Directing Production

Ensemble Is Core: Building a Community with your Theatre students

Written by Lindsay Price

Episode 155: Ensemble Is Core

Teacher Carrie Reiberg has long known about the place that theatre can give a person. The theatre is a community. To that end, she also knows the importance and the value of ensemble. Ensemble is Core. She could not have done the work she did on the physically driven piece Emotional Baggage until she had built a community with her students. Listen in to hear Carrie talk about the experience, how she empowered students to come up with their own blocking, and how Frantic Assembly inspired the process.

Show Notes

Episode Transcript

Welcome to TFP – The Theatrefolk Podcast – the place to be for Drama teachers, Drama students, and theatre educators everywhere. Woohoo! I had to get excited there!

I’m Lindsay Price, resident playwright for Theatrefolk.

Hello! I hope you’re well. Thanks for listening!

This is Episode 155.

You can find any links to this episode in the show notes which are at theatrefolk.com/episode155.

Before I get started, I wanted to let you guys know about two upcoming free – that’s right, free just for you – events. Theatrefolk is hosting two live PLCs – professional learning communities. We are holding them through Google Hangouts where a host, moi, and a panel are going to discuss and problem solve on topics that are important to drama teachers and drama educators.

There’s also a very active chatroom where there is more discussion and more problem-solving. It’s an absolutely amazing experience. I love doing these.

You also get a certificate of attendance which I know some of you can use with your administrators.

Our first one is tonight, April 19th at 8 PM Eastern, and we are talking about assessment. I know that is a big topic for lots of you – assessment. But, if you’re not listening today, do not fret! We have a second live PLC – professional learning community – on April 29th at 8 PM Eastern and it’s going to be a Q&A. we’re going to have teachers and topic experts onboard to discuss questions. It could be classroom management, improv, assessment, the ensemble, and more. It’s going to be awesome.

You can find a link for both these events in the show notes at theatrefolk.com/episode155.

And, now, back to our regularly scheduled program.

So, a lot of these interviews come from chance. Someone emails me with some show pictures that look interesting and that starts a conversation with a teacher I have never met and this is one of those conversations and it’s so lovely. I love it. I love it. I love what Carrie Reiberg not only has to say about her experience but what she has to share with you.

So, let’s get to it.

LINDSAY: All right. I am speaking with Carrie Reiberg.

Hello, Carrie!

CARRIE: Hi!

LINDSAY: So, Carrie had a wonderful way for remembering for me how to say her name which was rye bread on an iceberg and I just think that’s a wonderful image and I wanted to share it with all of you.

Carrie, tell everybody where in the world you are.

CARRIE: I am in Indianapolis, Indiana.

LINDSAY: Awesome.

CARRIE: Yeah.

LINDSAY: So, let’s start off with your background. What connected you to becoming a theatre teacher?

CARRIE: I did ballet, modern dance, and theatre in high school. I was one of those kids that needed a place and theatre was my place. So, I was really drawn to it. I actually majored in performance in college and went and lived in New York for a while and did the whole starving actor thing and taught classes while I was starving. I really liked teaching so I came back home and went back to school – same place I got my undergraduate degree. I got my graduate degree and my teaching license at Indiana University in Bloomington and I’ve been teaching ever since.

LINDSAY: How long have you been a teacher?

CARRIE: This is my 13th year.

LINDSAY: Isn’t it amazing? I wish there was a way sometimes to convince – particularly young folks – that theatre in your life doesn’t necessarily mean that performing piece, you know what I mean?

CARRIE: Yes, I appreciate that so much. It’s so true because I thought you had to go and be an actor and that was the only way to do it and I find this way of expressing myself to be a lot more fulfilling than doing a couple of gigs every now and then and working at a desk all day. This is much better.

LINDSAY: Oh, I totally… well, it took me ten years to figure out how I wanted to be as a playwright and I spent miserable years in a big city, trying to do what everyone else was doing, and it just took me that long to figure out that I didn’t like it. I just thought I had to do it and it would all fall into place at some point. And then, to get into the education aspect where it’s all about the process and being way less precious about my stuff because of how much I see students growing or just blossoming, you know, and just in every play. Like, you know, it doesn’t even bother me whether it’s like the intense dramas or the really light fluffy pieces because it’s the same student experience.

