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How one drama teacher turned an odd year into an ODDportunity

2021 has been no ordinary year, and the Leon High School production of "ODDportunities: Devised Pieces Based on Homer's Odyssey" in Tallahassee, Fla., was no ordinary play.

Lea Marshall, who teaches drama at Leon High School, faced a decision as spring 2021 rolled around. Should she forgo doing a spring production? Or should she put together something that could be created in small groups, by students obeying social distancing guidelines and wearing masks?

She started thinking about an idea that had come to her in the middle of the night, shortly after she had reread the classic Greek epic poem "The Odyssey" by Homer. Her vision involved small groups of students at various locations around campus. The students would work through the poem's protagonist Odysseus' tasks, with each of them being metaphors for life challenges. These are the challenges:

  • What voices do you listen to?
  • Who can you trust?
  • lllusion vs. reality
  • Take your losses
  • The danger of living in regret

The teaching behind the production

Marshall designed the production with a prologue and epilogue in the high school's auditorium. The bulk of the show would take place at the theatre room, the lobby, the front entrance, the gym/picnic area and the chorus room.

For each of the five tasks, the actors would do a movement-based interpretation, followed by their modern-day version. In preparation for conveying a message through movement, Marshall worked with the students on the power of movement and moments. 

"The students and I talked about the moments we remembered from theatre. The funny thing is that very, very few times are those deep memories about the lyrics or the text. It's a combination of lighting ... or special effects ... or the physicality or emotion you see. And unbeknownst to you as an audience member are the factors that go into creating these incredible moments."

As the students started preparing for the play, they had to choose which challenge they would be performing. Marshall produced colored cards with quotes related to the various challenges and had the students pick the ones that spoke most clearly to them. For example, the students who had chosen pink cards ended up congregating in the "regret" group. 

Once the groups were established, it was time to prepare their scenes.

Each scene was split into a movement-based segment and a modern-day, spoken interpretation of the challenge. 

The Sirens

As an audience member, I sat in the auditorium for the show's first moments (something 99% of audience members do when a show is about to start). I watched the prologue, where Marshall introduced the concepts, with a loom in the middle of the stage and white arrows hanging higgledy-piggledy above the students' heads. 

Addressing the audience, Marshall touched on what she had written in her director's notes: "The word OPPORTUNITY comes from the phrase ob portum veniens -- 'coming toward a port,' in reference to the wind, from ob 'in front of; toward' + portus 'harbor.' Thus the name ODDportunities was born. Merging Odyssey + opportunities + the ODD (different from what is usual or expected; strange) way we needed to do this show in a very ODD/opportune/adventurous year."

We audience members each had maps we could use to choose our route through the five challenge scenes. We weren't told where to go first, what order to walk in, or how long each scene would be. Just: GO. (We were told by Marshall to go in a polytropous method (go in many ways.)) 

I went first to the chorus room. I was familiar with the campus, so I figured it would make the most sense to go the farthest away. I had no other plan than that.

As I walked up, blue fabric flapping in the wind caught my eye. The sight of high school students arguing over an iPhone made me wonder if there was some problem with the production that these kids couldn't figure out.

I was at the right place. I just didn't know it yet.


Credit: Lea Marshall/Leon High School

I had arrived in the middle of the modern-day interpretation of "The Sirens - What Voices Do You Listen To?" Once the students called "scene," my fellow audience members and I saw the scene in full ... the sirens singing -- trying to lure Odysseus off course -- as he traversed the "ocean" (otherwise known in the regular world as the wheelchair ramp) in an "ahoy" hat while wielding an oar. In the modern-day scene, Odysseus has to decide if he should give in to the temptation of the modern-day Sirens urging him to just look up his answers on his phone instead of being honest. Once an actor called "scene" again, I knew it was time to move on.

Black writing on a white background with title "What voices do you listen to?"
Courtesy: Lea Marshall/Leon High School
 

The image above is the excerpt from the program about the Sirens portion of the play. Access the full program by clicking this link.

Why this was "the most 2021 production" ever

I was in the middle of watching the "Calypso - Illusion vs. Reality" scene when Marshall appeared at my side. She said the students had been given three resources: fabric, sound and light. From that, it was up to them (for the most part) to tell these stories. "This is the most 2021 play ever," I said, thinking about the lack of boundaries between scenes, the "take the direction you want to take" instructions, the "we are all figuring this out as we go" vibe.

"I always had a vision that you as an audience member wouldn't be able to see all five scenes," said Marshall, commenting that some audience members were unhappy with the lack of completion. "You can't have it all," she concluded.

Notes for educators

I've intentionally told this account of "ODDportunities" from the dual points of viewer and educator, as I think it may be useful to get a sense of what I observed as an audience member.

However, the biggest priority with this post is to encourage educators to follow their own inklings about what might work at such a difficult time.

Here are a few other notes Marshall made about the process of staging this production during the anomalous time otherwise known as Spring 2021.

The students made their own rehearsal schedule. Marshall and the student assistant director checked in with the groups; some of them needed more assistance than others. But giving them control over their rehearsal schedule gave them accountability and appropriate autonomy.

Holding a live dress rehearsal during a school day was a wise choice. It was the first time a show had been done this way before (with the performers scattered all over campus), so the dress rehearsal helped the students figure out problem areas in the production (such as the fact that viewers would be walking right through one of their scenes if there wasn't signage to redirect them). 

Weaving it all together

The production is symbolized by a big loom that sits center stage. After each rehearsal, the students would weave another piece of fabric through the loom to represent their process, and the students wove one final strip of cloth after the final performance. Working together on the loom is another way of melding physical activity and symbolism.

Loom with arrows above it
Credit: Lea Marshall/Leon High School

 

Prior to being an audience member of ODDportunities, I would have been hard pressed to retrieve much about "The Odyssey" from my memory banks. 

Those distant high-school memories of "The Odyssey" faded away because nothing brought the book alive for me as a student. 

It takes an educator with courage and creativity -- and the willingness to give up the control that comes along with renting a script and staging a play constrained in one auditorium -- to figure out a way to implant those theatre moments that turn into the building blocks of a life approach.

In Resilient Educator, Monica Fuglei of Arapahoe Community College discusses the ways "Hamilton: An American Musical" has been used to help educate students about history. "Hamilton and his colleagues escape the two dimensions of historical writing to be complex, human, and relatable. It’s this relatability that makes them interesting for students," writes Fuglei. 

In a similar way, "ODDportunities" gave its student participants an escape from two-dimensional figures of Greek mythology. In each task Odysseus faced, they saw themselves ... and they wove together a deeper understanding of the opportunities ahead of them.

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Paula Kiger edits SmartBrief's nonprofit sector newsletters and co-manages @SBLeaders on Twitter. She previously worked for Florida's State Child Health Insurance Program, is a United Nations Foundation Shot at Life Champion and has proofread professionally. You can find her at her blog Big Green Pen, on Instagram, at LinkedIn and on Twitter.