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Happy Hour on the Fringe: Conversation with Brad Wrenn of The Berserker Residents & Christa Cywinski

Posted March 29th, 2019

On this episode of Happy Hour on the Fringe, Bradley Wrenn, part of the The Berserker Residents and Christa Cywinski, Director of Trinity Playgroup, sat down to talk about the planning and playing behind Broccoli, Roosevelt and Mr. House! and the connection between learning, playing, and building a show for a family unit to enjoy.We took a field trip to record at Trinity Playgroup, so you may hear the sounds of…well, playtime! Listen to the podcast or read the full transcript below.

Conversation with Bradley Wrenn and Christa Cywinski

Brad: My name is Bradley Wrenn and I am one of the ensemble members of the Berserker Residents. We’ve been making work together since 2007. Me and two other ensemble members – Justin Jain and David Johnson make up the Berserker Residents. And we’re making a show called Broccoli, Roosevelt, and Mr. House!.

Christa: That’s a good title. I am Christa Cywinski and I’m the director of Trinity Playgroup. Trinity’s a small little non-profit preschool for 2-5 year olds. I’ve been here for 20 years, the school’s been here for 50 years. We’re excited to be celebrating our 50th anniversary.

Brad: Wow.

Christa: So I’m curious about the name of your show. And you mentioned a little bit about being a clown troupe, I’m curious about that?

Brad: Yeah. The way we make work is by investigating something we’re interested in and following it to a logical end. Oftentimes that will be the show. All of our shows are always live events, meaning that we’re always acknowledging the audience, they’re always in the room with us. Oftentimes we will cast them. So we did a show in 2008 that was a scientific lecture, and so the audience was at a scientific lecture. We did one that was a sci-fi futuristic one and the audience was the last of humanity and we were trying to save them. They’re oftentimes there, in the room with us, and we acknowledge them. It’s sort of using theater’s superpower, one of the super powers of theater, that the people are actually in the room with us. We can’t beat movies when it comes to effects and visuals and stuff like that, but we can beat moves in that we’re here with them, experiencing something with them and making it very live. And I think actually in our last three shows, we’ve stripped more and more of that way and thought about how much control we can give to the audience and let them dictate or provoke us? It gets scarier and scarier. Because with the audience, the more control you give them, the more you let them be the main character in the show, the more you don’t know what’s going to happen. And so it gets scary.

Christa: Especially with a child audience.

Brad: Yeah!

Christa: So is it always for kids? This one is for ages 5 and up.

Brad: No actually, all of our shows have been for adults so far.

Christa: So you could go in some really different directions from Broccoli all the way down the tunnel with the kids.

Brad: Yeah, yeah! Our last show that we did was called It’s So Learning – it was actually all about industrialized education and sort of the mechanisms of education. The audience came in sat in little chairs and were given back-packs for the show, and we sort of put them through a whole sort of American education in about 70 minutes.

Christa: Like gum under their seats.

Brad: Precisely. Yeah, and specifically exploring some of the trauma around that, some of the hard things about school. Essentially, the show was about your experience in education, and viewing it through that lens, being like, oh I remember Lord of the Flies, I remember having anxiety around tests, I remember being promised these things and not knowing why I was working for these things and the reward and the punishment and all that. But then, both of my collaborators have kids at this point.

Christa: Okay. Makes sense.

Brad: So we’re always up for a challenge, so obviously giving with an audience of kids, giving the reins of the show to kids is really scary. That’s where we headed, and we’ve been working on the show for six, seven months. We’ve done a lot of showings.

Christa: So do you think of it as an improv group?

Brad: No, no.

Christa: So how do you give the reins away?

Brad: So right now the show is just a series of what I would just call bits at this point, or lazzis.

Christa: What are lazzis?

Brad: It’s an Italian word that means like, little schtick.

Christa: Okay. Lazzi. Sounds like a good food.

Brad: I know, right? Sweet Lazzi. So for example, there’s a moment in the show where we have enormous boxes of colored ping-pong balls and we say we’re going to play a “video game,” and we give the kids the ping-pong balls and let them throw them at Dave. And it just becomes—

Christa: That is gunna–yeah. A lot of laughter there.

