Friday, March 17, 2017


Naomi Avadanei

Going into this year I had one thing on my mind: Research. The course. The process. How do I do it? What will I do it on? Who will I work with? The list goes on.

 Research 1 began with many discussions around the question, “What are you interested in?” I started the course with three main interests:

1. Theatre for Young Audiences and anything that involved TYA
2. Creating and performing intergenerational theatre
3. Using theatre as a tool to teach history and current events

Every few classes we would go around in class and discuss our interests and after a few weeks, we began to see sparks of possible connection between our individual interests.

I first connected with Anna who was also interested in exploring historical events through theatre and wondered if there was a possibility of integrating a component intergenerational theatre—an interest that was sparked, for both of us, by Sobha’s devising class last summer. Anna reached out to me and expressed her interest in using the stories and histories of New Yorkers as a catalyst for live theatre. Shortly after Anna reached out to me, Jess also reached out to me regarding my interest in Theatre for Young Audiences and how it connected with her interest in the 30,000-word gap and infant language development. I was interested in both topics (not to mention working with both ladies,) and I wondered if and how the two topics could be combined. During the next few weeks Anna, Jess and I agreed to work together and somehow combine our ideas. Along the way Angelique and Amanda joined our group. We were 5 strong!

 Upon returning back to our next research class, we began the daunting process of creating a research question that encapsulated all of our interests. After much deliberation and brainpower we came up with the following:

What impact does immersive inter-generational TYA have on families?

With four additional sub-questions:

  • How does a theatrical experience focused around familial stories help preserve family stories and cultures?  
  • How do shared arts experiences help increase communication and understanding within intergenerational relationships?
  • How do the arts experiences vary for different socioeconomic communities(groups)?
  • How can TYA foster communication strategies and skills?

Now came the hard part: beginning our research and finding the gap in the current research available. We decided to divide our research into five topics:

   1.      Storytelling traditions across cultures
    2.      Parenting communication strategies
    3.      Impact of arts on socioeconomic status
    4.      Achievement gap and language development
    5.      Intergenerational Theatre/Art

Hundreds of pages of peer reviewed articles, dozens of emails, and way too many cups of coffee later, we submitted our first draft of our literature review (which was 100+ pages—holy cow!) I’ll spare you having to read our literature review and summarize our findings:

Most, if not all, cultures and communities have some sort of tradition of storytelling and more specifically storytelling as a means to preserve history and teach. We found some fascinating research on the impact of parental communication with their infants and the correlation between language acquisition as well as speech patterns (tone, pitch, cadence, speed) between adults and children across cultures that impact a child’s ability to acquire, learn, and use language. While we had some difficulty at first, we eventually found that there is indeed research that shows that arts experiences have a positive impact on those living in a low income area or attending a Title 1 school. Finally, we found that there are many arts programs aimed at creating and developing intergenerational theatre (dance and artistic programming) however none of the programs that currently exist create or develop work specifically for intergenerational familial relationships and even more specifically, between grandparents/great grandparents and infants 3-18 months. There was definitely a need for our research in the field.

After some final citation clarifications we submitted our final literature review.

Now came the fun part: creating the piece of intergenerational, interactive baby theatre that we would use to gather our research. We decided that in order to conduct our research, we would create a piece of intergenerational baby theatre that we would perform in three different settings to access three different socio-economic areas: high, middle, and low.

 In the end, I think we had one rehearsal with all of our members present before our performance opened—but we made it work! We created a piece structured around the idea of a family tree. Since our piece was intended for babies aged 3-18 months and their parents/grandparents/great grandparents, we needed something for everyone. We decided to divide the piece into four different stations, each with sensory components for the youngest members of our audience and conversation starters, images, and objects to spark stories from of our oldest audience members.

The piece begins with the families exploring the space as ambient forest sounds are played. Once all audience members have arrived, the ensemble brings the audience together with a song accompanied by ASL, which introduces the audience to the structure of the piece. Audience members are then asked to create living pictures, or tableaux of their families after which they are given the opportunity to explore the forest, visit the “converse-stations,” and interact with the Family Forest Rangers at each station. Each family can choose to visit as many, or as few converse-stations as they please. There are four stations, each created to elicit different types of memories. All the questions and prompts at each station were developed from the perspective of the child asking the question and listening to the story.

1.      Family Tree-“Tell me the story of my name.”
2.      Maps-“Tell me about where we come from.”
3.      Music- “What sounds do you remember from our first moments together?”
4.      Food- “What meals and dishes do you hope I’ll remember?”

Adults are encouraged to follow their little one’s lead through the piece, allowing their interests to lead the stories. After some time of exploration and story telling families are brought back together to lie under the forest canopy, and listen to the same song that started the piece integrated with pieces of the stories they’ve shared spoken aloud.

Over the course of a weekend, we performed the piece four times. First at Steinway library in Astoria (this covered our middle class SES), next at Bend and Bloom, a yoga studio in Park Slope (this performance covered our upper class SES), and finally, we finished off the weekend with two performances at Kensington House, a homeless shelter in Kensington (these performances covered our lower class SES.) Each performance was unique in its own way and each audience brought their own stories to share. While the piece was certainly different each time it was performed, there were certain elements that didn’t change; for example, audience members were always excited to share the story of their child’s name and discussions of food always seemed to bring people together. Over the course of the weekend we heard many beautiful stories of family, love, loss, and hope.

Now, since our marathon weekend of performances we have been given the task to take our raw research data and turn it into an ethnodrama. In order to gather more, varied research, each group member interviewed professionals in the field and individuals we thought would be able to offer some information, opinion and further insight in regards to our research. I interviewed Alexander Santiago-Jirau about New York Theatre Workshop’s Mind the Gap program and together, Anna and I interviewed Pauline, Anneros, and Stanley, participants in Sobah’s devising class last summer. Additionally, we’ve been fortunate enough to have the opportunity to refer back to our experiences seeing Anna Deveare Smith’s, Notes from the Field as well as the new Broadway musical, Come from Away. We have been working in class with Amanda Gronich of Tectonic Theatre Company to transform our research into an ethnodrama; deciding on story tropes, identifying conflict, and creating characters.

Our piece has since come to be called, Tales from the Tree, and our company, we’ve decided, is called Family Tree Theatre. As a company, we have submitted our performance model and piece for development and presentation through several different theatre companies and conferences.

Needless to say, the research process is a long one, not without its bumps and bruises. However, while we aren’t there yet, I must say, it has been an incredible gift to have the opportunity to work with four intelligent, talented and tenacious women on this research journey. I can’t wait to see what our final ethnodrama will turn out to be!

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