Monday, June 1, 2015

The Belief Circle Exercise

"I will hear Brutus speak."

Recently I had the privilege of meeting Jay Indik, one of the original architects of the school residency program in the 1980s. As GLT Education Director, he collaborated with other educators and theater artists not only to craft that program but also the outreach tour and Christmas Carol writing program. Basically, he put into motion the educational outreach programming which has been the major focus of my life.

He had the opportunity to visit the program in action at Hudson Middle School and was very happy to see how the lesson plan still functions successfully, and in his estimation, has improved. During our brief meeting we compared notes about the structure of the program, and also the rehearsal process. The Romeo & Juliet lesson plan, for example, remains largely unchanged in the past twenty-five years, though Lisa remarked how students in the past ten years have had shifting attitudes about the text.

No matter how sweetly our performers play the Balcony Scene, everyone – boys and girls – think Romeo is a total stalker. Not that that is a bad thing to think.

The residency Jay thought was always such a challenge to connect with students was Julius Caesar. He said it was sometimes very difficult for the students to appreciate or get the politics involved. Now, I am not sure what form that lesson took a quarter-century ago, but I do know that parts of it have changed significantly in the past ten years.

I mentioned the fact that recently we have entered into an arrangement with Hawken Lower School to teach Caesar to their fourth graders, which surprised him. However, as far back as my years as an actor-teacher myself I had the opportunity to conduct this residency for a middle school and was surprised to learn Julius Caesar isn’t about politics at all.

It’s about friendship. Think about it.

One of my favorite exercises is the Belief Circle. It’s on the second day, we have barely gotten to know the students, but we establish a safe space and everyone is asked to express something they believe in. It is never a debate, as to the validity of their beliefs, but rather and exploration of where they originate, how deeply they are held, and by design the conversation moves to how far one would go to defend their belief.

This is a delicate balance, as the comparison is drawn to Brutus, his core belief (in Rome) and his faithfulness to his friend Caesar, and we all know how that turns out. But virtually every student we meet has never had to stand up for what they believe is right. Sometimes what they believe stands in stark contrast to what I believe but we do not debate our beliefs, the discussion is the same. What would you do if your beliefs were challenged, by family, by friends, by the authorities.

In the version of the lesson plan which I received in the summer of 2001, one of the end-of-day discussions involve how a community (as in a school) reacts in time of crisis. The example set out in my notes had dust on it – it asked if I remembered the Challenger Disaster, which of course I did because I was the one in high school at that time. I wasn’t sure how that was going to resonate with students who had been infants.

You can see where this is going. By the time I even entered a classroom in my new job, we all had a fresh point of reference, and one with terrifying relevance. The Challenger was an accident. 9/11 was not.

Other issues have changed astonishingly in the decade plus I have been engaged in this work. Ten years ago, it was the better part of discretion for actor-teachers not to express controversial opinions as part of the Belief Circle.

As recently as last year, when substituting for an actor at an area high school, the entire discussion was about marriage equality, because the students themselves chose to discuss it. I was in the position of playing devil’s advocate, playing my part in the discussion to suggest obstacles to achieving or expressing the expressed belief.

For example, let’s say you were to create a Friends of LBTG group, and it were banned by the school authorities – such things happen. What would you do? Their answers might be tepid, and we press them, what would you do? What would you do? What would Marcus Brutus do?

Memorial Day weekend, as the Brelo decision was announced, I was disappointed but by no means surprised by the chorus of voices on social media not content merely to urge peace, but to qualify what is or is not an appropriate form of protest.

Merely shutting down traffic for fifteen minutes – an act coordinated between protestors and police – brought calls to “hang them all” from persons on Facebook, and not anonymously, either. Several tutted more gently, condescendingly reminding protestors to emulate Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. It was as though they were intentionally ignorant of the fact that mildly inconveniencing Saturday afternoon traffic on the Shoreway was nothing to the kind of non-violent protests staged by the good Doctor.

What do you believe? Have you ever had your beliefs challenged? What would you do to defend your beliefs?

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