Unmasked: Devising with Students

Devised with Good Counsel students | Directed by Kristina Friedgen | Produced by Good Counsel Theatre Company, November 2019

Making Unmasked

Director’s Concept

In my final year at Our Lady of Good Counsel High School (OLGCHS), I wanted to push our
program to explore a new frontier in contemporary theatre: devised work. As a school theatre
company, we had consistently strived to produce a diverse swath of theatrical canon but had
never attempted a devised piece outside of the International Baccalaureate theatre curriculum.
The goal of this project, initially known as #Untitled, was to create a play about students’
experiences at the school while immersing our students in a more collaborative process of theatre
creation. Recently OLGCHS had revised its mission statement to “We inspire our students to excel, serve, and love.” Using this as our starting point, I posed the
following questions to our cast and
designers:

  • Where do we as a school excel?
  • Where are we underserved as a community?
  • What do you love most about the school?

Using an online discussion tool, the student devisers shared honestly about their experiences and perceptions at
OLGCHS (refer to #Untitled Exploration Hunches document for a sample). From these discussions, I organized their ideas into two major categories which eventually translated to a two-act structure for the play. Act One focused on student stress, anxiety, and mental health while Act Two concentrated on the progress toward diversity and inclusion at the school.

Relying heavily on Tectonic Theatre Project’s process of Moment Work to devise, Good Counsel
Theatre Company (GCTC) ventured into a more democratized process of collaboration to bring a
work of theatre to life. As the Artistic Director of GCTC, I continually pushed for more reliance
on student leaders to realize our productions. In our third year inhabiting a newly built
Performing Arts Center, we finally had enough students with hands-on experience to staff
leadership roles in design, various technical crews, stage management, and assistant directing
positions. Integrating Moment Work as the visual language of devising enabled the devisers to
think more holistically about crafting segments of the play – for instance, actors who
incorporated lighting and sound elements into moments, while the lighting designer crafted
moments with movement and costume. The exposure to Moment Work, combined with
verbatim text pulled from student conducted interviews, resulted in a more robust sense of
ownership over the piece.

Conceptually, Unmasked sought to bring a wide array of students’ perspectives to the collective
consciousness of our school. Prior to this production, my work (at OLGCHS and beyond) had
endeavored to engage with social justice and community discourse. From productions of
Hairspray! and West Side Story to The Laramie Project and A Streetcar Named Desire, I have
traditionally gravitated toward projects that naturally lend themselves to dialogue about
inclusivity, tolerance, race relations, and mental health. However, I have felt for some time that
while using the lens of another story to highlight present-day issues allows for audience dialogue
to occur, it does not seem to inspire any further action to improve the issues. Unmasked sought
to engage students in a dialogue about the assets and deficits that we inculcate as a school culture
and to voice aspirations for more understanding, empathy, and inclusion across a variety of
fronts.

About midway through development, we voted on our title: Unmasked. This title, combined
with discussions in which the designers and I engaged, inspired me to stage the piece with all of
the trappings of the theatre architecture exposed. We flew out all of our masking, sat the audience
on the stage, lowered our lighting battens, and created traffic patterns for the actors backstage
that were visible to the audience. I felt that if the piece meant to pull the veil away and prompt our community to confront some underlying issues, it would be visually consistent to reveal the elements that allow an
audience to mistake presentation for fiction. During our devising process, the young devisers developed strong theatrical depictions of the student experience at OLGCHS.

Drawing from text pulled from interviews, as well as their own experiences, a number of visual themes began to emerge that shaped the visual concept for the show. For example, two junior students crafted a metaphor likening high school to a boxing match. This created the structure for Unmasked and allowed the script to flow through various character plotlines from the view of the four years spent in high school by segmenting the play into four
rounds. Crafting an environment that would both represent the many locations within the school, but remain flexible was a challenge. Our set designers noted the importance of levels in the moments the devisers were
initially creating. Reflecting on the architecture of the school, they observed the abundance of staircases in the natural topography of a student’s day walking from class to class. Therefore, they designed our set
with moveable staircases that could be configured to represent either the central staircase in the school or the
many side stairwells that students often traverse. Additionally, we found that the central positioning of the stairs
allowed us to simulate the bleachers in our football stadium. This enabled a multitude of scenes to be developed
based on the flexibility of the stair unit. These two examples highlight just some of the ways in which the visual concepts of Unmasked were collaboratively created between both adult and youth leaders as well as people from various theatrical skillsets.

