in your own ideas as well. It’s teamwork at its best. No one takes the lead. Everyone takes turns. And eventually a truly shared scene or conversation develops.

2. Use your body creatively

Several improv games revolve around body language. Charades leaves players speechless as they try to use their bodies to get partners or audience members to guess who or what they are. In other games, players might get frozen in a funny position and somehow have to justify that pose within the context of the scene. We played a number of these types of games, not only because they are hilarious, but because they draw attention to the body and what it says.

I have noticed what a key role body language plays in my own marriage. If my husband and I are having an argument, I have trouble letting go of my anger if he is in a physical position that seems to say, “I’m not really invested in this conversation.” For example, when he’s frustrated, he sometimes lays down on the couch. To me, this says, “Whatever.” and it drives me crazy. It was healthy for me to identify that his body language is sometimes a barrier to reconciliation for me. I need to work on being less sensitive about it, but he also knows that sitting up and looking me in the eye helps me to feel like we’re on the same team. Sometimes he is surprised by what his body language “says” to me. It helps to be aware that something that might be obvious to me, isn’t so obvious to those around me. Similarly, playing charades can be a lot of fun in the right context, but in our relationships it’s often better to explain our postures rather than expect our partners to guess what they mean.

3. Build context

Speaking of context, it doesn’t work to begin an improved scene having no idea who the characters are, where they are and what’s going on. Players need to establish context. This is especially important in games where one player begins the scene and his or her partner has to follow along with whatever beginning material is given (yes, and…). If the player beginning the scene starts by asking an open-ended question, such as “Who are you?”, the poor partner has nothing to build on. The starting player has to provide a foundation for his or her partner to use. For example, the starting player might announce, “Honey, it’s too cold to buy ice cream.” Ah. Now we know that this is likely a parent/child relationship, that it’s cold out, and that the child wants ice cream. The first player has provided some basic building blocks for the partner to play with.

Maybe you can see where I’m going with this. I can’t tell you how often I have blindsided my husband or a friend by diving into a conversation without laying any groundwork work. If I’m feeling upset about something, I need to take the time to really outline what happened or what is happening before I let the emotions run wild. By providing context, I give my partner an opportunity to build on what I have to say. Context is an invitation. Without it, I am robbing my partner of the chance to effectively “yes, and…” and then it’s really my fault if in their floundering, we wind up hurting each other more.

4. Make your partner shine.

And that brings us to the fourth tenet; make your partner shine. Sometimes it is so tempting to oust teamwork and just take over. I remember being the goody two-shoes in school who would take over a group project because I was convinced I could do things better on my own. But this rarely works, never in improvised scenes and never in relationships. In a multiplayer scene, it’s awkward when a single player constantly outshines the rest. Improvisation is most impressive when the performers play off one another and if a single player is clearly making up all of the rules, then the scene ceases to be truly improvised. Collaboration is the best part.

Sometimes we might start out as part of a team, but then we see an opening–a delicious opportunity to get a good laugh from the crowd or to completely yank the rug out from under our partner’s side of the discussion. Too often, these openings result in derailing the scene. A colleague of mine referred to these tantalizing openings as “shiny pennies.” As players in any team setting, our job is to avoid these pennies. They might look pretty, and it might seem harmless to bend over for a moment to pick up the penny, but too often we wind up disrupting the flow of traffic with our sudden foray outside of the context of the moment. In relationships, these shiny pennies often take the form of insults. My husband and I might be in the middle of a tough conversation and then something he says gives me an opening to mention how he never turns the faucet off tightly enough. Is the faucet relevant in the discussion? No. Is mentioning it a satisfying dig at my husband? Yes. Will it keep the conversation flowing? No. Is it worth it? Absolutely not. It’s just a penny.

The easiest way to avoid these shiny pennies is to shift focus from ourselves to our partners. If everyone collaborating on a scene or conversation focuses on making their partners shine, the results are astounding. Everyone looks good. Everyone listens. Everyone is heard.

Practice Makes…Better

Of course following these tenets is easier said than done. Improvisation is about having the right tools to act and react off the cuff. These tools need sharpening and a practiced hand to wield them. But practice isn’t always fun and if you’re anything like me, I have a tough time doing things that I don’t enjoy. That’s why I was so excited to discover that something as silly as playing improvisation games gives me a chance to put these rules into practice in a playful way. And by doing that maybe, just maybe, it will get a little easier to implement these ideas when the situation isn’t so fun.


My husband and I playing together just a month after we started dating. Some things haven't changed.

My husband and I playing together just a month after we started dating. Some things haven’t changed.


I made a collage today.

