Category Archives: Class Culture

Athlete of the Emotions: Exploring Rasaboxes

The actor is the athlete of the emotions. What does that mean? It means the actor must practice the same way an athlete practices. Actors have to have emotional endurance, flexibility, and dexterity. They need to practice being in emotion. They need to practice skills of self-care that allow them to go fearlessly into extreme emotional states, and return to their personhood afterwards.

Great. But we’re talking about teenagers here, who haven’t had life experiences, who may be bewildered and overwhelmed by their emotions, who are usually encouraged by well-meaning adults to suppress most of the stronger ones, so threatening are their emotions to the status quo and the daily work of getting things done.

So how do we teach adolescent actors how to practice this skill, of feeling without giving in or becoming overwhelmed? What I call “driving the schoolbus?”

One technique is Rasaboxes. I do not notice a lot of talk about this powerful practice in educational theatre, probably because it’s not widely known like the Method or Viewpoints.  But  I have long been interested in psychophysical theatre with young actors as a means to help them safely access emotional states through the use of external symbols, gesture, and the energy of the ensemble. To that end, I became interested in Rasaboxes and started some experimentals and adaptations with them in my advanced  classroom.

BACKGROUND

You can find a full history of the practice and some information on training on  Rasaboxes.org., but the basic gist is that they have their origins in  the Professor Richard Schechner of NYU’s participatory study of Grotowski and Cieslak’s psychophysical practices, his own work with The Performance Group in the late 60’s,  his study of the Natyasastra, an ancient Sanskrit text on performance, and his incorporation of Paul Ekman’s work on facial emotions and Michael Gershon’s work on “the brain in the belly.” The work has been developed over the last 40 years, and has emerged as a fairly user-friendly practice based on the nine emotions or rasas in kathakali.

Yes, that’s right. I am advocating the adapted use of experimental theatre techniques from the 1960’s with young actors in today’s high stakes testing environment. Because I believe that drama teachers have a responsibility to  teach resilience and survival, and knowing what you’re feeling helps you survive, whether you end up as an actor or a biochemical engineer.

INTRODUCTION TO THE WORK

The standard Rasas grid is a  three by three grid which you can make with blue tape on your floor. Use student aides to measure this out if you’ve got them. Make the squares large enough to sit or stand in.  Put it on the floor before class begins. There should be nine squares. 

Have eight pieces of butcher paper, each labeled with an emotion, ready as well. The eight emotions are:

  • Fear
  • Humor
  • Surprise
  • Disgust
  • Anger
  • Love
  • Courage
  • Grief

They have Sanskrit names of course, but considering you want your students to remember them, I found it easier to use the English names.

Give the eight pieces of paper to individual students. Let them lay them down in the grid, anywhere but the middle.

The middle is the state of no feeling. Peace.  Leave it blank.

Give the kids crayons.

Let them have a big chunk of time (20 minutes, 30)  to do graffiti on the paper about each emotion. If you want to quantify how many emotions they visit, you can, but you could just let them explore.  Let them draw, write quotes, hashtags, associations, whatever.  Put music on, let them sit together with the papers, read each other’s work.

Back everybody up in a circle and sit around the boxes. Let them reflect, ask questions.

Give them the next assignment.

LETTERS

This year I used an exercise I borrowed from Chuck Manthe at Abraham Lincoln High School. He asked students to write letters designed to provoke emotion, placed them in a basket, put the basket next to a chair onstage, had individual actors go up there, read the letter silently, and asked them what they were feeling.  The audience just had to watch someone feel something and talk about it. They weren’t given a performance. They supported the actor learning to access the performance.

We took away the butcher paper and labeled the squares so students could remember which was which, and then the students put their letters in a basket. We sat around the circle, and I asked students to read the letter they had chosen, silently, then move to the box which most accurately described what they were feeling, reading the letter.

GESTURES

We stayed around the circle. One student entered the rasas and chose a box. Made a gesture of the emotion. Moved to another box. Made that emotion’s gesture. Stepped out, tagged another student.

THREE LINES

Students used the boxes to tell a three line story, moving between three emotions, with gestures and positions.

This is where you, the teacher, begin to activate your imperative to ask the student to tell the truth. 

Students will gravitate to humor, disgust and surprise at first. When they enter a hard emotion, like fear or anger or grief, they will indicate it rather than radiate it. You can begin to work with those tendencies by stop them. “Are you really angry? Or are you disgusted?” “Are you afraid? Or are you surprised?” Encourage their light stories to stay with light emotions. It paves the way for the courageous work that will follow.