Brad: Yeah. And we’re sort of saying like, how far can we go in that direction, of just like – it’s a playground, and it’s chaos and we don’t have control. And then sort of riding that line of can you then regain control after that?

Christa: You definitely can.

Brad: So we do improvise, that’s how we build our shows, we’ll improvise and say, oh that’s fun, we did that, let’s script that. And now let’s put it back on its feet and improvise some more. And then we’ll script that. That’s the cycle of how we do it.

Christa: And you try it out on your collaborators’ kids?

Brad: Oh yeah. I mean we’re a little limited. The showings we’ve done, like four at this point. We’re just like, how can we get some kids in a room? But at this point it’s very much like trying to find the boundary of how much play and free flowing whatever’s happening, and then we have a structure that we sort of go from place to place, but it’s a real give and take. We’ve done a super scripted children’s show but that’s not what we’re interested in with this one. We’re interested in something that says yes to the proposals in the room.

Christa: Mhm. Yeah, we’ve done shows like that here, where the troupe will take a few ideas from the kiddos, like a character, where they’re going and what problem did they have, and then just do a whole show from there.

Brad: Yeah, yeah. And I think, you know, it’s like a pendulum of how free and how open it wants to be, and also there’s a thing where it has to be fun for us. If it’s not fun for the three of us, we know that we’ll start hating it and then it won’t be fun for anyone.  So it has to be fun and it has to be joyful for us to do because I think sometimes when things are so open, it becomes chaos and you’re like, ah, this isn’t fun. It’s just crowd control. So finding that pendulum is important.

Christa: The kid audience though, you have experience with this audience, it gives you a lot. I can’t imagine it not being fun performing to the young audience.

Tenara: But I feel like so much of art and clown school is locating play in adult bodies.

Christa: Right. Right.

Brad: Yes. I mean, that’s 90% of the work.

Tenara: Exactly.

Christa: But kids go there super naturally. Right? Like, ‘jump into the pond!’ Okay, this is the ground and that’s the pond. They go there in a second. You have to like, leave a lot of stuff behind to put yourself back there.

Brad: Yeah. It’s wild. We went and studied with this provocateur clown teacher in France named Phillipe Gaulier, at his school. And essentially, all he cares about is pleasure on stage. He says nothing else matters but pleasure on stage and joy. But it is wild to see an adult get up in front of a group of peers and just fail to find that play, over and over, or comes with too many ideas, or comes with a desire to be clever. I mean, instantly it dies and it’s not watchable. And that’s why watching kids play tag is oftentimes more entertaining than theater because they are actually just purely alive and joyful and they just –

Christa: They hide in plain sight!

Brad: Yeah! And they find stupid games, and the inventiveness is just infinite! But with adults we start to edit ourselves, and we start to be clever, and are just “funny”. We want something from the audience, whereas a child who’s playing is just in the moment and present, and so is so watchable. Trying to get to that weirdly becomes work.

Christa: I mean, we’re just part of their play world, right? We’re facilitating play, we’re putting out offerings, we’re observing. Lots of observing, lots of listening to the really funny things that they say. And looking for those little sparks of what interests them and offering them something else, repeating things.

Brad: Do you think there is an age, or do you see it – what’s the oldest here?

Christa: The oldest would be almost six by the time they leave us, but in the beginning of the year, I’m gonna say 1 ½ to 4 ½ years old.

Brad: And six is like first grade, right?

Christa: Like, kids with late fall birthdays might be six when they’re going to kindergarten. Folks can stay here until entering kindergarten.

Brad: I just am curious about when it becomes hard to play. When it becomes – and maybe it’s not until teen years, maybe that’s when you start to become self conscious.

Christa: You see changes across even just our age group though. But in terms of being self-conscious a little bit, you see a little bit of oh, I don’t want to do that even creeping up in the Pre-K year.

Brad: Being aware of your peers? Like I don’t want to do that because I’m worried of what people will think?

Christa: Yeah. I think you see a little bit of that, you just see a little bit of I know that people are thinking something, so I’m going to showman a little. You start to see that awareness changing in this year before kindergarten, so it’s early.

