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Center for Engagement and Community Development

Manhattan Experimental Theater Workshop is subject of documentary

In 1989, Jim Hamilton’s son and daughter asked if he would teach a directing class. The K-State philosophy professor stepped up to the challenge and created the five-week Manhattan Experimental Theater Workshop (MXTW), held every summer at the Manhattan Arts Center. Twenty-five years later, the workshop is so successful it recently became the subject of a documentary, “Dreaming in Flames: Theater.”

For most students, this is their first experience with “non-naturalistic” drama. Naturalistic plays are less abstract and more relatable to audiences: they present believable “real-life” situations, prose and common speech forms, a secular worldview with no supernatural elements, and an attempt to show the characters’ daily lives. Non-naturalism is the opposite. Students of MXTW rearrange their sets in unusual ways, may speak in rhymes or rhythms not used in everyday speech, have bizarre costumes or sound effects that have many interpretations instead of a traditional meanings. Students are encouraged to perform things not just as they have read them, but how they interpret them.

“I’ve noticed a difference in capacity to present themselves in the world, which is surely a difference in life,” said Hamilton.

The workshop itself pre-dates the building in which it is held; Hamilton started the workshop in the Manhattan Civic Theater and was part of the council that purchased the Arts Center. The next evolution was in the scripts. Previously, students were performing pieces they had studied, from Beckett to Ludlam’s Theater of the Ridiculous. Then Hamilton’s son and his friends asked why the students couldn’t write their own. Despite his initial hesitation, Hamilton allowed students free rein. With certain stylistic markers and abstract concepts, Romeo and Juliet became a battle between Crips and Bloods while old stories like Little Red Riding Hood and Medea got fresh new twists.

“Imagine you’re in a culture where this is the norm. Now make your play in it,” Hamilton advises his students.

The 2013 show’s “target story” was the myths surrounding Prometheus, a Greek demigod representing trickery and the craftiness of man.

The first step in creating these avant-garde productions is a two-week crash course in experimental plays and literature. This is also the introductory period for non-naturalistic movements and voice techniques. Hamilton hired former participant Gwethalyn Williams to direct in 2004 and moved to a smaller role in the actual production, focusing mostly on the instruction. Then groups of four students choose a style in which to write their target story. The next three weeks are full of three-hour practices and rewrites. During the show, they present their original creations along with two to three numbers including the whole cast.

The program is open to all students of high school age, regardless of their intent to study theater. Neurosurgeons, Japanese translators, law librarians and reporters have all participated MXTW’s policy of “recruiting from all arts.” Hamilton tells the group on the first day the main rule is respect: for each other, the material, and the work space. For many, this is the first mutual respect relationship they have with adults. From there, they grow in critical thinking and evaluation of texts as well as sharpen their writing skills.

Rusty Earl, video producer for K-State’s education department, filmed the documentary. He was contacted by MAC executive director Penny Senften to commemorate the 25th anniversary. He then passed the film on to KTWU Kansas PBS, who aired the documentary December 2013 and January 2014. Being a former theater instructor, he confirmed that the students in MXTW were making progress beyond their age level.

“Across the board, all of them upped their confidence tenfold,” said Earl. “Three or four of them opened up; they became louder. You could tell in their eyes that they accomplished something great.”

Hamilton channeled his workshop experience into his book, The Art of Theater (2007). The book is used primarily as a philosophical text, and has been taught in classes at Temple University, Oklahoma University, and some United Kingdom schools.

 “I started the program as a freshman, and I look back on me as a person from my first year to this year and how it’s changed me. You can definitely see that some of the shyer kids that maybe didn’t want to speak up, how at the end of the workshop they become powerful performers onstage. … and I think that’s something that’s really special about the workshop. I’m just thankful to be a part of it,” said Annie Spence, participant.

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