TWO STUDENTS

Students selected partners and sat back to back with them around the circle. One student entered the rasa and chose a box. After observing, his or her partner entered another rasa. They started improvisational scenes in the boxes, moving boxes when emotions changed.

This is another great workspace for you to safely and persistently encourage the young actors to TELL THE TRUTH in their work.

In one of our improvisations, a “daughter” made an uncomfortable confession regarding her sexuality  to her “father”. The actor playing the father moved to the box he felt father would go to, to anger,  rather than where he as a person wanted to go to , love.  At the close of the scene, unresolved, feeling the tension that had been created by the two characters, the actor talked about what it was like to feel this strong emotion that was called for. He was then able to step out of role and show his support for his scene partner. The other actors were able to support him, because they had witnessed his struggle and were containing it in the circle. Unlike trying to invoke the emotional nudity of monologue or scene work, with the audience separated from the actors,  “practicing” the rasas in the circle has tremendous security for young actors.  If they need kleenex, if they need friends, the others are right there to catch them.

Don’t underestimate your students abilities to “find” themselves in these. Encourage your jokers to find fear and love,  your timid introverts to find anger and courage, your model students to find grief and disgust.

Hold the room respectful and continually model the qualities of honesty, flexibility, respect, and care,  allowing your students to breathe this work.

TEXT

After improvisation, it works to spend some time having students work with text in the Rasaboxes. You can start with open text (I used “Empty” by Suzan Lori-Parks) and then move onto scripts. You can use this to to work with what will be assigned two character scenes as well.

Here are some scenes that work well.

Hamlet- Polonius and Ophelia where she’s telling him how frightened she is of Hamlet. Cut it down and split it up.

Streetcar- The why did you sell Belle Reve scene between Stella and Blanche

Crucible- The forest scene between Proctor and Abby

Read these scenes first on your own and CUT them to a page or less, particularly if you’re worried about reading levels. The Polonius/Ophelia is all short monologues. Works well, but you have to preteach.

Note: When you hand out difficult text, as these are, do some readarounds with the class out loud before everybody starts working individually. Clarify references, beats, motivations, obstacles, settings, time periods, vocabulary. It will be worth your while.

When they get into the Rasas with these, be prepared to stop them. Question when they disconnect from the text. These aren’t performances, they’re drills. Don’t let them degenerate into performances, this is not the point. This is a training tool. Let them train on it, and then assess what they’ve learned by asking them and observing the quality of their work by how much facility they’ve been able to develop with this.

IDEAS FOR FINAL ASSESSMENT

  • Reflective paper
  • Personal emotional journey (these are amazing)
  • Text monologue inside rasas, allowing movement between them

Whatever you choose, or how much you do with this, remain open, and expect your students to do so as well.  Remind them that what happens in Drama stays in Drama. Trust the group and have kleenex ready, and be prepared to experience what young performers are capable of doing, and reap the benefits as a director of your empowered, courageous young  theatremakers.

 

 

 

 

Vacation, All I Ever Wanted: The Power of Vacation Stories to Reconnect Your Students

Happy New Year! If you’re like me, you’re looking at January with a mixture of fascination and dread. What great learning will happen in your classroom? What new challenges will arise?

The first day back at school after a vacation can be a bit overwhelming. It is also a great time to use the lived experience of students  to make some new theatre and reconnect.

WARMUP

Circle Crosses. Some nice circle crosses are always appreciated, and give you a sense of what’s been happening with your students. Cross the circle if you:

  • Saw family this holiday
  • Had an unexpected conversation
  • Taught an older person about technology
  • Got a gift you didn’t know you wanted
  • Made an important decision
  • Spent too much time in the car
  • Left your house, the city, the state, the country (tailor to your population, mine often leaves the country)
  • Were responsible for someone else
  • Won a game

Keep these circle crosses open enough that kids can think to participate, and specific enough that they focus on people, places, events and ideas that may have happened over the break.

5 Person Sculptures. Groups of at least 4, no more than 7. Ten seconds or less. Entire group works together to form a 3-D sculpture.

  • Make the biggest object a member of your group saw this break.
  • Make the most impressive snack someone had.
  • Make the smallest item someone lost.
  • Make the strangest holiday gift someone received.

