Lessons from Teenagers

My friends and I spent today today teaching drama workshops to 120 fourteen-year-old students.

Meanwhile, Boston is on lockdown. I’m horrified by the seemingly pointless violence perpetrated there and by the images of the city as a ghost town. I’m saddened by the idea that someone taught those men that it’s acceptable to kill people for a cause. I’m broken by the knowledge that the country issuing my passport authorises drone strikes that result in similarly needless deaths. I’m equally sickened by the knowledge  that people all over the world experience what Boston is experiencing–and much, much worse–every single day.

But my friends and I spent the day teaching kids about drama. I always feel good about teaching drama because I feel good about the values that it teaches. And today I was reminded of why I really like working with kids.

At the start of each session, we split the students into groups and forced them to work with kids they didn’t know, from schools that were not their own.

In my workshop, I asked them to create a short movement sequence based on an image of their choosing. They were working in pairs, and I purposely paired people who were not friends or classmates. These pairs–most of them strangers before the workshop– worked more openly with each other than most postgraduate students I’ve worked with. Every idea was met with approval; not a single suggestion was shot down. Each and every pair created something worth watching, and much of the work was highly creative. They were able to play together really wonderfully.

There was a beautiful moment when I asked them to talk about the inspirations for their movement pieces. One pair, who had done some excellent work, commented that their piece grew out of disagreement between them about whether their chosen image communicated strength or lightness (in Laban’s sense). Rather than fight about which was ‘right’, they incorporated both into the movement in order to reflect the apparent ambiguity in the image.

When it came to devising a slightly longer performance to present back to the larger group, everyone has something to contribute, and no one’s contribution was devalued. Nobody was devoiced. By and large, they were able to take each other’s ideas and run with them, build off of them, and create something great.

(Okay, so my first group’s presentation was based on Harry Potter, but it was inspired by the ‘magical’ experience they had doing drama with us all day! And it was adorable.)

When it came time for the groups to feed back to each other about their performances, not a single cruel or harsh comment was made. They critiqued each other intelligently and asked great questions, without the bile that so often can be felt in peer-led critique at higher levels.

My point is that these students were able to do something that I’ve seen very few adults able to do in the past few years: work together peacefully. No heads were bitten off, no one was mocked, and no one was devoiced ALL DAY LONG. I’ve only experienced one devising process that even approached that level of cooperation. And I know the skeptics will say that it’s good to question everything and it’s best not to take the first idea that comes along in process and that disagreement creates healthy debate and variety, and they’re absolutely right. Critique helps us to grow. But it’s also important to take others’ ideas into account, to disagree without hating, and to critique with empathy. These kids were able to do those things. They weren’t perfect, and there were times when their insecurities and immaturities definitely showed. But they weren’t cruel to each other.

So in the midst of chaos in Boston and drone strikes God-knows-where and threats from North Korea and who knows how many corrupt governments, maybe the lesson from these students is that it’s okay to disagree and still be friends–that it’s possible to communicate effectively and passionately without bombs or threats or cruelty.

I mean, come on–if 120 fourteen-year-olds can manage it, what’s wrong with us?