CARRIE: Well, it gives a voice to youth and I think that that’s a universal theme. I remember feeling empowered by having my own voice when I was performing when I was a young adult and I see that in my scholars now that they feel that sense of ownership and empowerment when they have a voice and I think it’s so important to give them equal voice – both in the classroom and onstage. You don’t have to be seasoned performer; you don’t have to be onstage at the Tony’s to have something valid to say. And so, the intersection of education and theatre, especially education right now and everything that everything education is going through, I find to be so powerful.

LINDSAY: Absolutely. Well, that segues quite nicely into the reason that we’re talking is that you recently did one of my plays, Emotional Baggage.

CARRIE: I loved it.

LINDSAY: Which coincidentally has no dialogue but has a pretty strong voice, I think.

CARRIE: It does, yeah.

LINDSAY: And we’re going to talk about some of the things that you did with it which I think everybody is going to be really interested to hear about. But why did you choose this play?

CARRIE: I chose this play because I was specifically looking for a piece that didn’t have dialogue. I am part of a sort of merging of schools and a building of programs this year and I’ve been charged with developing a theatre program in a really amazing school that hasn’t previously had one. And so, I have students of all different ages with all different levels of experience and I think that, if you can get onstage without talking, first of all, that’s the most vulnerable you can be as far as communication goes. And so, I wanted to challenge them with exposing themselves in that way and making that brave risk and getting up there without words to show them the joy that could come from performance. But, also, I didn’t know what I had. I just knew I needed to do a piece and so I didn’t know if I had scholars who could learn lines, I didn’t know if I had scholars who could read lines, I didn’t know what I was getting into. So, I thought, “I know how to build ensembles and I know how to do ensemble work, that is at my core.” So, I wanted a piece that I could create an ensemble and we could use movement to tell a story without having to lean on a script.

LINDSAY: Awesome. Well, let’s take a little tangent and talk about ensemble for a little bit. Talk about ensemble being your core.

CARRIE: Ensemble is my thing! That’s how I was trained. I trained at the Shakespeare Theatre in Washington DC for a summer conservatory program a million years ago. But my acting teachers there really pushed ensemble work and I think that, when you get to a place in your creative process where it doesn’t matter if you’re the lead or if you have one line or if you have a hundred lines, especially in Shakespeare, if you know that the person standing onstage with you is there for you and that it’s a community and that you can turn to them and depend on them, then you’re in a safe place where you can build a story. Because we’re blending schools where I am right now, there’s a lot of tension between – or at least there was – the school that was here before us and the school that came in. And so, building community is really essential to our process. So, I think that a solid ensemble creates a safe place to play and take risks, and you really can’t do anything until you have a good ensemble. It doesn’t matter what kind of play you’re doing. So, I wanted a piece that would start us with ensemble work.

LINDSAY: Yes, absolutely. I think that whole notion of theatre as community is one of the strongest skills that we can give to students – the notion of community – because, if you can build a community, you can basically go anywhere and do anything. Life is a community. You know, it’s all little things and all little cliques. If you’re good at bringing people together and working together – which I think is the even stronger skill.

CARRIE: Yeah, and I think that that’s something I strive to do in my classrooms – to create a safe community where everyone is treated fairly and equally which is not always easy to do in a public education classroom but it’s my goal. And then, I try to translate that into our work onstage so that there’s sort of a seamless connection. If you have me in class, then you know how I work onstage, then we can get right to work when we have a show. I don’t know, yeah.

To me, community is at the core of all of it because I’ve seen the changes that it can make in different types of theatre. Just like you said earlier, from the fluffy, funny, silly stuff to the really, really serious pieces, if the ensemble isn’t there, the piece falls apart. And so, community is at the core of everything.

