Copyright © Louis Schmier and Atwood Publishing.

Date: Fri, 12 May 2000 08:25:15 -0400 (EDT)
Random Thought: The Play

Yesterday two students came up to me on campus. "Hey, Dr. Schmier. We've signed up for the upper division class in the Fall." they said as they introduced themselves. "We going to do another play, aren't we?"

They caught me by surprise. "We'll see," was my feeble answer.

After we chatted, I left them, thinking, "Did I create a monster?"

These two people were referring to what some students on campus call "The Play." It was something to behold; it was one of my experiments in learning that I tried Spring Semester. Nursing a weird idea, I walked into that first day of Soviet Russia senior history class and said to the thirty or so students, "Want to put on a play about Soviet Russian history?" I nervously explained I was trying to figure out a way how they each could best grasp the spirit of the times, to approach understanding its leaders and people. I made the project sound interesting, inviting, exciting, and almost impossible considering the time constraints under which we would be working. I explained that we would read and talk, read and talk, read and talk until our face were blue, eyes were bloodshot, and tongues were swollen, all the while struggling to put it all together into some kind of a play. I think I was hoping they would turn down the idea.

There were all sorts of questions: "What do you want?" "What do we have to do?" "What if fails how will we be graded?" "What if some of us slack off?" "Do you think we can pull it off?" "How do we do all that we need to do all at once?" After about a week of discussion, they and I gulped, and agreed to jump into both a time and culture warp, and present an original play. And, a week after that, they decided they may as well go all the way and present the play on stage in public!!

It was all them in one way or another. In a short span of only twelve weeks, they did the research; they constantly discussed and reflected on what they had found in newspapers, articles, and books; they wrote, critqued, rewrote, and rewrote again, the play; they directed it, produced it; juggled their academic, work, and personal schedules; struggled to learn their lines, got their cues, and rehearsed it; they contributed to a kitty; they scurried around for all the costumes and props; they bought some costumes and props; they made some costumes and props; they arranged for the lighting and sound; they did the publicitiy. All the time, they talked with each other about Marxism, struggled to understand the likes of Lenin, Stalin, Khruschev, Breshnev; they fought to get inside the hearts of the peasants and workers; they wrestled with the spirit of the literaries; they grappled with the meanings and impacts of the Revolution, World War II, Cold War. They toured the Kremlin, a commune, a gulag; they traveled through the diverse cultural lands that made up the USSR.

Day after day after day, I sweated through this process, wondering "what hath I wraught?" "Why did I let them decided to go public?" Why this and why that. My feet were constant jelly. My hands were numb. As the weeks passed, I bit off more and more of my lip. I was a bundle of nerves. I shook my head so much people thought I had developed a tic. Many were the times I wanted to jump in and say--maybe scream--"Do it this way," or "Put this in" or "You can't leave that out!" Occasionally, in my edginess, I lost sight of the process and focused on the result. It was not easy to button my mouth and clench my fist, and butt out. Many was the times I lost sleep, memorizing the ceiling, sitting by the fish pond, asking myself why I put myself through this anguish and didn't just lecture, assign research papers, and test--or do tried and tested projects. It was a good thing that I am not a drinking man, but I was tempted to take a nip or two. And, having a strong heart from all my pre-dawn walking was an essential, but there was a palpitation or skipped beat along the way. I exaggerate not!!!!

Finally, opening night. All thirty-two students. Clusters rehearsing scenes, going over lines, adjusting costumes, testing sound, handing out playbills, ushering. One student, a football player with a major role, going from person to person, exhorting, "Game face. Game face. Game face."

Curtain parted. Before over two hundred people on the University's main stage in the Arts Building. It was something to behold. Did they ever cook up one delicious creative learning stew!

Now that I think about what was happening in that classroom and on that stage, I am beginning to understand that four ingredients go into making that or any other creative learning stew. The first is the meat: information. The second ingredient is the potatoes and other veggies: flexibility and openness. But, there is more to cooking a palatable stew than just throwing the meat, potatoes and vegatables together in a pot. This recipe calls for the right pinches and dashes of spices to give the stew that tasty zest: an acquaintance with the mysterious, the striking up of a friendship with the unknown, both of which are a beckoning finger to peek in, to sneak a glance around the corner, and to wonder and marvel and question about both the material and themselves. Now you have to cook all that together. And so, you need the fourth element: a weird combination of simmering all those ingredients together with the heat of courage, passion, and foolishness.

"Foolishness?" Very bad word. To me, the students were being anything but silly. They were engaging in a very rational, critical-thinking activity though for many far from the traditional written and verbal way of presentation. While they were working on the project, as I quietly roamed among the triads during class work days, answering questions, explaining issues, and ease-dropping on their conversations before and after class, I saw and heard them exploring, questioning, prodding, thinking, perceiving problems, solving problems, synthesizing. They were struggling to break old intellectual and emotion habits. Their decisions hinged almost always on the act of having to see things yet to be, to see things in a unique way, to glue together apparently unrelated shapes, colors, textures, sounds, movements, occurrences, to answer the question in a novel way, to pose the question in a unique way, to do something in an unexpected manner, and to accept the unexpected result. I saw and heard an anxious reluctance, a hesitant willingness, a newly discovered ability, and a hitherto unknown courage to break through the wall of fear and barrier of criticism that threaten to stop them in their tracks, to take the risk, to break out of the mold, to go against the norm, to put habit aside, to trust, to walk the different path, to open the other door, to go into the novel direction, to use a different medium.

Each them, in their own time and way, took themselves out of their comfort zone, went into new worlds, expanded their world, opened themselves to contradictions and the inexplicable, exposed themselves to the unpredictable and unsystematic and unstructured, rejected the need for the guaranteeing "what do you want," prepared themselves for failure, exposed themselves, ventured into the unknown, hugged serendipity, accepted accident, rejected the traditional, defied order. And, in doing all of this, started unleasing tremendous potential.

What I was watching was not just an intellectual thing. Having the information is not enough; having the skill is not enough. Information and skill alone do not create the power to choose, to respond, to change. It's what you do with information and skill, what you are willing to do with them, what you see can be done with them, that really counts. Maybe that's what Einstein really meant when he said imagination and creativity are more important than information. They're the blueprint needed before and during construction.

And yet.....but, as Paul Harvey would have said, that is the rest of the story.

Make it a good day. 


Louis Schmier           
Department of History    
Valdosta State University
Valdosta, GA  31698                        /~\    /\ /\
912-333-5947                       /^\    /   \  /  /~ \     /~\__/\
                                  /   \__/     \/  /     /\ /~      \
                            /\/\-/ /^\___\______\_______/__/_______/^\
                          -_~     /  "If you want to climb mountains, \ /^\
                             _ _ /      don't practice on mole hills" -\____

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