Tenara: And doesn’t it develop alongside, you know, like, they talk about parallel play when they’re toddlers, just playing next to each other, and as they start to integrate play with each other they also start to integrate that awareness and testing boundaries of what people think?

Christa: Absolutely.

Brad: I mean, and that’s the thing about getting in front of an audience, it’s such an odd thing because the best clowns that I know don’t care what the audience thinks. It doesn’t mean they don’t want anything from the audience, they’re just present and there and open. But they’re present the way an animal is or in the way a very young child is makes them instantly so captivating. It’s like getting rid of judgment and just trying to find that fun and joy.

Christa: There does seem to be personality types where it’s easier to keep connected to play. So you don’t have to teach kids how to learn, or how to play. Everything they’re doing in terms of experiencing the world and playing is how they’re figuring things out. You can offer things, you can scaffold things, you can be part of it in a social piece, but you don’t really have to teach them that if you put water in this, this becomes the cup, you know? They’re just going to start experimenting. The toys with no explanation are better, with no beginning, middle, and end of how you have to use them and no like, this is what this is for. You can put out a box and they’ll just start making ramps and putting things in it, turning things upside down, they learn by just being hands-on, trying things. Then they start to watch each other , help each other do things a little bit, getting ideas from each other. You see that sort of brainstorming camaraderie develop. A little bit later comes the competition.

Tenara: When does that start?

Christa: I think you start to see it pretty young.

Brad: When you say competition do you mean like footrace? Like a competition for resources? Or like, ‘that’s mine?’

Christa: A little bit of both, yeah. I mean at this point with our kids, they’re young, so it all makes sense and it’s developmentally on target but there is a bit of, oh, I gotta do that the fastest, I gotta do that first, gotta be in the front. You know, they’re all still building their ego-strength.

Brad: That’s so interesting.

Christa: And then that sort of settles out again, those are just stages.

Brad: Peaks and valleys.

Christa: Yeah. Yup.

Brad: It’s something that we’re after with this show, like we’re looking at how to allow organic games to come up in a performance, like not even plot and narrative, just for organic games to come up. Like with the ping-pong balls. But there’s also this interesting thing in that making the show, we’re very cognizant that we’re not making “just” a kid’s show, we’re making a family show. We’re making a show for a unit. We saw a show in Edinburgh that really just bowled us over, because it was made for a unit. It wasn’t like, come drop your kids off in the front and then you go in the back. It was a show for a family unit.

Christa: That sounds fun.

Brad: Yeah. There’s something about if you just let play happen, the adults in the room get anxious? They’re like – ‘who’s in charge, what’s going on? This isn’t curated enough! It’s gone off the rails!’ So we’re cognizant of the adult presence, to be like, ‘hey, we’ve got this, this is supposed to happen here. Now we’ll get things back on the rails.’ And something incredibly virtuosic and composed will happen. And then we’ll let some organic play come into it. Doing that pendulum of keeping an eye to the adults in the room is really an interesting tight-rope.

Tenara: How do you get them to play with their unit?

Brad: I mean, one of the things that always works – always works – and we’ve done it and it works even in an adult context is that you go and get a dad. There’s something about the status of a dad. You can make fun of a big dad. And dads will then be performing for their kids, and it becomes this weird thing of bringing a dad up on stage work. Doing something really silly with that dad and making him really silly causes a whole audience to lean forward. It’s weird. There’s gender involved with that, there’s status involved with that, there’s family dynamics, but I’ve seen it work so many times. Pulling a dad up and putting a tutu on him. Dr. Brown, this clown we saw in Edinburgh literally takes a dad and turns him into a soccer ball and kicks him around the stage. And the dad does it because the dad wants to make his kids happy.

Christa: You gotta connect with the right dad though!

Brad: Yes, you’re totally right. There’s a particular kind of dad. You have to pull the right dad, you have to think and be looking for that dad in that moment.

Christa: My dad.

Brad: It makes the whole audience learn forward. It’s wild. It works. That causes that family unit to lean in.