LINDSAY: Absolutely. If I can just put you on the spot, what is an example of one really great ensemble either activity or exercise that you use?

CARRIE: Oh, that’s tough. We do a lot of super dorky name games in the beginning because I think that’s important. And then, I like to do a lot of silent communication. I think my go-to for community building is the game “Go” which is really hard to explain.

They’re standing in a circle and you point at somebody across the circle and pointing at that person is their signal to say, “Back to you, go!” and then you switch places with that person. But it’s about control balance. I point to you, Lindsay, because I want you to let me leave, but me pointing to you doesn’t release me. Your verbal communication releases me. So, you have to have the eye contact, you have to have the verbal communication, and you have to be aware of everything that’s happening around you because, if someone’s pointing at you and you’re not telling them to go but they’re coming for your spot, then you end up with a train wreck and everything falls apart.

LINDSAY: I know that game by the name of “Yes” and the way that the instructor who uses it, he uses it specifically in Shakespeare situations just to get students used to the idea of “yes” – you know, like, “Are you doing this? Yes!” It’s just like that whole positive thing. Go is the exact same thing. What I like about the game is that it seems quite simple in that I’m just pointing at you and saying go but it’s like, “No, no,” it’s the communication. It’s actually working together that makes the action work.

CARRIE: Yeah, it’s a powerful piece. I like that one and then I like sound circle where everybody makes a different sound and the person in the middle conducts the piece. I don’t know if you’re familiar with that one. It’s awesome. That one is one of our favorites but that’s more of a go-to for musical theatre, I think. But, yeah, I think that Go or Yes, that’s an empowering one and it’s an equalizing one, right? Because everybody has the same amount of power because you have to be paying attention so closely. We do a lot of Go – or Yes. I’m going to try Yes, it’s positive.

LINDSAY: Yeah, I like that. I like it both.

So, you chose Emotional Baggage and you had a very specific community-building vision with it. You sent me some pictures and what struck me was how the set was very minimalistic and it was just the bodies and the shapes that you were creating with the bodies. And then, you told me that you were using a very specific methodology. Why don’t you tell us, you chose this play, how did you decide to work because it’s a very physical play – it has to be, you’re telling a story with the body – how did you choose the method that you used?

CARRIE: I was looking for a combination of improvisational work and movement work online and I really was just floating around and I found Frantic Assembly’s YouTube channel and I started watching their pieces and I’d seen clips of their work before but I came upon a specific episode – and I can’t remember the title of the episode – the artistic director was working with a group of at risk men, young men, and I happened to have a lot of boys in this production which is rare for me.

And so, I just wanted to see the way he established boundaries and hierarchy and then create an ensemble through movement with this particular group of people. I studied his games and I kind of simplified them for my age group but, as soon as we started, I realized that I didn’t need to simplify them and that they could do it exactly as it was and it was fantastic because Frantic Assembly works with the same concept of non-verbal communication. They use touch and contact to signify movement and they have a series of warm-ups that they do where there’s no talking, there’s only contact and touching to signify what’s supposed to happen next. And so, we started playing with that and then we added different levels – one through ten – to signify speed of movement.

By the end of just one rehearsal, we had a small performance piece just based on call and response. I would call out a number and a speed and a point of contact and they would build a piece. I think it was important for me to show these kids who hadn’t done a lot of theatre before that we could put a whole piece together in a half hour and actually have it be something powerful that tells a message. And so, that’s what their work did for us as an ensemble.

We applied it directly to your fantastic script and we decided how we wanted to tell the story using the movement work and it all fell into place. I mean, we had our rough rehearsals but it worked really, really well.

LINDSAY: I just want to point out here, Frantic Assembly is a physical theatre company. I’m going to put a link to their YouTube channel and to their website in the show notes for this episode just so everyone can get a visual for themselves.

What did your students think the first time you walked in the room and said, “Okay, we’re doing this non-verbal touch thing – Go”?

CARRIE: They laughed because that’s what we do. You know, the first thing you do with a group of high school kids, especially if you’re going to do non-verbal, is you get all Meisner-y on them just for a second and you make them stand and stare and have eye contact with each other until they can get all the giggles out. And so, we do a lot of that and then we start moving.

