The 2017 WAM Girls Ensemble formed in January as four young women ages 13-18, selected by audition, began meeting on Wednesday and Saturday afternoons to create a new piece of devised theatre under the leadership of WAM teaching artists Amy Brentano, Barby Cardillo, and their assistant, Lia Russell-Self.
This year’s Ensemble members are: Iris Courchaine, an 11th grader at Lee High School; Debora Lytle, an 8th grader at Reid Middle School; Hailey Mack, a 7th grader at Richmond Consolidated School; and Dylan Redd, a 10th grader at Wahconah Regional High School.
Devised theatre is a collaborative process where the participants use different theatre techniques to create original material around a chosen starting point. The girls developed an original piece, What’s That Sound?, about a group waiting to board a bus to go to a protest. They all bring a lot of baggage, metaphorically and literally. As they chat, questions are posed about identity, race, gender, fear, age, history, and protest.
The cohort has presented their show in two public performances and on a tour of local schools. In the midst of that experience they flew to Atlanta to attend an International Schools Theatre Association (ISTA) Festival where for one long weekend they joined students from international schools around the world devising theatre around the themes of race, inclusion, prejudice, and oppression.
WAM took a minute to ask the girls about how their Girls Ensemble experiences had impacted their lives.
WAM: How has the Girls Ensemble experience been for you?
Debora: It gave us new friends, so that was a plus.
Hailey: I thought it was really fun. I didn’t know some of the stuff – like I didn’t know about the lunch counter sit-ins – learning these things turned my whole life around.
Iris: It’s really interesting—to be with people who have different experiences and opinions than you—to put that all together in a show is very interesting.
Dylan: I can’t put it into words. It’s been a really great experience and the people that I’ve been working with are fantastic. I love them all.
WAM: Tell us how you created What’s That Sound?
Debora: We started off with a bunch of questions that we brought into the group and a bunch of quotes and pictures and readings that we found. We added it all together and it gave us an outline and then we filled in the fluff.
Hailey: One of the first things we did was this poster thing— listings questions about different things that we think are going wrong with the world. We brought in primary source documents, personal writing, music, and pictures to create the world and the space for the show to live in and then we just developed our show out of that material.
WAM: What was the audience reaction at your first public performance in February?
The girls thought their initial audience had had a positive reaction to the show overall. A lot of people at the talk back had questions, which was the goal of the show—not to answer questions, but to create them. The girls thought they had definitely achieved that goal with their production.
WAM: How was ISTA Festival?
Debora: It was amazing.
Iris: All of the ISTA teaching artists we worked with were so strong in their fields and willing to help. The students from other schools were fantastic. Going to the civil rights museum was really interesting. I think we all learned a lot and made friends.
WAM: Where did the other students come from?
The girls explained that the participating schools were located in California, Jamaica, and Atlanta, but they are international schools, so the students come from all over the world.
WAM: At the ISTA Festival, you were working on questions of race and prejudice. How did you end up building your show there?
The girls explained that each ensemble group used a different process, for instance one group tackled issues by doing exercises and games that they incorporated into their piece, using more movement than speech. That piece was simple and powerful.
WAM: Were you split up into different ensemble groups?
The girls explained that there were four different ensemble groups so each of them was in a different group.
Hailey: My group did a civil rights piece about the lunch counter movement—the audience almost melted down in tears. We brought people down on the stage. I found interesting things in common with other people in my group—like sharing the ability to speak sign language.
WAM: Martin Luther King III and his young daughter Yolanda visited the ISTA Festival. What did they have to say?
Iris: He talked some about his father and the current political climate. Yolanda was really inspirational. She is about 8 or 9 years old and she taught us this chant.
WAM: How are you feeling about the schools tour?
(This interview was conducted the day before the first in-school performance.)
Debora: A little bit nervous, but I am excited. We are ready for it; we’ve done so much already.
Hailey: I am excited. There are different schools and they will react differently. We are only going to one middle school and it will be really cool to see how they react.
WAM: What would you want to say to our WAMily of supporters?
Debora: I want to say thank you to the WAMily.
Hailey: Tell them that this is a once in a lifetime opportunity to do Girls Ensemble with WAM—you learn so much stuff from one little program and I think that’s amazing.
When asked if they thought theatre was something they would continue doing in the future, the whole cohort answered with a resounding YES!