Staging our own Brainstorm: an intrepid English teacher on the rewards of devising a show with teenagers

When Steven Slaughter, an English teacher at Rosslyn Academy in Nairobi, Kenya, decided to stage a production of Brainstorm, the acclaimed play about the workings of the teenage brain, he was taking a big risk. The show is designed to be devised by a company of teenagers, putting their own lives and experiences centre-stage. But, as Steven explains, the rewards are immeasurable for everyone concerned…

I’m excited to tell you about our production of Brainstorm, the play by Ned Glasier, Emily Lim and Company Three, at Rosslyn Academy. The process was all that I hoped it might be – an exhilarating challenge for our students and for me, resulting in a show that had a profound impact on our audiences. Afterwards, one parent came up to me and said, “I usually say ‘Great job!’ to the kids. But this time, that doesn’t seem adequate. All I can say is, ‘Thank you’.”

This sense of gratitude, that we had given our community a gift, elevated the experience above other productions we’ve done in several important ways. I want to explain why. Also, I’ll try to address some of the challenges and opportunities of doing Brainstorm as a school play, my assumption being that it will likely most often be done in schools. And I’ll include all the things I’d want to know, as a high school theatre director, if I was considering putting on a production of Brainstorm with my students.

The Process: Spring into Summer

I was fortunate to have the opportunity to meet with Ned Glasier, co-writer of Brainstorm and director of the original production, while passing through London last June. I’d read the original script a few months earlier and loved it. It stayed on my short list, and its depth and resonance just wouldn’t let go of me.

But producing the play in a school context was going to add a bit of complexity. Firstly, I needed to have it approved by my administrators without having a working script to show them. Sure, we had the original script, but that, as it says on the cover, is only a ‘blueprint’ for any production; our version was going to end up being very different by the end of the devising process. And so it was important that they had a high degree of trust in what we were trying to achieve.

Furthermore, as Rosslyn Academy is an international Christian school, there was going to be a significant degree of sensitivity about what could and could not be included in the final version. The challenge of this, of course, is that the edgier bits, the really honest things that give this play its electricity, are the very parts that might be problematic in a religious school context. And so I knew that I was asking a lot – I wanted approval of something not yet written, but I didn’t want to do it at all if all the rough edges were going to get smoothed away, neutering it of its raw power. Thankfully, the administration saw the potential good of this show and trusted that I could guide it along that path.

Meeting with Ned was really encouraging. He answered some key logistical questions, like, “Can we really complete this inside three months?” (Answer: Yes… but it is a challenge.) In June, over our summer holiday, I sent a secret note to the parents of my most committed theatre kids. Since we would also be asking parents to allow their own home lives and struggles with their teenagers to be expressed on stage, I needed to know that they were supportive, willing to take this journey with us. This was an important step for me, because if several of these committed students would not be allowed to even audition due to parent discomfort (especially those graduating this year), I didn’t think it would be fair to them to choose the show. Thankfully, all parents were supportive.

August: The Big Reveal

At Rosslyn, the announcement of a forthcoming show is done with much excitement. But when I revealed what we’d chosen this time, it was met with mixed feelings. Firstly, no one had really heard of it. No surprise there. Everyone was intrigued by the trailer of Company Three’s production and my initial description, but the cast all admitted that the idea of a play that we would in large part create, about their lives, was something that made them nervous. And sceptical. We hadn’t done a devised show at Rosslyn in many years, and some of the students remembered working on a student-written middle school show that they looked back on with some embarrassment. There was also significant scepticism amongst the broader high school population. All through the production, as the cast bonded and faced their fears of exposing themselves so much, they also had to deal with the added challenge of many of their peers believing that it wouldn’t be any good.

