Constraints can be immensely valuable in the creative process. Boundaries help us define our playing field, and by dictating what choices are not available, they can open up unseen doors of opportunity.
Many artists experience this, whether it’s a poet conforming to a certain structure, a composer writing in a specific scale, or a dancer adapting to the unique flooring at a site-specific location. As an actor, I’ve experienced it myself even accidentally, when a prop went missing and I had to use something else at the last minute. Within clear constraints, there can be freedom to play.
I got to witness the power of limitations in the first class I taught this semester with Upstream Arts.
Lindsey, Anton and I are the artist team for a group of students with EBD (emotional and behavioral disabilities) at Harrison High School. Harrison is a Federal Setting IV self-contained program created to serve students with severe emotional and behavioral needs. As such, the doors to classrooms and the entrances between halls are locked at all times.
This first day, for whatever reason, only three teenage boys made it into class. “Kalif” entered and sat down in a chair in the circle, acknowledging us ever so slightly. “Peter” stalked in, turned away from me when I introduced myself, and refused to tell anyone his name. And “Emerson”? Well, Emerson had worked with Anton last year in another residency. He chatted with us happily, but when Anton asked him if he’d join the circle, he shook his head and said, “No. I’m just gonna stay under this table back here.”
And that’s what he did. The whole class, Emerson was under the table.
But that doesn’t mean he didn’t join in.
We were playing “Circle Crossings,” a game where you get up and move to any chair you want in any way you want. In a sly move, Anton grabbed a small desk and placed it among the chairs in the circle. I called out: “Emerson, your turn.”
And Emerson, with his own sly grin, slid on his back along the floor dragging his table above him. Across the linoleum/carpet divide he went, into the circle of chairs, and right up to that little desk.
It must have been a good twelve feet that he dragged that table with him. It was surprising, ridiculous…and awesome. (Anton later told us that in the previous residency, Emerson had never once entered the circle. Table or no table, this was progress.)
The next game was “Emotion Statues,” where you take on the emotion or energy of whatever is called out for you by someone else, and create a “statue” expressing it with your body.
By now, Peter had let go of the tension he’d brought into the room, and was eager, bubbly, and wildly (though sometimes, pretty grossly) imaginative. He jumped right up to play along. Then Kalif came up too, only after he’d given me some serious constraints when it was my turn: “80 year old lady driving a car and dribbling a basketball.” It’s tricky to dribble in a static image, but I did my best.
Emerson, however, had not moved. Nor had his table, once again safely ensconced in the back of the room. “OK, How about all three of you get up here together?” Anton said. “Your teacher Ms. Gustafson can judge if you guys step it up better than the three of us from Upstream do.”
With some urging from his classmates, Emerson’s table lurched forward to the center of the room once more, with him still underneath it.
In a coordinated move I was not expecting, Peter and Kalif jumped on top of Emerson’s table. Together, the three of them took on whatever we threw at them to impersonate: “Angry.” “Sad.” “President Obama accepting a second term in office.” “A toddler that’s caught doing something wrong.”
Two kids standing on a table, one kid lying underneath. It was one of the coolest stage pictures I’d ever seen. They were working together, and it was spectacular.
Right now, these three young men are exploring expression, cooperation, and risk. They’re working hard, learning how to interact appropriately with others and communicate feelings, thoughts, and needs. At this time, the environment that’s best for them to do that in is one that provides constraints and boundaries and locked doors.
But I don’t think there should be limits to the roles that Emerson, Peter, and Kalif can play in our society, or to the places that they’ll go.
Post by Dylan Fresco, Upstream Arts Teaching Artist