Sunday, November 23, 2014

Crime Drama Reset: 8th Graders Find their Story

[design by D.Alfi]
If you discover that one of your friends has killed the professor, do you still have to complete your class project? That's the premise of Reset. When eight college students show up at their professor's mountain lodge on a snowy weekend to play his famous international simulation game "Global Crisis," they find his car, but no sign of him.

Through October and early November, the students and I improvised the scenes first, finalizing the dialogue on a shared document after class. Because the actors seriously bought into their characters' feelings and dilemmas, they performed with intensity.

As their teacher, I was especially pleased at the tight construction of the play. Lessons that emerge from the simulation game early in the play become the template for choices made in the end: Respect is more important than money; Don't act before you have all the information; Coalitions are good; and If one player wins, everyone loses.

Collaborating with eighth graders on Reset,  I once again felt that we didn't so much build our play as find it. This is often my experience in creative work, and yet it's always a surprise.

They found the outline early, once they decided on some kind of crime drama.  They would all play college students because the nine young actors didn't want to play anyone "old," nor anyone their own age, explaining, "we have no personality, Mr. Smoot."  Grabbing the opportunity to improvise on the Upper School's unfinished set for another play, the actors "arrived" at their professor's mountain lodge for a class "retreat."  As they arrived, other elements of the story emerged:  Snow was coming, the professor was missing, but his car was parked outside; the rich kid's dad and fortune were both in legal jeopardy; the students discovered video cameras hidden around the lodge.  They came up with their reason for being there, to play an international relations simulation game.  When one girl proclaimed, "I wannabe Vladimir Putin!" I knew we had a good premise.

We put some time into creating that game because, unless its elements could somehow inform the rest of the story,  playing the game would detract from the action. The kids took this to heart, and found ways to connect their characters and dialogue to themes of "respect" being most important, and "coalitions" being good, and knowing all the facts before taking action.

For example, three different characters point guns at others over disrespect.  The play's climactic moment comes when all but one of the college students join a coalition to protect the guilty.  Our title first surfaced when our improvised game ended in simulated global destruction: "Reset!" said the young Teaching Assistant, handing us a theme that ran through other scenes.

Then we hit a wall:  None of the characters had a goal.  When I asked the actor/writers, "What is your character hiding?"  I love that they were such nice kids that they could not bear to have their characters be guilty of anything worse than cheating on a test.  I talked them into committing felonies, from use of performance-enhancing drugs to parricide.

We still couldn't answer, what was the crime?  And where was the professor?   Just asking the questions gave us both the answer and the professor's name: Dr. Boyd, anagram of "body."  To find out who he was, and why someone might kill him, the T.A. and I improvised a scene at the professor's home prior to the retreat.  Egged on by the class, we escalated tension by adding detail to each "take": the professor's wealth,  the papers discovered by the T.A., blackmail, Boyd's attempt to burn the evidence of plagiarism, and what happens when he pulls a gun. 

One of the students loved that scene, and said that we should put it first in the play.  That would not have occurred to me.  I thought we would "discover" all those facts through investigation, and might have a "flashback." But if the audience knew all the details of the crime from the first, then  the play wouldn't be about the audience finding out "who dunnit," but the friends of the killer finding out -- and then deciding what to do about their own "crisis."  Suddenly, we had a situation that would mirror the game, and we saw our way to the end of the play! 

The kids and I relished the melodrama of it.  One of the actors, an upbeat and energetic young man, bounded over to me after a rehearsal to tell me, "I just got really mad at him!  And I never get mad at anyone!  It felt great!"   Here's a sampling of lines that they wrote for themselves:
  • "Reacting" is screaming at someone. Shooting them in the head is murder!
  • Professor Boyd's car smells of old tacos, and disappointment.
  • This isn't a game anymore.  And I'm tired of waiting.  If you don't do something about him, I will!
  • You think you're so smart! You think you've found a way to make your future out of my past!  [That's my own melodramatic line; the young T.A. couldn't keep a straight face when I growled it at him!]
As we worked, I remembered how my number one ambition at their age was to act in a script that would allow me to aim a gun and say, as I do in this play, "I can't let you leave here alive.  Will you please stand over there -- away from the carpet?" 

We performed Reset for an audience of parents at the end of six hours' rehearsal.  The kids were proud, the parents, impressed.  We played it one last time for their classmates during school the next Tuesday.   

I've been involved in other crime dramas, reflecting on them in this blog.  With members of the parish, I wrote "Curse of the Waffling Bishop" for St. James' Episcopal church and wrote a Post-Mortem  on the process; another essay, "From Zero to Murder Mystery under 21 Hours" tells how 8th graders and I created a successful play over nine weeks.

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