Christa: I mean, the kids laugh a lot here when teachers get pulled into things, whether it’s like, ‘alright, Heather, show us your dance moves!’ or like ‘put on the firemen’s jacket!’ Whatever it is.

Brad: Yup. And I think there’s a whole way to access a whole new kind of audience participation by modeling an adult doing it first. And then you bring a kid onstage and let a kid do something. That’s its own narrative arc. You have to do it in a way that doesn’t feel forced and that takes really good care of everybody. It’s not great when a person gets pulled onstage and is not taken care of and is just sort of forced to do something really uncomfortable. Whereas with working with audiences and playing with an audience – it feels organic and the person should always know what to do. They always know what the right answer is. And know the right way to play. And know that there’s no wrong way to play. You have to set that up. Or you just give them a very narrow path to walk on – like, hey, can you make the sound of a cow? Boom! Of course they can! There’s no wrong. I think that’s the biggest thing, that’s the anxiety with play.

Christa: Definitely with kids a little bit older, but not in the beginning. There’s definitely no wrong at the beginning.

Tenara: So I’m curious, this is a question for both of you. For you, Brad – is there an age group that you have found in the showings of this piece that is the sweet spot for those kids, before the anxiety sneaks in? Or is it really just about setting up this culture with the unit? And Christa, is there – in what age do you see that ‘there’s a wrong answer, so it’s safer to not play’ start to happen? Is it developmental or is it external?

Christa: Oh. Both. For sure both. Because you can foster an environment that says it’s all okay, or you can foster an environment with a lot of limits. And that will change the nature of the way somebody grows. But I would say for almost all the time that we see kids in this school, they’re still pretty not rule bound, in terms of they’re taking risks, they’re just doing it. Not thinking, just doing it. In terms of like their play outside of their school settings, I think they’re probably still pretty open for a while too.

Tenara [to Brad]: Have you found that there’s an age where it’s harder to reach them?

Brad: Well, the showings we’ve done tend to run with younger kids, like two, three, four, five year olds, just because that’s the age of my peers’ kids. Which is not actually the group that we’re making the show for. We’re aiming a little older than that with five plus. It’s harder to get a group of just nine year olds. And also I think the other thing is because Justin, Dave, and I have all done children’s theater in other capacities, and performing for a group of kids with like five teachers is so different than performing for kids with their families. It’s a totally different audience and a totally different beast.

Tenara: How is it different?

Brad: I mean, a group of kids where the ratio is five adults to 35 kids are a frenzied beast, just like ‘Wahhh!’. I mean they’re easy to pump up but it’s a little like going to a concert with that group. With a group of kids with their adults, it becomes much more timid, and there’s also a lot of checking in with your unit.

Christa: But we all have different personalities in our family unit than we do out there in the school world or the work world – whichever world you’re in. So it’s different sides of ourselves get shown.

Brad: Yeah, yeah. And so I think it’s tough in making a show because it’s hard to get access to that thing. I mean, we’ll do showings up until the day we open at Fringe, but we probably won’t get the audience we’re going to have at Fringe until we open.

Christa: But then so why is that the age group that you’re shooting for? Not because it’s what you think is the sweet spot. You just want to try it with this group?

Brad: We just saw some shows in the Edinburgh Fringe Festival like 20-30 kids whows, and kids shows made for 5 and under – there was one that worked, and they did like every little bit in the book that you can think of for that age group. Cover your head with a blanket and have the person behind you sneak up, and they all go ‘he’s behind you!’

Christa: Oh they love it.

Brad: Yeah, they love it, and it works.

Christa: The slapstick.

Brad: Yes, and like, the peekaboo type stuff, yeah. But we knew that that wouldn’t be fun for us. For the three of us. We want to do something that was just a click up, and then there was something about this show that was called Dr. Brown and the Singing Tiger that was for more like a family unit, a little bit older, and it just felt really special for a unit. And we were like – I don’t know what that is, but I want to try and crack it. And I think that’s the thing that we’re interested in. We wanted to make a show that winks just a little bit to the adult not in a double entendres way, but more in the way that’s like, come along and play the way you used to.

Tenara: What is it about a family unit that is the thing that has the heat for you guys in this piece?

