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'Archduke' Offers Students Lessons in Collaboration and History

Classroom Connections

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L-R: Patrick Page in the world premiere of Rajiv Joseph’s “Archduke” at the Mark Taper Forum.

Photo by Craig Schwartz.
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In Classroom Connections, Center Theatre Group invites groups of educators to enjoy a night out at the theatre—followed by a discussion of the show and where they found inspiration over food and drinks. The goal is to talk about the bridges we can build between the craft of theatre and the craft of classroom teaching.

We traveled back in time with a play set in the days leading up to World War I with Marcia Barryte and Marce Fabre, who took a break from their school production rehearsals to join us for the World premiere of Rajiv Joseph's Archduke, playing the Mark Taper Forum through June 4, 2017. The dynamic duo team teaches theatre arts at Carson High School. Barryte teaches acting and performance, while Fabre is the school's technical director.

When I checked in with the ladies at intermission, they were already buzzing. Both felt that the play instantly offered students a strong example of how to engage all five senses. Sight and sound were immediate hooks. But they noted that taste, smell, and touch were also activated in some form. The teachers pointed out lines and scenes where characters described the taste of food—from sandwiches to pudding—and even the smell of minty breath or the feelings the actors evoked when they touched skull bones and bloody handkerchiefs.

And after the show, Fabre literally picked up on even stronger vibes from the impressive set design. A pivotal scene takes place on a train heading from Belgrade to Sarajevo. I could feel the vibration of the train from my seat, she said. The set and sound designers clearly worked together to put audio speakers under the train so you knew where the train sounds were coming from—but more importantly—that audio made us audience members feel the train. We could feel the rumble of the wheels from our seats out in the house! It felt like the train was moving.

Fabre is Carson's technical director and an audio specialist at the Long Beach Convention Center—so she knows the importance of pointing out shining models of collaboration and creativity for students to draw from. Using the train scene as an example for students, said Fabre, I could have the kids pick some random scenes and see what they come up with to enhance it by working together and combining multiple elements just like they did in Archduke.

Barryte agreed that the Archduke production provides many opportunities for students to explore stagecraft by combing technical elements with performance and text.

For my kids it would need to be a vocabulary line toss, said Barryte. Everyone gets into a circle with notecards with words like 'Franz Ferdinand,' 'Carl Ludwig,' and 'Joseph Maria' on one side and 'Archduke of Austria-Este,' 'Austro-Hungarian,' and 'Royal Prince of Hungary and of Bohemia' on the other side. Then students might toss a ball to each other and read off their card and try to guess the one on the opposite side through performing the words on the card.

Barryte was quick to point out that her idea to create an Archduke-inspired version of a classic charades game stems from her observation as a veteran classroom teacher: An activity is always much more valuable than copying from the board. Students move, verbalize, and remember.

From this kind of jumping-off point, Barryte felt the next step could be to explore pantomime exercises with students—just as the Archduke actors did during certain scenes in the show when the Captain character asked the three young men in the story to re-enact the fatal shooting of the archduke as a way to practice or rehearse. Pantomime exercises, especially in our warm-ups and even prior to journaling, are a valuable way to explore a text—especially a text that involves history, said Barryte.

A historical play like Archduke offers a special opportunity for discussion as well. There are a limited number of literary themes that get reused and re-invented oftentimes onstage, and I want my students to think about how theatre artists can help an audience view an incident through a certain lens, said Barryte. It's important for a theatre student to have a firm grasp of historical references, facts, and concepts, and how history repeats itself. And what the assassination of the Archduke, ISIS, and even hazing [on school campuses] all have in common, is they are about vulnerability.

Being able to see events and story from many perspectives is key, added Fabre. That's a skill that can help theatre artists better understand the characters they play. And by extension, how to understand people better. An example is the Captain Apis, said Fabre of the character who convinces three young Serbian men to kill the Archduke. His primary persona is strong, loud, blustery, and in charge. But when he is at home, he succumbs to his housekeeper, Sladjana. She is not impressed with him, and sees he is just all show. He becomes as vulnerable as the other boys to her.

Fabre believes a character like Apis can give teachers a way to help students explore how to see events from different points of view: In the classroom, you could do an exercise of taking a trait and its opposite trait and then ask students to create a complete character with both traits—and the challenge is to make it believable.

Fabre added, I want my students to know they have the power, as theatre artists, to plant seeds, and maybe your audience will go home and do even more research on the topic. A great example of this is Hamilton. If you asked people, prior to that musical, what Alexander Hamilton contributed to our young country, the odds are they would have been clueless. But now, the whole world knows a whole other part of our country's history. It is an art to be able to take the dry facts of history and take the people involved and give them character and find the human elements and emotions to make the story progress.

And as if on cue, both teachers near simultaneously cheered: That's Archduke!

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