They are about fourteen, a baker’s dozen of them or so, and ever so slightly miffed, because they had to give up an hour of sports to have me talk to them. The fact is, they are taking extra-curricular drama classes this year, and they’ll be staging a shortened version of my own Nellie Bly play at the end – so the teachers thought it a good idea to have the author discuss the play with the class.
And I’ve been warned: they’re not supposed to be a terribly bright or interested group. And I haven’t spoken to a classroom in ages – so I’m not quite sure what to expect.
I introduce myself, and then ask what’s all the fuss with theatre, in their opinion? Why do we, as a species, bother with it at all? And at first there is that blank, “who cares” kind of silence…
“Has any of you ever gone to the theatre?” I ask.
At first all I get is a collection of shaking heads. Then a hand rises: this one girl went to see a cousin dance in a production of Sleeping Beauty. One boy once saw a marionette show as a child. Another girl vaguely remembers some parish production of something – she doesn’t know what. A few others had similar experiences, one even had a part in another school play… And then there is this boy who says theatre is not for him; give him the movies any day of the week.
“Did you ever see a play, to make the comparison?”
The answer is no. He is not interested, because there is no room for imagination on a stage. How do you have cars running on a stage, like, say, in the Fast and Furious movies?
I’m tempted to tell him to trust Broadway – but, honestly, I’m not sure the lad is much interested in stages across half the world, so I take the safe course: not all stories are about fast cars, and not all stories without fast cars are a dead bore…
“Whatever,” is the answer. “But still, when I go to the movies I know it’s a finished product, and perfect. In a theatre, they’re doing it, they can get it wrong, there can be mistakes… I’m not going to pay to see people making mistakes!”
Later, the Drama Teacher and I will have a good laugh about this one… but, you see, there’s no denying it’s an opinion – and a rather reasoned one, for a kid of fourteen, who is supposed to be neither bright nor interested.
But what it turns out is, a good few of these kids may not be very interested in the drama classes, in Nellie Bly or in theatre in general – but they do like to have ideas thrown at them, and have their say about it.
The high-wire quality of live performance versus the polish of finished product on film gets some discussion. And so does the historically changing perception of how big the Earth is, and how fast technological advance. The diffusion and comparative difficulty of languages comes next, followed by human rights in Hong Kong, the kids’ own aspirations (one boy wants to be a train conductor), the role of women in society, and ending with the wisdom of taking great personal risks for the sake of other people and society in its whole…
Yes, all of it coming from the story of Nellie Bly. All of it with a bunch of not terribly interested fourteen-year-old kids. Not all of them, of course – and frankly there were some rather outrageous ideas… But still: they had ideas, and were eager to share them.
If I’m very lucky… ah well. It’s not a question of whether they like the Nellie play or not, if they care for Nellie at all. Well, I’d rather they did – but it doesn’t really matter. If I’m lucky, they’ll have seen that even a plain old play without fast cars can be food for thought, debate, and the sparking of ideas.