March 11th, 2021 – by Anne Kelly Tromsness
“Can we decorate our squares?” a tiny blonde person wearing a tie-dyed gaiter asks me mischievously.
“Yes. Today’s theme is – CELEBRATION.”
She runs to the center of our black box theatre classroom.
“GUYS! We’re decorating our SQUARES!”
Eleven more students rush in to populate their own 10’ x 10’ squares, bordered by grey lines on black floor. They push, pull, and shape the air, miming the creation of rainbow waterfalls, alligator pits, pizza-dispensing walls, lemurs in party hats, and floor tiles that propel confetti and make silly sounds.
Last August, masked and distanced, my colleague and I measured and painted the grid as individual workspaces for movement and acting. I had spent the summer thinking about ways to keep students safe and engaged, vacillating, as many teachers were, between inspiration and anxiety.
I remembered a quote by theatre director Anne Bogart. “Limits are a necessary partner in the creative act as well as in the crafting of a successful life. What matters is the ability to look around and accurately recognize what is working for you and what is working against you, adjusting to the realities of the situation and mining the potential of the limits with invention and energy.”
The grid, the distance, and the masks are our limits. But what if we looked at them as possibilities?
What would this year offer if instead of bemoaning our separation, we spanned the distance with imagination? What if we laid our existing knowledge open to new exploration?
My students have led the way.
Square decorating was initially an introductory activity, but they responded to it with such intense commitment that it is a starting point for deeper conversations and themes – for my middle schoolers, too.
These students have instinctively connected with what theatre does – building worlds from pure imagination – using only a few lines on the floor and the inner workings of the 8-12 year old mind. It also builds community, ensemble – something the students demonstrate an intense desire to nurture this year.
And it builds joy.
Decorating our squares is not an endpoint. It’s a beginning. It endows our classroom with possibility. Now when I walk in in the mornings, I don’t see a grid on the floor – I see a terrain I have yet to explore.
And my students, therefore, see it too.
They have transformed these limitations into possibilities. I see them transfer this energy into other work. Critiques have taken on a more empathetic tone. Students are seeing each other as individuals in ways they don’t usually express. Collaboration, which is a focus in our curriculum, has expanded in its forms, becoming a sought-after commodity.
Bogart’s words resonate daily. The flexibility of the artist, and especially the child-artist, is invaluable, immediate, and something to lean into.
And the kids are right. If we’re gonna be here for a while, we should probably decorate our squares.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to get a slice of pepperoni before those lemurs finish it off…
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