I also had to deal with my own self-doubts. I’d never done a devised show before, and desperately wanted to do justice to this subject and to my students. Can I gather all of these pieces collected over many weeks, and fit them together into something theatrically coherent and beautiful? The fear of failure caused numerous 4:00am wake-ups, ‘dark nights of the soul’. However, with the comfort and benefit of hindsight, I can assure any directors aspiring to dive into devised theatre that Brainstorm is the perfect entry point. The script’s ‘blueprint’ section is really helpful, providing dozens of ideas for activities, writing prompts, games, and processes to assist a company wanting to create their own version. This made the process much easier for me than starting with a blank slate.

Still, I couldn’t really tell how strong the script actually was until just a couple of weeks before performances began, when we’d polished the scenes enough to evaluate the final script at its full potential.

Rehearsals, Part 1: Content Generation

Our three-month rehearsal cycle was split roughly in half. Unlike with a typical play, the cast did not get a final script until about the 6-week point – and even then it continued to change quite a lot, all the way up to the performances.

In the first period of rehearsals, we engaged in a lot of different activities, many taken straight from the blueprint. Students produced YouTube instructional videos, gave virtual tours of their bedrooms, filled out surveys, played games, interviewed each other and their parents, and wrote their own material. I collected everything. One tool that we used extensively was the suite of Google Apps, which I would highly recommend. We had content collection documents shared by me and my co-director and our two student leaders. I also used Google Forms at several points, creating anonymous questionnaires for the Brainscan segment and Never Have I Ever game. For Brainscan, one of the most emotionally powerful scenes in the show, a series of statements are projected onto the set and the cast turn on lights – on for yes, off for no – creating a sort of impressionistic data set of how our students feel about themselves, some of their deepest fears, etc. During rehearsal, our list began as the original cast’s list plus a few more that were relevant to the lives of expat and international kids, even some missionary kids. (So, for instance, a statement like “I don’t know if I believe in God right now” was a poignant and honest subject to broach in our Christian school context.) And in the anonymous survey, I included an area for them to propose their own statements, a number of which made it into the show. Google Forms is useful because it instantly gives you the percentages of those who answered yes. This helped us select the most impactful statements to feature. Further, to intrigue their sceptical classmates, we had the whole high school do a version of the survey a month or so before opening. This also allowed us to select the final list that would align fairly closely between the cast and the school population at large.

Ned had told me to think of the process in thirds – content generation, script writing, and actual rehearsal (memorising lines, blocking, etc). For us, the first two really needed to overlap. So while the kids generated content, I began writing the early scenes of the show, and so on, so that we wouldn’t have a time gap before ‘real’ rehearsals began. By the time I passed around the working scripts, we only had six weeks left, but the kids felt very familiar with the content. We did a second read-through, this time of our very own Brainstorm, and then proceeded roughly as we would with a conventional play.

Rehearsals, Part 2: Workshopping, Blocking, Polishing

One part of the process that really made me nervous in advance was workshopping the scenes of conflict between the kids and their parents. Cast members had written first drafts of scenes depicting real conflicts they’d regularly experienced with their parents. I was pleased by the variety of scenes the students brought – some very funny or warm, others uncomfortable and quite angry. I edited and polished these scenes and selected a suitable cast member to play the parent. Once the scene had been rehearsed for a bit, we invited the parents into a 20-minute workshop. This worried me. I feared that parents might get offended – most hadn’t seen the scripts at all. We had a friend, a family therapist, join us in these sessions (just in case). To my delight, all of the parents were great sports. The kids ran the scene, we asked mum or dad for their initial thoughts, then they stepped in and did a cold reading of the scene with their own child. (This was so instructive – and hilarious.) We filmed those for later reference. After this, the student playing the parent asked questions. “When you said X, how were feeling?” … ”You seemed so angry at that point. Why?” This opened up wonderful opportunities for parents and their kids to talk about these ongoing arguments they have, and, I think, to gain some insight into how the other feels and experiences those moments of tension.