Partner Stories. Grab a random partner. Select and A and a B. Tell them the most astonishing thing that happened to you over break. Switch. Switch again.

A tell B  the story again, focusing on the people in it.

Switch. Same thing. B tell A.

Switch. A tell B the story again focusing on the place in it.

Switch. Same thing.

Switch. A tell B the story again focusing on events and ideas.

Switch. Same thing.

BRINGING THE STORY TO LIFE

There are many options now that the details of the story have been brought out.

1. Pairs- Students can continue to work in pairs, choose one of the stories, and do a remembering scene in front of class where both tell the one story as if they were both there.

Example:

Lizette: So you remember how we were supposed to be in a flash mob at Christmas in the Park?

Tim: Yeah, that was awesome. We were totally looking forward to it. 

Lizette: Except that then you wanted to go look at that one display to see if they still had the raccoon in the purple dress…And we thought we had time, but then we got distracted…

Tim: So we missed the flash mob. 

Lizette: Yeah. And our friends were really annoyed. 

Tim: You were really annoyed. 

2. Fours- Two pairs join forces and work on one person’s story. That person narrates and the other three become the actors in the story.

Andrew:  My dad and stepmom stayed up late setting up this huge expensive train set for my new little brother. It’s really big and you can ride it around in a circle.  They bought it like two years ago when he was born and had been hanging onto it, waiting to have this impressive Christmas morning reveal. So then to top it off, they put an Olaf stuffed animal in the center of the carpet where it goes around. They figure he’ll go crazy for the train.  But he comes out in the morning, totally ignores the train, and goes right for Olaf, and no matter what they do, he won’t let go of Olaf and he’s scared of the train when they turn it on, and he starts crying, so they can’t get their perfect movie moment. 

Two actors play the parents and one the little boy. Andrew himself doubles as Olaf.

3. Monologues- A good into if you’re going to start working with monologues and if you’re pressed for time. Have everyone sit in the audience, and have students tell each other’s stories as if they had happened to them. All they should change are the pronouns, if they must.

Example: Jasper told Amanda a story about waiting in the car on New Year’s Eve with his younger siblings while his parents fought inside the house, and having it turn midnight without the whole family there. Amanda tells this story as if it were hers. Jasper tells the class Amanda’s story about coming out of a store on Christmas Eve where she’d been waiting in line for the whole family’s tamales, seeing a homeless guy, and handing him her Christmas tamales and watching as he took them and distributed them among other homeless people, and then just getting back in line to get more because she could.

TIP: With sensitive stories, don’t ask whose story is whose. Let the stories stand on their own, as much as possible. If you work towards an open, supportive environment, an hour of stories will include hilarity and the solemn acknowledgment that truth has been spoken to power. This is a great activity to simply enjoy your students and absorb their lived experience. You can jump back into the next project tomorrow.

What they’re learning:

  • How to tell a story, alone, with a partner, or with a group.
  • Stories change with the people in them.
  • The retelling of a story makes it better and different.
  • We are the keepers of each others stories.
  • Drama class is a place to invest in one’s own voice, and in the community of voices.

Have a great first day back, everyone. I’ll be doing my part to make this a semester to remember.

 

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The Five People You Meet in Cupertino

How can we create opportunities for students to immerse themselves in the production process?

Especially when they’re not quite ready for participation in a mainstage production?

It’s wonderful when students can come to mainstage productions with some understanding of what it’s like to be a part of a production team. It makes the process easier to assimilate to, and more fun. It’s even more wonderful when their minds have been opened to the myriad of other possibilities for people who like creating stories beyond acting.

Most drama students love acting. Most won’t become actors. It’s very important to acknowledge that there is a place for everyone in theatre, and allow students opportunities to take on “roles” that are not only those in the spotlight. It’s equally important to introduce students to the work of hard collaboration, deadlines, and the pressures of production, preferably before they encounter a real audience.

For a long time, my Beginning Drama students did a great project called Soap Operas, passed on to me by my master teacher John Ribovich. You can find that project here if you are interested. This was back in the day, when kids grew up with an awareness of soap operas, passed down to them by family members who loyally watched a particular show over time. Kids who didn’t watch often had relatives who did, so these products were fairly faithful to the genre.

