Shaping Space: Lessons from Presenting at CETA Conference 2015

We know, as performing arts teachers, that space matters. Space wars and space envy are real things on campus.  We’ve all been to each other’s classrooms or schools and silently, internally shaken our heads with envy or empathy about what another colleague gets to work with. You’re doing a play in the cafeteria with the ripped curtains where you have to rehearse around the show choir and your dear friend down the road gets the multimillion dollar “performing arts facility” with the flyspace and the inflexible theatre manager. Everybody’s situation is different and rarely ideal. Some of us have to share space and resources to the point of chaos, some of us are geographically isolated or scattered all over campus, and we all know there is never enough time with students or without, a kind of space itself.

I’ve been thinking about space a lot recently. This past Saturday, I presented some of my work on Rasaboxes, a space based practice,  at the California Educational Theatre Association Conference , a  great organization for theatre educators,  at the Asilomar Conference Grounds in Pacific Grove, which is a beautiful space to work in.

When I present or teach adults or adolescents, I try to get there early enough to customize the space.  All of the fears inherent in teaching, that we will be unable to run our rooms, or discovered as a fraud, are wrapped up for me in preparing the room ahead of time. At the beginning of a school year, I often dance in my empty classroom before the first bell rings, a way of calling it all in. Teaching adults is tremendously satisfying and more nerve wracking, so I am careful to make very conscious choices about where and how I want people to be.

When you present work at a conference, all of the mechanisms of teaching out of a designated space, your classroom, must be replicated in a strange and neutral location. This is what often bewildered me about my college and graduate school classes, where my professors seemed to be able to teach wonderful things in strangely shaped, poorly lit rooms, without even the benefit of a personal item or desk drawer for backup.  I learned from watching them that if they didn’t like the way a room was laid out, they took a few moments to unapologetically adjust it- the seating, the windows, the temperature.

The last two times I have presented, my rooms have been long, empty, bowling alley like affairs that I must somehow curtail for an unknown group of participants a half hour before in order to create the space I like to work in. This, of course is the exact opposite situation from what a mired classroom teacher with a set number of students faces. We’re usually trying to make more space, and at a conference, I often find I am trying to make less.

What I did before and during my presentation to shape the room got me thinking about the importance of designating space for our work. Here are a few takeaways from what worked for me and what I need to work on.

1. Enclose and define your space to create emotional and physical safety.  This particular room was set up for a lot of open play space, because active, ensemble work is what drama teachers love the best about conferences. New games and warmup are what we live for, because they engage, exhaust, and focus our students. I love those workshops, but I needed a tighter space because I was teaching a multi day process that involved working on a taped floor grid. I still wanted a circle though, so I moved chairs in.  I wanted the focus on the grid, on the lesson. I wanted people about one step away from the grid, so that anyone could enter it.  And I wanted them close to each other.  Every class has its own story. The safer the space, the more possibilities for students to participate in telling that story.  The shorter the distance to “onstage”, the more likely it will be that students will travel that distance.

2. Create open space within your classroom practice.  Allow students to “act” without consequence by creating space for emotional risk and decision making.  I asked my colleagues to place the butcher paper with the different emotions of the rasas on the floor  in one of eight squares, avoiding the middle, as they came into the room, thus utilizing those first often awkward few minutes to our advantage.  This meant that eight individual “students” had already gone into the boxes on a neutral errand before we started working with it, owning the choices they’d made. There were 23 students in the workshop, so that created a curiosity and openness right off, a kind of moving anticipatory set.  Later, I set five  students up for one of the activities, which was simply to read a letter and move to a box showing how the letter made them feel, while other students were finishing up with the activity I’ll describe next, graffiti.

3. Allow and require students to own the space. Having laid down the rasas in a way that was particular to this exact group,  the architecture of the session was laid out by the students themselves, part of the story. Next, students to go around and “graffiti”  the various emotions- I like to use crayons, inspired by the work of Comedy Sportz LA’s  James Bailey, who was actually in the session! This action gets students collaborating, taking turns, engaged in self-expression, and supporting each other in creative action, all before they’ve made any theatre together.  This is vital, particularly as a way to cultivate the community and emotional honesty that theatre demands.  Activities like this are great icebreakers when the group doesn’t know each other, but are particularly important to continue to revive as the group knows each other more, because it keeps the space democratic, rather than full of territoriality.

4. Music equalizes, neutralizes and energizes the space. I thought ahead and brought my laptop to play music, as I usually do before class. I play music, my music and theirs, with teenagers because music is their language.  I feel all groups respond well to it. When CETA luminary Amanda Swann introduced me, the music wonderfully and randomly switched to a circus calliope verson of “Be A Clown”, which made everyone laugh as I rushed over to switch it off. For some reason, this made me feel better, because this inadvertent toppling of my status allowed me to feel, well, less burdened by the need to “teach” and more in the space I wanted my participants to be in, that “sharing”  space which is necessary for the emotional connection that I find happens with Rasaboxes.

5. Time is space.  As we shape space in our classrooms, it’s also important to manage time.  As usual, I overplanned activities for this workshop, which could have gone far more deeply into text. I did, however, make the necessary space for discussion of each exercise I presented, which is what I noticed my colleagues needing, as I was giving them a lot to process.  I underplanned materials (ran out of handouts, left key contact info off my worksheet) as well. I laughed that off, but in general, we all know that overplanning trumps underplanning. One of the advantages we have as mostly solo practitioners, except for when dealing with productions, is that it’s ok for units to run over, to spill out into the next day.  That frustrates those of us who like a calendar and have a set agenda of skills we’re trying to get through, but it shouldn’t. Running a good room means that the needs that the people in it are met. Consider that you, as the teacher, can shape your 55 to 80 minute block in any way that you wish, but that the constraints of time are a powerful teaching tool.

I had a great time presenting at CETA and enjoyed learning from my colleagues as I hope they did from me.  Our spaces matter, and as performing arts teachers, we have the power to define them in the way that works best for ourselves and our students. With some planning, experimentation and reflection, we can improve our own relationships to space, allowing our students to experience our curriculum more deeply.