As the show came together and tightened up, we made adjustments to the script and worked through the stage mechanics that all plays require. One thing we realised was that, playing themselves, there was a tendency to paraphrase and improvise. This was fine for a while, but eventually we had to insist on actors memorising a final version of their lines. This is necessary because we were trying to create specific moments for the audience, and improvisation, if done badly, can destroy something that has been carefully crafted. It was also interesting to work with students on naturalism. Several commented that they thought it would be easy to play themselves but realised how much they tend to put on the ‘stage version of me’ instead. Working through this was a valuable growth opportunity that none had experienced before.

The Company Three Production and Ours: Similarities and Differences

We created our show using the central arc of the original script – the tour through the brain and the structural elements of the play. This provided a really solid foundation from which to build. In the end, though, perhaps as much as 75% of the script was our own words. We found that, even though we were sticking with the underlying purpose of each scene, most of the text needed to be rewritten to suit our actors – their personalities and cultures and the specifics of their lives. Certain speeches and segments were so beautifully crafted in the original that I kept them word for word (such as the You Say to Me speech used in the voiceover of the Company Three trailer – so beautiful, why would you mess with that?). Others were preserved at a conceptual level, but rewritten by the student or students presenting them, to bring their own voices forward in a more authentic way.

We decided to use quite a lot of video projection in our production. In addition to projecting the group chat (WhatsApp in the Company Three production, Instagram for ours), the ‘Two Dot’ YouTube tutorial, and the Brainscan list, we also created additional slides for various scenes, from a new section I wrote to expand the ‘86 billion neurons’ section to a short slideshow on the limbic system. We even included a few one-off slides to enhance the jokes. For example, one girl is said to have a crush on Spanish footballer Gerard Piqué, so on this cue we did a slow zoom of his dreamy face with romantic music; a moment later, another girl is outed as having had a crush on Cole from Lego Ninjago – yes, a crush on a Lego character – and so the same music plays with a slow-mo video clip of Lego Cole at a romantic dinner.

We also used a lot of music. Since we ran the show without intermission, we had an extended time for concessions before each show and a playlist of teen music through the eras (we had great fun choosing the tracks for that!). We also used music during many scene transitions, under certain scenes (such as a Beatles-inspired elevator musak track under the parent introductions), and very powerfully during the Brainscan and You Say to Me placard-dropping scenes. I’d definitely encourage other productions to experiment with music – it’s such an important part of teenagers’ lives and can lend so much resonance to the emotional impact of a scene.

Conclusion

The whole process of putting on Brainstorm was transformative in a way I’ve never experienced before. I can’t encourage other directors strongly enough to take on this show. If, like me, you’re intrigued by devised theatre but don’t have previous experience of it, Brainstorm is the perfect place to start. You’ll need some experience of managing what is a fairly complex process. And you’ll need to be able to write pretty well. As much as the content needs to come from the actors you’re working with, crafting it into something that works on stage is an act of playwriting. I don’t think a show like this would work very well if left only to the students’ draft writing, without someone doing this playwriting work. But with some imagination and flair, and a good deal of hard work, you’ll create something unique and unforgettable for everyone involved.

Putting the play on at Rosslyn was a profound experience for my students, and we received a number of amazing responses from parents who said it was the most thought-provoking and moving play they’d ever experienced, that it had challenged them to understand and relate to their kids in new ways. At the cast party, I spoke about this idea that art can be more than entertaining – that it can be transformative. I feel overwhelmed and grateful that I was able to create our own Brainstorm with my students, and to give them this experience of a collective transformational piece of art.


Steven Slaughter teaches English and directs plays at Rosslyn Academy in Nairobi, Kenya. He is happy to answer any questions about his production of Brainstorm, or your own, and can be contacted through Nick Hern Books.

Brainstorm: The Original Playscript (And a Blueprint for Creating Your Own Production) by Ned Glasier, Emily Lim and Company Three is published by Nick Hern Books, and is available to buy, in paperback or as an ebook, with a 20% discount here. School groups, youth theatres and amateur companies considering their own production should contact the Performing Rights Manager.

Photographs by Jeff Kirkpatrick.

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