By Duane Piper
In the forefront of the drama classes I share with students at Chinook High School, is the fundamental idea that limitations are one of the greatest motivators for creativity. Often I will challenge a class to write a play by filtering all their ideas through a single, found object or a single interview question. They will often approach this, at first, by attempting to overcome it. Through exploration and play, they truly find success when they realize that it’s not something to be bludgeoned and conquered. They begin to embrace the limitation, and then they can truly unlock their creative potential.
Each semester I assign projects where I place the limitation on them. This school year, I didn’t need to bother, because the world had already done it for me. I was, as we all were, apprehensive about how teaching fine arts would work with students at home, connecting through a computer. What we do as drama teachers has evolved over the years. At its core though, it’s the same art form that Thespis and Sophocles were practicing 2500 years ago in Ancient Greece. We are attempting to connect with our audiences and elicit an emotional response, we yearn for pathos. How could we continue to teach that in a meaningful, authentic way, if we were all in a Teams/Zoom/Google Class call?
For me, it started with a joke. In late November 2020, my drama 10 class was meeting in person. We were discussing the possibility (soon to be reality) of moving to an online format. Our class was in the middle of a radio play project. They were rehearsing for a performance of The Baby Snooks Show, a popular radio play from the 1940s starring the Funny Girl herself, Fanny Brice. How could we possibly recreate the energy and chemistry of the show if we were all connecting from different locations? One student threw out an offhand comment, “Why don’t we just meet in Minecraft.” We all had a laugh, but I saw how their eyes grew large, and they made excited comments to each other. So, I took it seriously. I asked how many of them had Minecraft at home, every hand but one rose quickly. The one who didn’t let us know that his brother had an account, and he was sure that he could commandeer it… for school of course.
Just a week and a half later, it was officially announced that all high schools were to move to online learning for the last two weeks in December. That was when I decided that I would take the plunge and actually try it. Our drama 10 class wasn’t going to meet on Zoom, Teams, Google, Discord, or even MSN Messenger, we were going to meet every day in the blocky, beautiful world of Minecraft.
Like many of you would, I immediately started to plan out a sequence of lessons, using traditional methods. I didn’t check, but I don’t recall a chapter in Harry Wong’s book about teaching in Minecraft, but I persevered. I had a solid idea of how things should proceed. The students would all come together to create a Minecraft version of our theatre. They would make it to scale, with each block in game representing a meter in real life. From there, they would explore the possibilities afforded to them by the new medium. Could they wear costumes? Could they use props? These were the simple questions that I asked, with my limited knowledge of Minecraft. The questions the students asked me in return were nothing short of astounding. They asked me if I wanted them to create stage lights. Then, they let me know they could actually wire them together using an in-game circuitry system called redstone. Once completed, all the stage lights were then connected to a series of switches in the tech booth, and the students were able to control them during the performances. This was when I realized that there were so many possibilities, and I didn’t even know the extent of what I didn’t know. I could write you five articles filled with all the things I didn’t know about Minecraft. Because of that limitation of mine, it was necessary to empower and trust my students to use their drama skills in this new medium without being held back by my own lack of experience and understanding. I let them know that I trusted them to build and create and to let their ideas flow.
After the first virtual class, something wonderful happened. They asked me if I would leave the game world open after school. I agreed, and they gleefully continued to build. Later that night, I sat down at my computer to work on some lesson planning for the next day. I realized that Minecraft was still running, and went to shut it down. That was when I realized there were still students working together in the game! Five students were left, and they had begun to build the rest of our school around the theatre. We have a student population of 1200, and a staff of 100, so building all of Chinook High School was no small feat. So this is how they did it. Every day, during class we would meet in the theatre, do warm ups, play a drama game and then rehearse. After school and on weekends, they would continue to build the rest of the school. What we ended up with was a full Minecraft model of our school. Over 300 hours of work, tens of thousands of blocks placed, every room in its right place, all lovingly created in Minecraft. It is so detailed and so accurate that we are considering hosting this spring’s grade 8 orientation night in the Minecraft version of Chinook. We can’t do it in person, but they can log into Minecraft, take a tour of the school, listen to a talk from an administrator, complete a scavenger hunt and find their classrooms. This means that when they come to us in grade 9, they will never have physically been in our building, but they will know where to go because they got to visit Chinook in Minecraft.
As for our radio play performances, they were magical, as every theatre production should be. The original air date of this episode of The Baby Snooks Show was November 1st, 1946. Ours took place 74 years later, on December 17th, 2020, and to my knowledge, it was the world Minecraft premier! The actors were nervous, but they were ready. Their creativity was wonderful to behold, they brought their characters to life, not only using their voices, but also through the game. They had costume quick changes, props, sets, in-game sound effects and even animals like dogs and horses! Just like in a real performance, things went wrong. One actor had their laptop crash right after they delivered their last line of the scene. The camera was able to move so that the character was not visible, and 2 minutes later, right before their next line, they were able to get back into the scene without a second to spare.
At the end, instead of applause, they decided that we would set off fireworks. This was another innovation the students devised. In one last display of creativity, a student was able to alter the chemistry of the in-game fireworks so that they would show our school colours. At the end of the play, as they were taking their bows, a button was pressed in the tech booth and they were showered with red, gold and black fireworks. It was a fitting end to a wonderful digital adventure in distance learning.
Except, that wasn’t the end. Over the winter break, the students continued to play in Minecraft together. In a time when we were self-isolating and feeling more disconnected than ever, they were able to connect through this game, and this world that they had built together. Because of this terrible limitation that has been placed on all of us, my students were able to come together and respond by creating art. Even though they were using a new technology, our students continue to connect and respond to their world through art, just as people have 74, or even 2500 years ago.
If you would like to watch our production, you can view it on the Chinook Drama Facebook page, or on our Chinook High School YouTube channel. We hope you enjoy the show!
Duane is a theatre educator, performer, director and writer. His traditional Cree name is Nakamos, which means “little singer,” that’s because he’s always had a lot to say! For that reason, teaching high school drama is a dream, and he is lucky enough to have his dream job at Chinook High School in Lethbridge! He also gets to teach drama education every summer at the University of Lethbridge.