Tuesday, May 29, 2018

Huntington, West Virginia by: Sam Fremin

Over the last year, I have been participating in my theatre department’s coffeehouses (basically open mics). After spending the earlier part of the year performing Shakespeare parody raps and short adapted scenes, one of my best friends and I found our coffeehouse niche a couple months ago. With no explanation, we signed up for the January performance under the ambiguous title, “Huntington, West Virginia.” The MC confusedly introduced us and my friend and I took the stage. Our audience wasn’t sure what to expect. While setting up our minimal (but necessary) set pieces, I heard rumbling predictions of an improvised scene, a spoken word poem, another rap, and all sorts of other wrong guesses. The lights dimmed and the crowd was introduced to our cast of characters.
Chester, Dr. Fancy, Monster, and Pinky (pictured respectively), the sock puppet quartet, made their coffeehouse debut in a ten minute reenactment of a story about the consequences of stealing.

Unsurprisingly, this unexpected concept was met with mixed reactions from the department. Some thought it was funny and enjoyed the performance, while others were not as impressed. Regardless of whether it was positive or negative, me, my friend, and our sock puppets received feedback from everyone in the audience when the coffeehouse ended. Everyone had thoughts about our performance and we were more than happy to hear both sides.

By the time the February coffeehouse came around, my friend and I knew we couldn’t just forget about “Huntington, West Virginia.” We enjoyed it too much to throw the idea away this early. Besides, some people had fun watching, even if that was not a universal opinion. My co-puppeteer and I held a planning meeting to discuss how we would proceed. Should we continue on the path we had set ourselves on in January? Or should we completely revamp our formula to try to satisfy the other part of the crowd? The decision seemed fairly obvious.

When the MC took the stage in February and introduced “Huntington, West Virginia,” we could not control the grins on our faces. We were so excited to continue. Our short story this time was only five minutes (half the run time of the initial episode) and circled around Chester’s search for a dog. At the end of the show we were met with more positivity than we had at the end of our January performance. Instead of caving in and scrapping our idea, my friend and I pressed forward with “Huntington, West Virginia.” Of course, we had to make some concessions so our puppets didn’t get booed offstage or something, so we made attempts to address the feedback. Some had said ten minutes was way too long to be forced to sit through a squeaky voiced puppet show, so we cut out any lines we found unnecessary. Some said our plot was too random, so we made the story more focused. Some said our humor only circled one style, so we diversified the jokes we were telling. Now, “Huntington, West Virginia” has had new life breathed into it and in a couple of weeks we will be wrapping up the series at the final coffeehouse of the year.

Although this whole experience dealt with a puppet show, it was a demonstration of the importance of the editing process. The open dialogue my friend and I had with our audience informally after every show helped us fix what wasn’t working in our product. Keeping similar open dialogues available in classrooms are super important for classroom growth.

If the only time a student is getting feedback on their work is after it is turned in, valuable learning opportunities are lost. Often times when I receive essays back from my teachers, I will see quick one word reactions to my work. I can interpret those criticisms to mean what I think they mean, but the responsibility seems to fall on me. I’m not the only one who feels this way too. Nondescript feedback on student work isn’t always helpful. It would be much more beneficial to discuss criticism verbally. That way, there is no reason for someone to be confused. Teachers can lay out exactly what they mean and students can ask for clarification on whatever they need. It is also important to allow students to preserve the voice of their writing. Even though there are inevitably criticisms student writers need to take into account, the overarching idea of their piece should remain intact. It provides a more authentic end product and it’s honestly just more enjoyable for the writer involved. Again, that’s why it is important to talk through the editing process face to face. Not everything is correctly conveyed through writing, from the student and teacher perspective. Students can talk through what they meant by their writing, giving teachers more understanding of how to help and teachers can talk through their edits, giving students more understanding of how they can grow.


  1. Sam, I’d love to be in the audience. The “gift” I find in this experience is the demonstration of the power of sincere critique and the willing (almost joyous) attitude you present to receive it. When feedback is clear critique (geared toward improving) vs criticism (geared toward pointing out flaws) the result is more positive as in your case. Long live the socks ��

  2. This sounds fabulous! I love coffeehouse performances. I wish I could have traveled to see you. Would I be able to get sabbatical leave for that?