The world was white with winter outside my window, while I dove headfirst into a colorful adventure of glossy pages and created something. Breezing through magazines felt somehow like going on a scavenger hunt. I was looking for myself in those pages. Each image I selected spoke to me in some way. Arranging the pictures together felt like uniting playful pieces of myself that I had forgotten about or never knew existed. I realized just how like collages we are, inside and out. Sometimes we don’t realize that all of our parts can co-exist. Even the fanciful daydreamy parts that we often hide can snuggle right up against the other more “realistic” images we may envision of ourselves.

I hope my collage always reminds me of this beautiful fact. It is a splash of life and color that now hangs proudly in my closet and it makes me smile every time it catches my eye. It didn’t cost anything and making it felt like a hugely productive use of my snowy Saturday.

Creating this collage left me feeling so warm and clear and I want to share the experience.  Consider this an invitation. As I mentioned in my last post, I am currently taking Julia Cameron’s “The Artist’s Way” course and it has given me a renewed sense of purpose and has colored my days with some vibrant dimensions that I had been missing. While I strongly recommend The Artist’s Way to anyone who wants to refresh and discover their inborn creativity (we all have it–lots of it), for now I just want to invite you to make something–whether it’s a collage, a batch of cookies, a set of curtains–anything that will light you up.

My collage was one of my Artist Way tasks for the week. In case making a collage excites you, here are the steps I followed to make it happen (based on a task listed in Week 7 of The Artist’s Way course book):

  • Turn on some favorite music.
  • Take a pile of magazines (at least 10–I collected them from generous friends and neighbors).
  • Set a timer for 20 minutes.
  • Go wild cutting or tearing out images that speak to you until your time is up.
  • Assemble your images however you want by gluing or taping them to a piece of newspaper, poster board, or just by attaching a few sheets of regular paper together to give yourself a play surface.
  • Hang your collage somewhere it will make you smile.
  • Revel in whatever your collage means to you or brought up for you. Soak up the fun.
2015-01-24 19.59.31

Introducing my newest happy thought. The flash washed out some of the spectacular color, but I just had to share my collage.



A New Year’s Revelation

It’s a new year alright. Before I know it, I’ll be a new mom to a newborn baby, my husband will be a newly ordained minister, and we’ll be moving to a new place to serve a new congregation. I am thrilled about all of these changes and the possibilities that they will bring, but I also have had some trepidation. How will all of this affect my work? I’ve already been struggling to make time for my own creative endeavors outside of teaching, although teaching will always be an integral part of any art I make because I love it. But will all of these new factors help or hinder my creativity?

In preparation for all of these exciting changes, I decided to enroll in Julia Cameron’s 12-week Artist’s Way course for artistic discovery and recovery. My dear mother-in-law has taken and led the course several times. She very sweetly lent me the coursebook “The Artist’s Way” and has been checking in with me every week to see how things are going.

Things are going great! Rather than outline all of the ins and outs of the Artist’s Way course (you really should check out the book), I am using this first blog entry of 2015 to take a creative risk. Through my work in the Artist’s Way, I have identified a dream that I really want to pursue and this is the first time that I’m talking about it publicly.

I want to start a small business, tentatively called Merry Mystery Playmakers. This business would be all about creating customized murder mystery and scavenger hunt packages for all ages and events. Yes, I have already listed murder mysteries as one of the services I offer, but some soul searching has made it clear that I want to pursue this more directly and deeply. One of the things that Julia challenges us to do in The Artist’s Way is to take baby steps towards attaining our artistic goals and to see what happens when we aren’t shy about admitting what we want. So this is my next baby step.

Merry Mystery Playmakers seems like a perfect way to combine so many of my creative loves–writing, theatre, and encouraging others to play. Growing up, my dad designed scavenger hunts for my birthdays. Those parties were always so much more than pizza, cake, and presents. All of the guests got to play together, hunting for clues and sharing in each triumph leading us to the prize at the end. Of course, the hunt was always better than the prize itself. It was the gift of adventure and that’s what I want to give other people.

I see this being so much more than a birthday party business. The packages I offer will be invaluable and playful for people of all ages and in so many settings. These customized challenges encourage collaboration and imagination in an unparalleled fun way. They would be wonderful for fundraisers, for employee team building exercises, for galas, for bachelor/ette parties, for family reunions, museum events, library programs…the list goes on.

So there you go, folks. I want to start my own mystery-making business. It will be a while before I’ve completed the necessary groundwork, but consider Merry Mystery Playmakers as yet another new thing starting in 2015. Having this renewed sense of purpose is phenomenal and I can’t wait to see what happens next. I wish you all creative inspiration and satisfaction–we could all use more of it.

Make Believe

Kindergarten is a magical place. For the past month, I have been assisting the pre-k/kindergarten teacher at the school where my husband currently works. Every school day, I get to watch this little group of four and five-year-olds learn. And you know what? Kindergarten is hard! The “basics” aren’t so basic when you’re a little person who’s new to school–memorizing numbers, figuring out how to force your fidgety fingers to hold to a pencil, and sitting still. Quietly! But here’s one of the biggest challenges-learning to play courteously with others.

