The Mixtape Factory
A post-production journal entry by Lauren Noble
Every year since 2013 I have been a part of devising an annual production within my school. I began my journey in Pinetown, South Africa with the first set of shows that had been produced in over seven years with Quantum Leap 2013, Arabian Nights 2014, Footloose: The Remix 2015 and Cluedon't 2016. I then moved to Dubai, United Arab Emirates and developed a drama department from the ground up with a view to devise a piece of theatre inspired by Quantum Leap which aimed to create a basis of theatrical and cinematic knowledge in my students. This was how Timehop 2017 came about. This year I have just closed my latest theatrical offering which was borne from the types of children I have come to appreciate as part of any schooling system, no matter where in the world the corridors actually exist, with a few characters' journeys that had a much deeper meaning than others.
The Mixtape Factory 2018 began as a fleeting idea inside my mind in the same week that Timehop closed last year. I enjoy recycling old art especially as I now have the unique opportunity to do so in a vastly different cultural space. Being born and raised in Pinetown, South Africa only to end up teaching three minutes (literally!) down the road from my childhood home meant that many of my theatrical experiences were shaped by this context. South African house music is still one of my favourite sounds to use in my productions but the fact that my directorial choice of using Big Nuz, DJ Cndo or the Destruction Boyz resonates so differently in my students in Dubai is just one such example of how theatre is so unique to the place it is being taught. A challenge... but also a wonderful teaching opportunity to share a cultural experience with kids from all over the world. And it is just so with recycling old art. But, of course, there is also a space and time for new art which is how The Mixtape Factory journey first began...
Brand management is a strong necessity in the theatre industry in the 21st century. Students in a classroom and people in an audience have been raised in a society that is inundated with imagery. It's everywhere: in your WhatsApp contacts list, on the news, via Snapchat filters, on your Instagram feed, flashy billboards along the highway, in your Google search and basically anything that was once able to be read now seems to have an infographic or picture attached to make for simpler (see: quicker) explanations. Theatre posters slapped together in Publisher will hardly do any longer. It's important that my students are surrounded by this idea of quality over quantity so when I say that this logo took me (by no means a graphic artist!) two full days to achieve is something to acknowledge rather than be embarrassed by. The real world is interesting at the moment: on one hand we have a complete lack of empathy where someone's effort in achieving even the smallest goal can be completely overshadowed by the lack of tact and the amount of judgement spewed in their direction; on the other hand we have an unhealthy culture of "bigging up" - a slang way of saying that people often feed the egos of young minds especially telling them that they are fantastic at absolutely everything which leads, at best, to a sense of entitlement or, at worst, an inability to improve on their flaws because they have been conditioned not to perceive them. Neither of these is ideal for a child growing up in a world that desperately needs creative thinkers and do-ers who have an intuitive and honest perception of themselves and their capabilities. It is this type of self-assured child who acknowledges their strengths but also recognizes their weaknesses that will hold the power to shape society into something better than what it is today! Can you tell this is something I'm passionate about?!
Writing characters for a story is always difficult but taking my inspiration from many of the children I have taught over the years was easy enough. Any teacher will tell you, whether it be five years or twenty-five years, children leave an indelible print in your mind and, if you allow it, in your heart too. Students are often confined to smaller spaces within a school environment where at times they are able to socialize with their best friends but they could also feel trapped by sharing such a space with someone who makes their life quite difficult. The rate of cyber-bullying and the vehemence with which cyber-bullies attack others is shocking even to me, someone who was quite literally there when WhatsApp started. In this way the theatre functions in a two-fold manner. Firstly, it provides a safe space for self-expression in amongst like-minded individuals who are encouraged to support one another like a family through the easy and the not-so-easy times. Secondly, it provides a platform to teach moral lessons via the characters and the way their stories unfold. Conflict between two opposing groups is a popular plot which has been around since Sophocles' Antigone or Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet. Placing these two groups within an abandoned warehouse was a neutral space for interesting connections and conflicts to take place: one half are there completing an extra-credit school project for Social Studies and the other half have been forced there for a Saturday detention due to their behaviour at school. The way their characters interact with one another provides us with many points for further discussion within the cast as we bring their stories to life.
This year we completed:
30x multi-colour boxes with first, second and touch-up coats
200x autumnal leaves painted, cut out and mounted on clear nylon string
8x puppet crosses in the two dominant colours of the Winnie the Pooh characters
6x Mexican style ponchos with matching geometric designs
4x large canvases with silhouette art
8x foamboard mixtapes
1x splatter art boombox
4x Ghostbuster upcycled proton packs
... and a variety of odd jobs such as a full inventory of all costume, technical and make-up items in our wardrobe. Design Week inculcates a sense of understanding that every aesthetic detail counts on stage and that we must constantly take pride in our work. As my Papa would say: if it's a job that requires doing, it's a job that requires doing well!
