Pittsburgh theater company offers school workshops

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On the face of it, the Civil War and tossing a volleyball around have about as much in common as breaking rocks in the hot sun and sipping fine wine at a chichi country club.

Sit tight, though. Bricolage, a Pittsburgh theater company, has been hosting Tuesday workshops at Washington Junior High School since the beginning of March that weave together the basics of storytelling in conjunction with the school’s eighth-grade social studies curriculum, which has been exploring the Civil War and the Battle of Gettysburg. It will culminate with the students staging a performance on various aspects of the conflict for family and friends at 10 a.m. Wednesday.

So how exactly does the volleyball come into it? At the start of a recent session in the school’s library, students warmed up before firing up computers to conduct research on the War Between the States by forming a circle and tossing a volleyball back and forth. Once it landed in a student’s hands, they could name a favorite color or celebrity, or, if they wanted, change tack entirely and call out, say, a favorite sport.

Activities like this are not uncommon in acting classes, where the focus is on collaboration and lowering inhibitions, and doing them in other types of classes “get them in the habit of being creative,” said Jeffrey Carpenter, the artistic director of Bricolage. “There are really no wrong answers in this style of work.”

Now a little over 10 years old, Bricolage was founded by Carpenter, its name inspired by a term used by anthropologist Claude Levi Strauss to describe the creation of work from a diverse range of readily available materials. Bricolage’s headquarters are in a former Turkish bathhouse on Liberty Avenue in Pittsburgh’s downtown.

Along with presenting full-length, experimental productions, Bricolage has an ongoing “Midnight Radio” live comedy series based on 1940s radio broadcasts.

Midnight Radio is constructed around the notion of audience participation and tearing down the “fourth wall” that separates spectators from performers. In 2011, Bricolage launched “Midnight Radio Jr.,” which extended the concept to younger audiences, and, after landing a grant from the Benedum Foundation, the workshops at Washington Junior High School are the first time Bricolage has taken Midnight Radio Jr. into a classroom setting.

The program can readily be adapted to different subject areas, according to Tami Dixon, the producing artistic director for Bricolage. Studying outer space? Dixon says Midnight Radio Jr. can accommodate that.

“We can wrap it around any curriculum,” she said. “We’ve built a structure that anything could fit inside. Everything is about storytelling. All theater is about storytelling.”

Some of the people and subjects the students are due to investigate in their performances are Jennie Wade, a seamstress and the only civilian killed during the Battle of Gettysburg. Hauntings at Gettsyburg and ill-fated love affairs will also be part of the mix.

Carpenter explained the presentation next week will have each class performing their own “radio drama,” complete with commercials or “breaking news” segments and live sound effects.

“I always tell my kids I believe in social learning,” said Erin Moore, an eighth-grade social studies teacher at Washington Junior High School. The type of classroom interaction Bricolage provides through its workshops is helping her students retain more information, Moore added.

“We set a foundation,” Dixon said. “This is a safe space.”

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