On a Thursday afternoon in early June, an anonymous Downtown L.A. conference room was transformed into a 1920s recording studio on Chicago's South Side filled with music executives, musicians, a legendary blueswoman, and her entourage. The room’s walls had been covered in lists of images and ideas about theatre, music, and American history, and its tables in drawings—all inspired by August Wilson’s Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom. The only thing missing was the music, although Center Theatre Group Teaching Artist Tony Sancho punctuated the action with a hand drum.
To be fair, a casual passerby would not have known what to make of the diverse group of actors silently miming at various tempos in the back of the conference room, or of the guidance Center Theatre Group Resident Teaching Artist Khanisha Foster was offering as she called out different numbers between one and twenty. But if you sat there long enough watching, the personalities of the characters would begin to emerge—despite the fact that each actor was performing, at varying speeds, just three simple gestures like checking the time, wiggling their fingers, scowling, or wrapping a sweater tightly around their shoulders.
Foster had assigned each actor a character from Ma Rainey and instructed them to come up with three movements that embody that person. “Your language is gesture and tempo,” she told them, instructing them to use different speeds with each number. “You are these characters in the studio.” Each actor managed to convey a surprising amount of emotion with each movement—which was all the more impressive considering that none of them were professionals.
They were, rather, educators from high schools around Los Angeles County who had foregone part of their hard-earned summer vacation to participate in Center Theatre Group’s Summer Theatre Immersion for Educators. Led by Foster and Sancho, the group spent four intense days discussing, reading, writing, and acting—exploring their own creativity while discovering new ways to bring theatre, and August Wilson, into their classrooms in the fall.
The chance to make art together is such a special experience. We all speak the same language, and we’re all learning new forms and new ideas.
“It’s so awesome and gratifying to honor teachers as artists and individuals with a creative week,” said Foster. “You meet them on day one, but by the end of the week you can see them fully as artists. It makes them better artists and better teachers.”
Added Sancho, “I really liked being able to give them activities that not only crack them open as artists but that they’re also excited to take back to their students.”
After finishing up the acting exercise, Sancho asked what discoveries they had made. “When you look at a character from the perspective of the gestures, you understand them better,” said Marcia Barryte, who teaches at Carson High School. “I had to figure out how controlling he wants to be,” she said of her character, recording studio owner Mel Sturdyvant.
“They all have this air of redemption about them,” added Lewis Tucker of Maya Angelou Community High School.
As the Immersion wound down, the educators paired up to discuss how they would incorporate what they’d learned with their students. Although it had been just four days, it felt like much longer. They had been introduced to the work, life, and philosophy of August Wilson. They had written their own four-person plays. They had broken down Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom into words and images. They had studied the text as an ensemble using the Viewpoints movement theatre technique developed by Anne Bogart and Tina Landau. They had written and sung the blues. They had investigated the rhythm and musicality of Ma Rainey. They had done free-writing. They had discussed gentrification. They had studied the poetry of Amiri Baraka and written their own poems.
“How long have we been here?” Foster teased the group. “Two or three months?”
All of the teachers planned to bring these activities back to their students in some way. One planned to have students share their relatives’ migration stories, discussing what we bring and what we leave behind. Another planned to have students do the same “punctuation walking” exercise the educators had done, where they highlighted Wilson’s punctuation using different colors, then read the play out loud while walking around the room, stopping or changing direction based on the punctuation.
“I want them to know that they live in this text, that it tells their stories, and that they can tell their stories,” said City of Angels School’s Patricia Butler. “All of these lessons can be used in any class—math, literature. I plan to use them in my summer school classroom.”
The final exercise of the Immersion asked the educators to stretch themselves as artists by free-writing a scene of dialogue with a number of elements: four characters, a culturally specific setting or experience, a place they know well, a betrayal, food, a kiss, an honorable act, an act of betrayal, and an accident that leads to a magical transformation.
No one was able to incorporate every single element in under 15 minutes, but they all wrote pieces that felt honest and emotional and had moments of beauty, whether they were set in a family kitchen or a bar, Disneyland or a soul food restaurant.
It’s so awesome and gratifying to honor teachers as artists and individuals with a creative week. You meet them on day one, but by the end of the week you can see them fully as artists.
“The chance to make art together is such a special experience,” said Eric Thomas of Augustus Hawkins High School. “We all speak the same language, and we’re all learning new forms and new ideas. I feel fired up for the coming school year.” Many of his fellow participants agreed that being part of the group was valuable in creating a supportive network; they made plans to start a Facebook group and keep in touch in the Fall.
As part of their participation, the educators will have the opportunity to bring students to see August Wilson’s Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom at the Mark Taper Forum in October through Center Theatre Group’s Student Matinees.