But I teach at an International Baccalaureate high school so it’s very academically rigorous all day long – block schedules, 90 minutes, incredibly high expectations. They set papers soon in February and they’re working, working, working. And so, I think the freedom of movement really only took five or ten minutes before they fully embraced it as opposed to other settings where they’re not quite as mentally stressed all day. I mean, this is a high-achieving, hardworking group of young people who need a release. And so, they respond really well to getting to move around.

You just have to create a safe environment and give them the freedom to do it in such a way that they feel structured. So, they did a good job. They were goofballs and, you know, nobody ever got hurt which was always the number one goal.

LINDSAY: Yay!

CARRIE: Nobody was bleeding but we flew people by the end of the second day and that was seriously cool.

LINDSAY: We’re going to talk about that for a second.

I just want to go back one step – two things.

CARRIE: Yeah.

LINDSAY: I find that the thing that student actors – particularly with the physical body – have the most trouble with is becoming someone other than themselves. Like, they’re very straight, up and down, very shuffle-y with the feet. How did this help them do that? How did this help them get out of their own bodies?

CARRIE: I think what the Frantic Assembly work does that’s very powerful for high school kids is that, by assigning a number to a speed and a size and a shape which is work that we do anyway.

You can tell them, you know, if we’re at a five, then you’re walking like you walk in the hallway, trying to get to class on time. But, if you’re at a one, I want you walking like you’re walking through Jell-O and I want you really low to the ground. So, it gives very specific descriptors and we walk our way through each number but then, by the time we’ve rehearsed, you can just call out a number and a level. So, I want you at a ten which is running as fast as you can without hurting anybody and I want you at a low, medium, or high which is physically up and down where they’re supposed to be.

They feel safe playing within that range because we’ve worked so hard to be so specific up to that point that they understand what it means.

Getting high school kids out of their bodies is one of the hardest things to do.

LINDSAY: Absolutely.

CARRIE: I agree completely, yeah.

LINDSAY: I’d like to reiterate this because what I quite like is we got the speed idea of the numbers but I didn’t realize that there was also numbers one to ten for the shape of the body. Does that mean one is curled up in a little tiny ball on the ground kind of thing?

CARRIE: Yeah. What I usually do, the way Frantic Assembly does it is one through ten is simply speed and then I like to add a size and a shape on top of it. So, I’ll say, “Give me a five and give me a low.” So, then they know, when we talk about low, we’ll do some warm-ups where we’re low, medium, high – low means that you have to be from your waist down somehow. You can be crawling or rolling or just really low sitting and walking. Medium is normal stature. High is they have to find a way to be up on their toes or above where their shoulder-line normally hits. That’s something that I added on top of the Frantic Assembly work that I got from another teacher many years ago that I’ve always used. You know, because it’s all about stealing what works.

LINDSAY: Well, and it’s all about using osmosis to apply and then add on, right?

CARRIE: Exactly, and that was from my dance background. That was how, when we would teach dance to small children, we would talk about low, medium, high, and everybody get into groups of threes and one person is low, one person is medium, one person is high, and then we’re telling a story with a picture. We also had already done tableau work in my class so they were very good at understanding how to tell a frozen picture and then we would kind of go into the movement from there just by calling out numbers and then we would add layers on top of that with size and shape. It was really fun.

LINDSAY: It becomes an efficient way to block something.

CARRIE: Exactly, yes! And it’s empowering because I don’t have to block the whole piece. I could say, you know, “You are the mother and you are no baggage. You guys go over there. You have these things to accomplish over these four pages. Use the system and figure it out,” because that’s something that I try to do a lot of. I turn ownership over to them because this isn’t professional theatre. This is educational theatre. They need to have ownership. And so, I love movement work that’s structured that way because you can just give it to them and they’ll come back to you and then we put it all together and that was a huge part of what this was. I was very much in the background.

