So I’m working at the theatre camp where I cut my own theatrical teeth lo these many years ago, which marks this as the 14th year I’ve been working with this particular company and — I think — my thirteenth summer camp. (I missed last year due to being in Greece.) I’ve been a student, a stage manager, a director, and this year I’m adding teaching to my repertoire by teaching a couple of acting classes.
Things that are terrifying: teaching acting classes to children. The last acting class I took was my junior year and, um, there are things I just can’t do with ten-year-olds. I mean, I guess you could do Before the Door with ten-year-olds. (For the unitiated, that’s an exercise where you’re facing a door that you have to go through but that is difficult for you to go through for some reason, and you develop a monologue/stream-of-consciousness speech as you work yourself up to go through the door. They tend to become very personal and often very, very emotional: I’ve heard of or seen BtDs that involved going through the door to a parent’s funeral, to get a diagnosis of an illness, to come out of the closet, etc etc.) But I feel like it would be . . . more difficult to get the concept across to the kids, for one, and for another, it wouldn’t be entirely fair to the kids who are in this camp just because their parents signed them up to expect them to get into that soul-baring. It’s one thing at a conservatory program with 18-year-olds who have signed themselves up to bare their souls and be torn to pieces to be rebuilt; it’s another at a summer camp.
So rather than casting my mind back to my acting class at CMU (although there’s a couple of exercises I do want to steal, like telling jokes in gibberish and playing Song Circle), I’m casting my mind back to what I learned in my acting classes here at the camp, back in the day. So: for my first class, I did character development worksheets (Who am I? Where/when am I? What do I want? How do I get it?), which went reasonably well. I think I at least got the concept of objectives across, although the kids seemed to have more trouble with the idea that more detail is better, and I did a terrible job of explaining tactics.
The other thing I’m thinking back to is neutral dialogues — those short scenes with exchanges like “Good morning.” “Good morning.” “What time is it?” “Don’t you have a watch?” “No.” “Okay.” “Goodbye.” The ostensible point of neutral dialogues is to teach you about subtext and storytelling, because playing a scene with neutral dialogue is all about subtext and how you can tell a story without using words. That “What time is it?” exchange could be a couple waking up in bed after a one-night stand; it could be a married couple filled with resentment; it could be a student waltzing into class late; it could even be a tense, action-packed heist scene. It all depends on what subtext you use, what actions you play on each line, what silence you put into the scene, and what actions you take surrounding each line.
That’s the ostensible reason, but I think in some ways it’s more just about getting the creative juices flowing. What the actors are doing with a neutral scene, whether they realize it or not, is writing a short play where one element — the dialogue — has already been supplied. And the creativity kids display is one of the best parts of this camp.
One problem: how damn difficult it is to find neutral dialogues. I’ve tracked down two possibilities; I wish I could find one more.