Then came reality TV and a lot more programming in the animated or scifi/fantasy genres, as well as increasing options for entertainment. Fewer students were having common viewing experiences.  I tried for a couple of years to contextualize soap operas in the context of TV history, and tried again to link the project to its popularity in other markets that were relevant to my students- it is still, for instance, an important and popular genre in South America, India, and Korea. But the scripts were no longer really holding together, as the students had not internalized the model, so after a brief flirtation with the idea of doing “Adventure” stories, I decided that there must be an easier way to work on the concepts of stock characters and situations with my students, as well as forcibly immerse them in production in a low-stakes way.  And so this year I experimented with a project called “The Five People You Meet in Cupertino.”  And it worked.

You can do this. But obviously change the name to the name of your school. It makes a great summative assessment. A nice final exam.

SETUP

Lunch-If you’ve already worked with your kids on archetypes via status work, this will be a natural shift. If not, print out a black and white map of your school, like the emergency preparedness one,  and hand a copy to each kid. Ask them to create a visual map of “lunch” depending on where students hang out. You will gain a lot of insight, because you will clearly see the social network of your school, and the territory claimed by each tribe.

You might get responses like this:

  • Popular people hang out at this one table in the cafeteria.
  • Kids who play “insert newest card game” hang out here.
  • All the ELA kids tend to hang out near this bench.
  • Skaters hang out behind the gym.
  • Preps hang out in the library but don’t eat.

So then divide your students into groups of 5 or 6 (I suggest choosing the groups to balance gender, ability, and background). I suggest doing this because they will be together for 2 or maybe 3 school weeks, and group dysfunction will throw off class climate.  Then introduce the activity.

What makes our school unique? Who are the 5 people you meet at our school?  Ask for four, and then ask for a type of adult to make the project interesting.  Aim for a broad enough category that gender is flexible, that ethnicity can be worked into it.

Here are some of the five people(students),  you meet in Cupertino, according to my kids.

  1.  The Overachiever. Does everything, joins everything, has a 6.0 GPA unweighted.
  2. The Slacker. Does nothing, but has a lot of potential.
  3. The Poser. Appears to be or tries to be one way, is actually another.
  4. The Foreigner. New to the community. Trying to learn the rules. Or not.
  5.  The Sidekick. Always hanging out with one of the other characters, mirroring their actions.
  6.  The Gamer/Phone Freak, or Hacker.  Obsessed with the virtual world.
  7. The Helicopter Parent- Constantly embarrassing their kid in front of others with their lack of boundaries and vast array of connections.
  8.  The Superenthusiastic Teacher- Constantly in the face of the students. Their relentless positivity extends beyond the boundaries of failure. Including their own.
  9. The Adolescent-  Adult. Wants to fit in with all the cool kids. Problem is, that ship sailed in 1989.

The idea is, you want five people. They don’t have to be, and shouldn’t, be the five people above.

All groups need to use the same five people.

Then move onto five events. 

Here are some things that always happen in Cupertino, according to my students, at least this year:

  1. Someone breaks their phone or another significant piece of technology.
  2.  An online conversation.
  3. People meet for Boba tea. ( a form of tea with tapioca in it popular with some Asian students),
  4.  There is an event of academic dishonesty.
  5. There is a bromance ( an intense friendship between two guys). 
  6. There is an academic competition.
  7. Something goes wrong on clubs day.

You can allow students to tailor make the situations to your school. The idea is, they should be general enough to be universally applicable. Stay away from things that are tied to race or gender, let the kids figure it out as it applies to your world.

So they now have five people and five situations that they own. They must use all five people and all five situations to write an original script, which will then be performed for the class.  You can also give them standard titles, based on things that are said around your school or current teenspeak. They love them, and they help them frame the story. This year, our plays were called:

  • Actually, Though
  • Lol
  • We Feel Good, Oh We Feel So Good ( a reference to one of our spirit chants)
  • I Literally Can’t Even
  • Quick Question
  • What the…?

TIMELINE

Day 1-2 Groups assign roles, name their characters, and write a summary of a proposed plot.

Day 2-3 Two members of each group pitch the project to the class and to you. This is a tough exercise, and well worth it. You can figure out which groups are gelling, and clarify any issues with story construction before they get out of control.

Day 3-4. Introduce standard professional playwriting format. One way to make this easier for students is to use a program like Celtx, which students can access through a free trial in order to help them format their script. It’s never too early to introduce this skill and it makes it easier for students who go on to really want to write to submit their work to professional contests and the like. Plus, because the groups are fairly large the students can teach each other.