LINDSAY: I think that is another level of awesome because I think you can really tell – that’s another thing I find with student work – you can tell when they move and they really don’t know why and they don’t have a connection to it and giving them ownership over now, you come up with this within a structure, I think that’s the key – there is a structure to coming up with their own movements so you’re not just saying, “Go over there and do something.” “Accomplish this, use this system.”

How long did it take you to teach them the system?

CARRIE: Probably within the first two or three rehearsals, we had it down. We did nothing but play for the first two rehearsals. We just played and played and played. By the end of the second, we were ready to go. And then, the beginning of the third, we started to work and it was rough and then we sat down and spent some time with the script and we realized we needed to go back to paper and so we did and we went back and forth but it was a small group. It was a hardworking group. They wanted to be there and they were very receptive so it’s nice because it can happen really fast and it did in this case.

LINDSAY: Well, it does sound like this group was clicking on all cylinders because you would never introduce flying – and I’m going to get you to define what you mean by that – if it wasn’t a group that you trusted and that trusted each other.

CARRIE: Right, yeah. We did the flying at one of our Saturday rehearsals so we spent a good five hours together working through the script and then I introduced the concept of the flight work that Frantic Assembly did to them by showing them the clip and walking our way through it and asked them if they wanted to insert it into the piece and we did.

The way that they teach it in Frantic Assembly works so well with high school kids because it’s all about reversing the power and reversing the control. Instead of thinking of launching somebody up into the air and all of the work being on the person doing the lifting, it’s actually completely opposite. You place the kids in such a way that they’re pushing down onto the two tallest people and thereby are in complete control of the flight. When the person who’s flying has control, then they feel safe. If you look online, they adapted “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime” I believe is the name of the book or something.

LINDSAY: They were not the ones who went to Broadway?

CARRIE: Yes.

LINDSAY: Did they work with that?

CARRIE: Yes!

LINDSAY: Totally saw that.

CARRIE: Yeah, and they flew him in that. And so, we watched the way they taught him how to fly and it’s amazing and it’s empowering and the flyer is in complete control. You know, we had several times where they didn’t get up there but the way you structure it, if you fall, you land on your feet because your feet are the last things to go up. So, you feel completely safe because the worse thing that’s going to happen is maybe you’re going to land on your butt, but mostly they just landed on their feet. So, it was really cool. It works really well. I don’t know how to describe it very well.

LINDSAY: I’ve got a note here that I’m going to put that specific clip also in the show notes and just to give a visual. So, does everyone who was on the bottom have their hands above them?

CARRIE: They do.

LINDSAY: And then, the person is on top of the hands?

CARRIE: Yeah, so you create an anchor with your two tallest people facing out and then they are the base, basically. The person that’s flying comes from behind them and places one hand on each shoulder and the flyer pushes into their shoulders until their elbows are locked.

LINDSAY: Oh, okay.

CARRIE: And then, everybody just lifts and there’s a couple of exercises that lead up to it called Hymn Hands and Hands On where you experiment with hand placement on the body and how it creates movement in the person receiving the touch. So, it’s one of those situation where you’re almost building like a nest or a U, the flyer runs into the U, pushes up on the shoulders, and then the people on the outside simply support. It’s like a jump and push. Once they’re up there, the people underneath you have you but the flyer controls where you’re going and how you’re getting there by the way they move their torso so they have complete control of the entire situation.

LINDSAY: Your students must have felt like they were flying – like, amazing.

CARRIE: They did, it was really fun.

LINDSAY: Okay. So, as we end here, this particular play, they’re archetypes as characters as opposed to realistic characters. There’s Can’t Get Over First Love, there’s Living in The Past, there’s Dead-End Job, and these characters are larger than life and what a really cool system to sort of get them to, instead of saying being larger than life, did you assign them, when they came up with their characters a speed, a space, and a level that they had to come up with for their character.