The hall is a gymnasium that requires a lot of elbow grease to turn it into a space fit for the performance of a full scale production. It's always a great feeling when we reach the final weekend before the production opens because it's the only time we get to fully load in the production and leave it there until the next week's final show. This year the boombox prop was fully functional, allowing the leads to physically place the mixtapes inside the prop and "press play" - it is easily my favourite prop from any production I've been involved in (including when I was acting in them during my school years) because it brings such a strong sense of nostalgia to the stage space!
We had technical difficulties in our first show this year which always makes the perfectionist in me disappointed. As I tell my students: they've put in the hours and the corresponding hard work, it's now our job as their crew to make everything else around them work perfectly. So when things don't go exactly to plan I know I simply have to do better to support them as they give it their all on stage. The second and third performance were absolutely amazing with the acting unreservedly phenomenal, the dancing completely on point and the technical crew working so hard behind the scenes to allow the show to run as smoothly as anyone could have dreamed! And then, all too soon, it was the end of our final performance and time for our celebration ceremony to thank the cast, crew, staff and families for their time and effort in helping The Mixtape Factory get off the ground. It is tradition that I use the start of this ceremony to have my say more directly than through the words of dialogue that my characters speak. I stand most confidently behind the words of my speech below and trust that after seeing a little snapshot of our journey as a cast, they leave you with an understanding of just how necessary the arts is in a school environment.
"And just like that, The Mixtape Factory journey has come to a close. It feels like such a short time ago that I was in front of you all delivering my first address after an explosive start to our theatre journey with our first ever production of Timehop. But this year has somehow been different… the level of expectation of the performers you see before you has increased, not only for themselves, but for anyone involved in bringing this piece of theatre to life. And this is only because they are now more than ever, acutely aware of what they are capable of, both on and off the stage. Lee Strasberg is mentioned quite a lot in the play, especially by the character of Grace who is a huge fan. “He was the guy who taught Marilyn Monroe how to act!” she tells us. His theories around the power of imagination are so important today where technological innovations often leave young people with less opportunity to engage with their own ingenuity and creativity. He used to say: “If we cannot see the possibility of greatness, how can we dream it?” I can tell you without a shadow of a doubt that the young minds you see before you saw the possibility of greatness and they charged full speed ahead to achieve that dream. And I could not be more proud than I am tonight!
After 11 weeks of rehearsals amounting to 75 extra hours of Sunday, Thursday and Saturday sessions I think the children you see before you truly understand what Strasberg meant when he said, “Seventy-five percent of great art is hard work only about twenty-five percent is great talent.” We are lucky to have a cast who uses both to perform with all their hearts and souls for the audience every night. It is certainly no mean feat to get up on stage and face your fears, taking you out of your comfort zone, let alone doing it in front of 300 people every evening. I sometimes forget that my cast are so young, because the maturity with which they approach their work every night is truly astounding.
We have learned a lot on this process and some lessons are just the type of lessons that are always learned in a theatre setting because, quite simply, theatre mimics the real world. And the real world is a lot harder than many of us would like to think. In The Mixtape Factory I have endeavoured to journey with our performers in such a way that they learn valuable life lessons throughout the course of production: how to be punctual, how not to react when stress piques beyond your ability to cope with it, how to work within a team by using our strengths but also acknowledging our weaknesses, how to communicate effectively, how to appreciate the longevity of a 3 month rehearsal process that only results in 2 hours on stage and, of course, how to confidently own your space on stage by being proud of your hard work and dedication rather than shying away from it. But we have also had special lessons related directly to the storyline particularly in Alex and Aqeel’s characters. Alex is seen as a bully but her reason for lashing out irrationally is rooted in a deep-set pain. We have tried to show in a real way that we are all carrying baggage, in carrying degrees of intensity, and we should aim to provide a safe space for young people to speak their thoughts rather than hide them away. Aqeel sees the world a little differently and the actor who plays him worked hard to understand what Aspergers means to different types of people by working closely with some of our inclusion children. It’s important to understand that just because someone behaves differently, doesn’t give us permission to make anyone feel like less than a whole person. Aqeel’s friendships with Grace and the Twins, and later Alex, Kiara and JD embody this idea. Or in the immortal words of Lee Strasberg: “Acting is the most personal of our crafts. The make-up of a human being - his physical, mental and emotional habits - influence his acting to a much greater extent than commonly recognized.”
© Lauren Noble for co|laboratory via 'Idiosyncrasies and Other Tendencies' | 2018
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