by Brooke Kiener, ’99
A couple of years ago a colleague of mine in the theatre department started a new project in our Beginning Acting class: students at a nearby middle school wrote monologues, which the acting students then prepared and performed at an assembly at the middle school. I wish I could say this project was my genius brainchild, but regardless of its inspiration, I’ve been watching the transformation nature of this project ever since.
The topics of the monologues vary a bit from semester to semester, but there are a few recurring themes.
They write about feeling different and out of place.
They write about loss—losing their dog and feeling like they will never love something that much again, or losing a grandparent and feeling guilty about not getting to say goodbye.
A few brave souls write about having a crush on a class mate (we always change the names so as to protect the innocent).
Sometimes they take the perspective of an inanimate object, and we get a series of monologues exploring the point of view of a pencil (“It hurts when you sharpen me!”), a dog toy (“It hurts when the dog bites me!”), or a backpack (“It hurts when you shove me in a locker!”). But even these pieces reveal something about the inner thoughts of a thirteen-year-old—life hurts and no person escapes this.
My acting students read the pieces, giggle and gasp and groan at the writing, and then get to work placing themselves back in the shoes of a thirteen-year-old. It’s not a place they are necessarily eager to go again, but either the extrinsic motivator of the grade or the intrinsic fear of the performance pushes them to get started. Soon they find they are knee-deep in the drama of middle school again, remembering what it’s like to want so badly to both stand out and blend in simultaneously.
Before long they are confessing to me how deeply attached to their monologue they have become, how badly they hope to honor the young author’s voice, how excited and terrified they are for the performance. As a teacher, this is the kind of student engagement you dream about.
The big day arrives and we travel to the middle school, where we have a few moments alone in the empty gym to prepare. Then the bell rings and it is total chaos while 300 eighth-graders work out (on the bleachers) what can only be described as a very complicated seating chart based on a tentative social pecking order. Yet when the first actor takes the stage, the whole place goes silent. The students’ anticipation is palpable. And you are just going to have to believe me when I say that all 300 of them stay just as quiet and just as focused during the entire performance. We do not have to use a microphone to be heard. They are desperate to hear each other’s stories, to hear their story, to see their own life through new eyes.
After the performance, we invite the authors whose monologues were selected and performed to come down onto the stage and meet the actor who performed their piece. It’s a very moving bit of spectacle. There are lots of hugs and high-fives, and occasionally a few tears.
Back on campus, my students turn in reflection papers and share lessons learned. The conversation eventually turns to the subject of empathy, that unique human skill, in which we feel someone else’s joy, or pain, or longing, or gratitude. They describe how much the author of their piece was familiar to them, like someone they knew not that long ago. They swear they will try to remember not to judge characters they’ll play, but rather try to understand their actions and desires in the context of their life circumstances.
Finally, we talk about the gift of story, the inherent generosity in this circular act of telling and listening. They wrote and we listened, we spoke and they listened. And in so doing, a safe space of exchange was created, a space where intangible ideas and feelings were given incarnate forms. And at some point or another, we all thought, “I know what that feels like. That’s not so different from my experience. I’m relieved to know I’m not alone.”
Brooke Kiener, is an assistant professor of theatre at Whitworth University.