Production photos

Reflection on Experience

We began the process of what would eventually become Unmasked the previous spring. Students auditioned by telling a story and then working in small groups using a few props, costume pieces, and set decor to create a 3-5 minute scene about a social issue that they cared about. After casting and selecting our design and production team based on interviews, 24 students, our technical director and I engaged in an online discussion over the summer to select the topic for our performance. Using Google Classroom, students led the dialogue, beginning first by sharing their views and occasionally responding to others. After a month of discussion, I sorted these responses to see if any common themes emerged. That process yielded two main topics: student stress/anxiety and
diversity/inclusion.

We used both of these topics as hunches and began creating moments for our production. First I trained the actors, designers, and stage managers in the Moment Work process. Next, the students designed interview questions to build a stockpile of text for the play. The student devisers interviewed various members of our school community including students, faculty, alumni, and administrators. Following interviews, we blended the text with moments we had created. This process yielded a two-act play – part docudrama, part fantastical impression – which shed light on the student’s experience of stress and diversity/inclusion issues. While we ultimately succeeded in creating a compelling piece of theatre that resonated with audiences, the pathway to performance hit some roadblocks on the
way. Because almost none of the students involved had hands-on experience devising, they were skeptical of our ability to mount a full production up to the caliber of our previous work in the time we had allotted. When issues such as these came up, we often had discussion circles led by our Diversity and Inclusion Director who became an invaluable resource for both the students and me. Engaging in open dialogue about the process, our concerns, and differing views on the status and direction of the work allowed for more collective ownership over the piece. The students sensed the riskiness of the work. We all loved the school but recognized that as a school community we sometimes fell short of our mission. While the devisers bought into the importance of presenting the work, we
all expressed concerns over who the audience would be. In discussing these concerns with our principal and school president, we decided to shift our performance from our usual evening performances open to the public to two in-school performances for all faculty and students and one evening performance for parents. We agreed that immediate members of the community were the intended audience for Unmasked. In fact, the school president upon seeing it wanted to extend the performances for a week so that every parent in the school could see the performance! Time did become a factor in the presentation and creation of the work. We developed enough
text for a two-act play but only presented Act One. Partially this was due to concerns about the time required to schedule the play for an in-school audience, which had to be negotiated with the larger school calendar. However, the administrations raised concerns over the nature of dealing with so many weighty topics in one performance. In collaborating with them on scheduling the in-school performances, we agreed to divide the piece into three chunks and to find time later on in the year to perform the second half of the play. Unfortunately, this proved impossible with student and academic schedules. We discussed adapting the second half into 10-minute video segments that could be played during Advisory periods once a month, but that never materialized.

Despite the disappointment of not fully realizing the second half of Unmasked (yet), the portion that we were able to present turned out to be successful. We received accolades from those who saw the piece. Our administration and counseling staff put together an assembly on managing stress in addition to the work they were already doing at a board level on evaluating student workload. The devisers, designers, and producing students had the experience of having the entirety of their peers see their work – a feat we have never achieved at GCTC. Long-term, students have written to me about the significance of this experience in their lives. In fact, the student who most often challenged the process and had no qualms voicing his concerns for the production texted me a year later to share how his views had changed over a year after closing this production. Unmasked taught me a great deal about how devising with intergenerational collaborators in a community-based setting could work and be successful. But most importantly I came to understand the power that theatre holds when it can hold a mirror up to nature and
inspire people to truly examine themselves, their surroundings, and their communities.

Creating Unmasked – Full Video