First Steps – Blog from UWF Student McKenzie Richards

First Steps

Day one. We get to class, UWF’s black box theatre, and sit down – circled up, of course. This isn’t just any class: This is the Farm Project, and the end goal can’t be achieved if we, the students, orient ourselves for a lecture. Lectures are for facts: one and one makes two, fire hot, and George Washington was a guy who existed and did important things.

What we’re dealing with, though, has no answer. There is no right, no wrong, nothing to learn and memorize and practice. There is only a play, The Decent of Man, and an abyss of questions – questions which our instructor Scott doesn’t have. Not on his own. It’ll take all of us to teach all of us. And so a lecture is ineffective toward that goal. We need a dialogue.

So we circle up, storytelling style, and we do just that: tell a story.

“Who wants to read?” Scott asks. No one answers. This is a big responsibility. It’s one thing if you’re slipping on an existing literary skin. You’re not creating Othello; you’re just putting your spin on a guy a million other people have put their spin on. Like wearing a hat, but in your own way. No big deal.

But no one’s put any spin on these characters. One doesn’t put on their skin; one creates the skin. This isn’t acting; it’s giving birth. Who among us students has the talent, the right, the audacity to give birth to these characters? None, our reluctant silence answers.

Scott responds to this reluctance: “Don’t worry about acting. We just want to hear the story.”

A hand goes up: “I’ll take Dylan.”

“Great! Who wants Fay Fay?”

Another hand: “I’ll take her.”

And we jump in, not doing something as profound as giving birth but doing something as profound as taking the first quiet steps to finding the answers to the question this class poses: “How do we make a new play?”

Our dramatic pioneers dive in, gliding awkwardly but bravely past the first sentences, then with more surety to the bottom of the first page, then with surety and – can it be? – fun as they approach the middle of page two, where their trek is halted by Scott’s sudden “Stop!”

They do. We all do.

“Did everybody hear that?” he says, his entire body attuned to some ethereal sound, his eyes sharp with the alertness of a Meer cat picking up on the distant flap of giant wings.

Murmurs. Did we mess it up already?

He goes on: “There was a beat there, right?”

Ah, right. Now we see it: there was a shift in the scene, subtle but definite.

“Let’s read it again,” he says, and we do, and then we do it again, digging, questioning, discovering with each read-through.

Hands pop up, questions explode out. In those one-and-a-half pages, the room has gone from unsure and quiet to ravenous for answers – our answers – and that quiet was replaced with a thriving cacophony of inquiry.

“Why is – ?”

“Why does – ?”

“What’s this – ?”

Scott can hardly keep up with the questions. “I saw this hand – I’ll get to you – keep that thought – I’ll just go around this way.” But he doesn’t become bewildered with the curious onslaught. He thrives on it. This is what we’re here for: to wonder, to dig, to learn, and to create with that wondering and digging and learning. To ask. To converse. To work as a team – an eager team – to do one of the hardest things we could do, which is to put on a new show. We’re about to explore new lands, forage new paths. We’re not here to slip into somebody else’s skin; we’re here to make our own skins and find our own ways and make our own show.

Scott helps us find that way by moderating the questions, not simply answering them. Rather, he lets us answer them just by talking and presenting ideas.

There are no right answers. There are no wrong answers. There are no answers. Only questions, only conversations, and only a team of dramatic pioneers, some experienced theatre people, some new, many nervous – but all eager to take this play we’ve been given and make it into not just something but something great, something to proudly call our own new thing.

The tinge of unsurity still lingers in the air like a chill – for this first meeting and for the next few weeks of meetings, during which we continue to inch and peck our way through this script, questioning, booming, finding. But we don’t let that unsurity bother us. This is a new process for almost everyone in the room, and unsurity is natural. But we have nothing to be unsure of. We’ve got a strong play, and we’re going to make it the best possible production that we can. And we’re going to do so beat by beat, question by question, and conversation by conversation.

And that’s how the first steps in this process started: circled up, reading, conversing, asking, and, above all, answering. How do we put on a new show? That’s easy, we decide – just look for the beats.