Brad: I guess there’s a way that there’s an audience built inside of a family unit. There’s parents watching kids and kids watching parents while they’re sitting next to each other, that becomes this force of kids watching the show, parents watching the show, kids watching parents – it’s just so interesting to me. When we’re setting up the audience at front, we thought, oh let’s put cushions down at the front, but then thought no.I want people to be sitting next to each other. I want whatever your family unit is, I want the adult/child mix that comes to the show. That is really important to me. And I think it’s harder.

Tenara: I imagine it’s harder also because of the culture around family programming specific to this country. Like, it doesn’t surprise me that it was in Edinburgh where you saw that done successfully.

Brad: Yeah, I think you’re totally right, I think there’s a way in which children’s theater in the United States is thought of as not important programming. It’s often seen as like, ‘oh well, then we’ll just do a family show.’ We’ll just put some funny costumes on and flounce about and that’ll be enough. But in Edinburgh there’s a real value behind that stuff. I mean there’s more value on family programming in general in Europe, but I think there specifically children’s shows are – well, there’s a lot more rigor in making them.

Tenara: Well I’m sort of curious about the values that foster the family programming culture of Europe. Are they the same that foster the kind of education systems that tend to have more success in those countries? Or are they’re coming from different places?

Brad: I mean, the cynical part of me says – this is really the cynical part of me – there’s just more value on art in, specifically in Scotland. I think there’s able to be more rigor around children’s programming because it’s just valued as important, so there’s more resources, more rigor, more time spent, and so you get something that is better crafted.

Tenara [to Christa]: I think a lot about something that you said to me once, which is that all preschools should be play-based, and so it’s so funny that Trinity Playgroup’s supposed ‘niche’ is that they’re a play-based preschool. But isn’t that what learning is at that age anyway?

Christa: Right. Yeah, I mean it’s – there is a little rush to ‘prepare.’ There’s this idea of preparing. You know, preparing kids for school. You know, I can’t speak for other places outside of here, but certainly we know that kindergarten is more like what first grade used to be, and so that trickles down to us. And what parents are thinking about is involved of course.

Tenara: Have you seen that trend change since you started working here?

Christa: I have. However, you know, as things change they swing. So you know, now people are swinging back, thinking more about outdoor classrooms and different, more experiential school set-ups, even all the way through into high school, and different ways to create great schools and so I feel like, it got pretty sort of – the expectations were pretty high on young people for quite a bit. But I think they’re swinging back a little.

Brad: What is a non play-based preschool?

Christa: Well, there are a lot of schools that will, in an effort to follow standards, have really specific curricula for kids. I mean, there are schools that sit everybody down and we all make this at this time, these are the parts that you use to make it. It’s out there for sure. It looks like this, this is what the outcome should be.

Brad: Like, it looks like a sun and it should have a smiley face on it.

Christa: Yeah, like, here are the pieces already cut out.

Brad: So is everything here guided by the child’s sort of curiosity and what they’re after?

Christa: Not everything. No, because, I mean, the teachers are well-informed about child development and they think a lot about what things to introduce at what time. They’re orchestrators in the scene and they’re paying attention to what kids are interested in, and they’re putting out things related to that interest. The kids are moving around the space with whatever is out and available to them, the kids are moving around like, oh I want to go there, I want to go there, so that’s driven. But it’s not that they just walk in and everything is put away and they just go for it. The teachers are part of that process and creating the invitations for play.

Brad: Yeah. I mean, it’s not dissimilar from what we’re doing, and the stage we’re at right now with this piece. Where we’re just like, we have an idea and a provocation and we’re going to put it in front of the audience, and then we’re going to do our best to just be present and just be curious about what’s going on. And we have an outcome that we probably do imagine but if something else happens, that’s okay.

Christa: Oh, you’ll always be surprised.

Brad: Yeah, and to be open to that I think is the real fearful thing, the anxiety of like I want to control and I want it to go a certain way. But it’s always better if you just stay in the moment and just follow what’s in front of you. When you’re listening to your audience or your classroom.

Christa: Or to anybody in your life!

Tenara: Yeah, well there’s that too. Hopefully we carry that into adulthood!

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