CARRIE: Yeah, that’s exactly what I did. And then, they all had baggage. They all had the physical baggage that’s called for in the scripts with some modification and we used their baggage as their anchor at all times so they had their size and speed and tempo and then they also had their piece that was with them. It’s almost like it’s built for you – like you know you’re Dead-End Job, you know that your broom is your baggage and that it weighs a thousand pounds, you know you’re at a two most of the time, and that you’re low. And so, half the character work is there and then it’s about what that person brings to the role beyond that.

LINDSAY: I think that’s really cool. I quite like that. I’m like, “I’m all atwitter here!”

CARRIE: It’s awesome stuff!

LINDSAY: It is and I’m really thrilled that we were able to share this.

Okay. First of all, we’re all wrapping back to I think that the only way that this kind of stuff works is – ensemble is core – when these guys need to work together. What advice would you give to folks who are having some difficulty getting their students to work together and really bond to take their work to the next level? What would you say?

CARRIE: I think it’s hard because I think there’s a fine balance between being the person in the room that is in-charge and also allowing them to feel safe. I think that that can be hard. Something that one of my mentors used to tell me was, instead of trying to be the boss in the room, you simply need to be the expert in the field in the room. They know that I’m the one that knows what we want to achieve and that I’m the one that has the experience and I’m going to help them achieve that.

I’m not the one that’s going to come down on their heads and tell them they have to get along with each other and figure it out but rather I’m there to support the exploration. And then, if they trust me as the expert in the room, when I interject, I do interject strong. I’ll say, “Stop, let’s fix that.” If other people try to have a voice, it’s not that I silence them but there’s a time. I’ll say, “Okay, I hear what you’re saying but I need you to wait until the end of class.”

Every rehearsal runs like a class; we sit down and talk about what we’re going to do, we do it without interruption, and then we debrief at the end. If they had something that they needed to address during the rehearsal process, they have that time but it’s later because, if you don’t keep them moving, you never get past the first two pages. It’s really hard but you have to work really, really hard to stay two steps ahead of them but also value their voice. And so, I’m a big advocate of “I hear what you’re saying. I need you to wait.” That’s something that one of my mentors taught me.

LINDSAY: I think structure is really king, you know?

CARRIE: Yes.

LINDSAY: Creativity within structure is an undervalued commodity.

CARRIE: I agree completely, yeah.

LINDSAY: Awesome!

Oh. Carrie, this has been a fabulous conversation. I’m so glad that you took the time to share your thoughts on ensemble and on physical movement and I thank you for your time!

CARRIE: Thank you, guys! It was great!

LINDSAY: Thank you, Carrie!

Before we go, let’s do some THEATREFOLK NEWS.

If Carrie’s talk got you excited to try some physical exploration with your students but you’re not sure where to start, let me direct you to the education arm of Theatrefolk and the Drama Teacher Academy.

The DTA is an organization of support and a place of learning just for drama teachers. Everything we’ve got in there is specific to drama teachers, drama educators, drama students who are wanting to be drama teachers and drama educators. We’ve got lesson plans, resources, courses, and one course I wanted to share with you is Big Picture Blocking with physical theatre educator, Todd Espeland.

It’s easy to get bogged down as a director. There’s so much to do and you can find yourself moving away from the overall picture of what directing is – physicalizing and visualizing a vision. Getting away from the bigger picture storytelling.

You need physical staging tools and that’s exactly what Big Picture Blocking is all about. There’s exercises, handouts, videos so you can see this awesome exercise Todd uses called Starburst. I love Starburst so much; I’ve started using it in my own workshops.

You can find out more about Big Picture Blocking and the DTA at dramateacheracademy.com – that’s all one word. Or you can click the link in the show notes at theatrefolk.com/episode155.

Finally, where, oh, where can you find this podcast? We post new episodes every second Tuesday at theatrefolk.com and on our Facebook page and Twitter. You can find us on youtube.com/theatrefolk and on the Stitcher app. You can subscribe to TFP on iTunes. All you have to do is search for the word: “Theatrefolk.”

And that’s where we’re going to end. Take care, my friends. Take care.

Music credit: ”Ave” by Alex (feat. Morusque) is licensed under a Creative Commons license.

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Lindsay Price

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