Sometimes I think these kiddos learn the most from their play time. Not only do they develop fine motor skills by building marble tracks and stacking blocks, but they learn how to interact with other human beings in an unstructured environment. Every day is a new series of lessons in sharing, problem solving, and self-advocating. Watching and guiding them as they grapple with these lessons is exhausting, but the rewards are simply scrumptious. At least I’m not the one figuring it all out. It’s a wonder that these kids make it through each learning-stuffed day without collapsing.

Not only is it challenging to cooperate with others, but cooperating with yourself is another huge obstacle for these young people. I have witnessed many cases of “I can’t do it” disorder bubbling to the surface in the classroom. I hate that it sets in so early, but it does. Whether it’s drawing people (proportions are tough), coloring in a picture, or building a marble track, I often hear kids complaining that they can’t do the task set before them. Sometimes the mental block is so ominous that these little ones dissolve in tears. Frustration is one thing, but believing you can’t do something when you really truly can, is just heartbreaking.

One of the many things that I love about the kindergarten teacher is that she simply won’t stand for it.

She never “does” anything for the kids. Instead, she talks them through the nasty voices in their heads telling them that they’re not good enough and even if they insist that they are incapable of accomplishing the task, she makes sure that every single student finishes their projects. She is strict, but she never withholds praise. She wants every child to shine and be uninhibitedly creative.

It’s a privilege to learn from these students and their dedicated teacher, who by the way is most definitely a teaching artist. I wonder if these kids will ever appreciate how lucky they are to have a teacher who so deeply wants them to believe in themselves. She cuts out wooden farm animals and has the kids paint them because she wants them to feel that they “made” a wooden animal. It’s doesn’t matter that they didn’t cut out the animals themselves. Just the decorating gives them a sense of ownership and accomplishment. It really is about believing that they can do things and being okay if they don’t turn out the way they expected. Now that, my friends, is one of the most essential “basics” that kids can and should learn.


Farewell to the Fellowship

Here we are at the beginning of the Fellowship. Seems like an age ago!

Here we are at the beginning of the Fellowship. Seems like an age ago!

Today is my last official day as a Greenfield Teaching Artist Fellow. The last two years have hummed, hemmed and hawed past in a flurry of lesson plans, meetings, and performances and now it’s time to say goodbye to my two year ride as a Fellow.

I sincerely hope that this Fellowship continues and that many programs like it arise and thrive. I have plenty of reservations about the way education is being handled in this country and would like to put in a good word for learning by doing. Throughout this entire Fellowship, I have been teaching. First, with a mentor and then on my own, but always with a network of support from my fellow teaching artists. As a recovering perfectionist, I needed to throw myself into a trial and error environment. And there was plenty of error. But now I’m better at what I do and I have a sense of just how hard I will have to work to keep improving. I’m far from a seasoned veteran, but I now have a healthy collection of tried and true versus tried and tripped methods of igniting creativity in my students. After all, teaching artists are all about learning by doing. It’s not just how we learn, it’s how we teach. We don’t show students how to do theatre, we help them do it. We encourage mistakes because fearing them cripples creativity.  Just do it and learn.

It wouldn’t have made sense for me to enter this field any other way. I have the Fellowship and the education staff at the Philadelphia Theatre Company to thank for so much of my personal growth in the past two years. Because of my teaching artist family, I know that I am not and never will be alone in my endeavors.

Earlier this month, the five Greenfield Fellows reflected on our experiences over the past two years by writing and performing a modest play for a group of our summer camp students. It was a difficult project. Juggling five artists’ schedules is no picnic and it’s a miracle that we wound up with a cohesive product. Besides, most of us had focused on teaching together during the Fellowship and this was the first time we were collaborating on the playmaking side of things. You can’t be a teaching artist if you don’t embrace the art and boy did we have a time wrangling our reflections into something performable. But we did it. We used our art form to express what we had learned over the past two years, from our students, from our mentors, and from each other. For me, it was the final stepping stone of the Fellowship. The five of us took a bow together and now we will go our separate ways.

But I will always carry the final refrain of that performance piece with me. In the last movement of the show, one fellow spoke passionately and rhythmically about how far she has come in the past two years and about how much she has learned from her students. Really, she was speaking for all of us. Sure, we consider ourselves teachers, but it’s really us who do the most learning. And the lesson that our students teach us is the same lesson that we strive to impart to them: “Speak up.”

I’ve said it before, but it’s worth saying again. Teaching artists empower others to speak up through art making. I want to thank my students and my fellow Fellows for empowering me to do the same. I’m not sure what opportunities will come next, but I won’t miss them by being silent.

(P.S. If you want to watch something kind of adorable and awkward, check out this video of the Fellows from the very beginning of our journey. We’ve come so far!)