Reimagining the open scene: ambiguity and feminist pedagogy

In my Introduction to Acting course at Brooklyn College I strive to enact feminist pedagogy through the cultivation of a collaborative learning environment emphasizing mutual respect and accountability. I treat the course as a lab in which students explore ways of being present on stage and begin to build their own acting process. In addition to the classroom environment I endeavor to facilitate, I see feminist pedagogy as having two primary aims. First, it encourages students to recognize and think critically about the power structures and ideologies that condition their world and its representations. Second, it prompts students to imagine how this might be challenged or how society might operate otherwise.

One of the exercises I come back to throughout the semester is the open scene. The open scene consists of between 2 and 20 lines of intentionally ambiguous dialogue, attributed to unidentified characters. In order to perform the scene, the students must establish the relationships and circumstances of the scene. The open scene has a number of pedagogical functions, but I like it because it challenges the understanding of acting as a project primarily in service to the vision of others (directors or playwright). The open scene models the liberatory capacity of interpretation and demonstrates how texts can be reimagined. Last fall, I intentionally gave several groups the same scene, hoping the students would see how varied yet still valid interpretations of the scene could be. However, my students gravitated towards familiar scripts. A number of students staged one of the scenes in the same way: as a clichéd break up in which a heteronormative relationship ended as the male character cruelly left the pining female. When I brought this up, the students laughed and were able to critique this interpretation. I asked the students to try again and encouraged them to think more creatively about the circumstances of the scene. The result was a number of scenes about alien and zombie battles. They had chosen to avoid the political challenge of the scene, and gravitated towards a different set of (rather militarized) clichés. This, I think, attests to the challenge of deviating from accepted and familiar scripts. It demonstrates the limits normative ways of being and interacting place on the imagination. Even when power structures, ideologies, or injustices are recognized it can be quite difficult to take the next step towards reimagining the world.

In this instance the open scene both achieved and did not achieve the goals of feminist pedagogy. In imagining the possibilities for the scene, my students hit a bit of a wall. However it stimulated a productive conversation that allowed us to bring feminist concerns into the classroom and which continued to percolate as students approached their more structured scene work. These conversations were always a bit reluctant, though. Because of the nature of our classroom environment and the task of acting, my students are quite comfortable discussing their personal challenges as well as being playful and uninhibited with each other. However, I have not been entirely successful in helping them build bridges between the personal and the political and between their free imaginative engagement and critical thinking. I am quite eager to hear your strategies to help students make these connections.

4 thoughts on “Reimagining the open scene: ambiguity and feminist pedagogy

  1. I’ve always been amazed by how entrenched these tropes are and how close-at-hand they are –Almost like a life preserver of sorts, as though we may feel existentially adrift without familiar narratives. In my acting classes, I sometimes just straight up say “anything but a romantic relationship.” -That is one didactic way to deal with the first problem but it doesn’t get at the deeper issue of dismantling a lifetime of narrow and normative modes of thought. I’ve had fruitful classroom explorations by walking the students through deciding the many given circumstances of open scenes with prompt questions they take turns answering. So, Student A answers the question “Who is student B?” and vice versa and we keep going back and forth until a well articulated action can be played. Other questions can be How long have you known each other? Where are you? What time of day is it? What was the moment before? I’ve had students pin down intensely detailed encounters such two soldiers on a battlefield and -possibly my favorite-a demoted newscaster who used to cover hard news being sent to cover a child’s Halloween costume parade or else be fired. Pedagogically speaking, it is always tricky to know when and how to empower students with the full task of decision making and when to scaffold it into steps. In the case of open scenes, I’ve found the one-question-at-a-time technique helps dismantle some cliches about gender and age.

  2. It’s really useful to me to hear how thoughtfully and critically you’ve framed the objectives of this open scene activity! I have been doing something similar for years with my Intro to Drama students, but I’d never really theorized my goals beyond “this will help them begin to see how different theatre is from literature, and how tiny interpretive dramaturgical and directorial choices can make meaning in different ways…” I’ve been using a goofy climactic decision-making scene I adapted from Darlene Craviaotto’s _Pizza Man_ and (despite its very second-wavey brand of feminism) like your class, my most creative students have tended to move into sci-fi territory in their choices: robots and anthropomorphized animals. What scene do you use? I like the suggestion above to use those one-at-a-time discussion questions in shaping the process, and I’m also thinking about maybe creating some kind of pre-groupwork worksheet that could walk students through these questions as part of an individual writing reflection exercise before they start to rehearse.

  3. Jennifer, the goals of your classroom are so very clear and inspiring. (If all my acting classes had this mission, I might have stayed with acting longer than I did!) Your point that “it can be quite difficult to take the next step towards reimagining the world” is so very true. I too have struggled to get students to take risks in their in-class performances, and I have found that modeling “alternative” ways of making/doing theatre can help spark their imaginations a bit. I am not sure how it would work with open scenes specifically, but I have found that having students watch/read and discuss feminist, queer, postcolonial, and otherwise deconstructed versions of canonical texts (for instance, Mabou Mines’ Dollhouse, Aimé Cesaire’s A Tempest, Half Straddle’s Seagull (Thinking of You) or Split Britches’ Belle Reprieve, for instance) can help them see possibilities beyond normative interpretations.

  4. Jennifer, I applaud your effort to break down theater hierarchies in your acting classroom! I love your idea of placing the primary responsibility for performance in the hands of your acting students. I wonder if the open assignment is just too vast as a first step for them in locating conventional themes to bump up against. Might you be able to achieve the goals you lay out by assigning a first project that is more more in the direction of devising? That is, what if you were to provide them with a few ingredients–lines of text, structural elements, objects, ideas–they could choose from? Perhaps this would open up avenues of investigation for students to then capitalize on in the open scene assignment. I look forward to hearing more about the overall structure of your course!

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