Theatre presents a way for students to engage with ideas in a high kinesthetic manner. It is another avenue for students to tackle complex issues and to work through them in group contexts as they develop stories based on the experiences of themselves and others. At Al-Bustan, I cherish the role that I have as the facilitator of such explorations.
My approach differs from that of a teacher in a more traditional sense. Indeed my highly collaborative methods mean that each year at Al-Bustan is different than the one before it, not merely because each year brings a new theme, but also because each year brings a new group of students and a new classroom dynamic. The students bring their unique approach to the material. They tell me what interests them about the topics that they study in other classes such as Arabic, art, poetry, and science. I record their ideas, place them into an outline format, read the outline back to the students and have them add flesh to the bones of the outline through improvisational exercises. This process requires a healthy amount of creative chaos, which may seem odd to the outside observer, but which always proves to be highly effective. Ideas flood the room, and the student’s unfiltered comments give way to open debates and further queries. The process is partially controlled thanks to a primary rule, which I heavily enforce, that all ideas must be treated with respect and must be considered fully before they can be dismissed.
This year at camp the middle school students decided to craft a play about the lives of kids who grew up during the Lebanese Civil War and who, despite suffering great adversity, persevered and demonstrated their remarkable resilience and ultimate love for life. Thus far, the students and I have staged the first scene, and our process has conformed largely to the method that I described above.
In many plays the first scene establishes the time, place, major characters, and circumstances of the play. The students themselves came up with the idea to have a scene inside the home of a traditional Lebanese family. In this scene an elder brother attempts to read a book as his two young, rambunctious siblings pester him with questions. Although their questions initially seem inconsequential, silly even, they dovetailed into a series of more weighted remarks about the nature of the Lebanese Civil War and concerns for the family’s ongoing safety. The seriousness of the conversation causes the older brother to change tactics and adopt the calming voice of authority, telling his siblings not to worry, but to be strong in the face of such adversity. The dialogue itself is determined by the students who play the roles on stage. The onstage actors are given further guidance by the students who sit on the sidelines awaiting their turns in the spotlight. If one of these students in the audience has an idea of what a given character should say, he/she raises his/her hand in order to offer a suggestion. Those on stage consider the suggestion and embody it. In this way, each student has the opportunity to add his/her insights, becoming playwrights themselves. This process will continue until Thursday when we treat our friends and family members to the culmination of our efforts, a fully-staged performance about Lebanon!