Day 4-5-6 Students create a draft of their script and conduct a readthrough of their first scene in front of the class.  This allows you to quickly assess whether groups are on track.

Day 6-7-8 Students work with the script they have created (check for multiple copies and support this as necessary) to block their play.

Day 7-8 Students should have a production meeting where they cover where they are in the memorization process, who is bringing/making props and costumes and what furniture they will need to use from the class stock if you have that. and lights and sound if you want them to do that, as simple as flipping the lights on and off, or playing sound effects on the class sound system or speakers off their phones.  If you want a form for this, I just made one. Email me and I’ll send it to you.

Day 9-10. Final touchups on the projects, students rehearsing in their groups. Maybe an opportunity for two groups to watch each other and give feedback, something I call a watch it.

Now you are ready for performances.

If you have steered the boat correctly, there will be a great deal of excitement on performance day as students rush around.

I assess these (and I’ll send you the rubric if you want it) on preparation, script quality, characterization, voice, blocking, and pace, which includes smoothness of set changes.  I want a well-rehearsed, well-executed play which shows that actors worked together and understand basic principles of characterization, staging, and performance skills.

Try this out and let me know how you like it the next time you find yourself with a vast expanse of untrammelled time between projects. I’d love to know how it works in other places.

The Kids are Alright: How SNL Missed the Mark

We interrupt our gentle exploration of drama class pedagogy for something completely different.

Perhaps you saw this today?

https://screen.yahoo.com/snl/high-school-theater-show-074944587.html

It’s  Saturday Night Live’s  sketch entitled “High School Theatre Show” .  Knowing what I do, friends were joyously sharing it on my Facebook wall. They expected me to be amused. Sorry, but I’m not. And I’m not sorry.

It’s a sketch  that satirizes high school students doing an experimental theatre collage regarding social issues. It involves moving black boxes around. Too much. That’s the joke. The other jokes are about how the “parents hate to think the kids think they’re teaching them”, and how the kids are unprofessional, and have seven intermissions, and think it’s powerful to walk around in character during them, and how doing expressionistic theatre about social issues is pathetically laughable.

And it’s lame. It’s lamer than any high school play I’ve ever seen, or any high school theatre festival offering I’ve ever seen, because of this reason.  It’s lame because it’s mean spirited, and aggressively, well, a tool of the oppressor.  It’s lame because it sends the message that theatre at its most accessible, youth theatre,  has nothing to teach us.

It involves parents depicted as well-heeled adults, who don’t remember what it’s like to be kids, looking back awkwardly at students’ attempts to be creative, to engage with the world, to say something. It involves an audience of such adults,  who are too jaded to care if their kids are trying to say something. And it mocks the roots of where most of these adults actually come from. We’re supposed to watch it, and laugh at these other adults, playing teenagers  trying to say something, and having that rejected by the people who are supposed to love and support them.

And that, well, that’s a problem. You want an authentic experience, full of struggle and dedication and the desperate attempt at connection to a higher plane of human communion? Go see a high school play. The experience is vastly, tediously underrated by entertainment, by academia, and by society at large. It’s where it all begins, and attention should be paid.

Elliot Eisner said that the arts symbolize to kids what adults think are important. And when we gleefully,  (yeah, I went there) and at a high level, mock the arts and their place in education from our snarky, high finance chairs, we aren’t using our powers for good.  And in an increasing culture of the corporatization of, well, everything, public education included, and a general climate of complete misinformation when it comes to the value of the arts, I find this particular offering from SNL unnecessary.

You probably think I’m taking myself too seriously as a teacher, or overvaluing what my kids can do, that I’m blinded by love. Maybe. But it’s this love that gets kids through high school, that gives them a chance at determining their own paths, that allows them to find their unique potential in the world. This love opens doors. This love changes lives. This love, and the love of the arts that it fosters and engenders,  puts more and more  self-aware, creative, alive people into our society.

So point your snark elsewhere, Saturday Night Live. At the world’s real hypocrites. Not those who will eventually shape its creative destiny.

The kids are alright.  Leave them alone.  And clap once in awhile.

Status Update: Masters and Servants 3

23 carlstrass

Masters and Servants is ultimately an exercise in typecasting. The word has a negative connotation for many drama students, and  some instructors. But typecasting works to tell a story,  and may help students to learn how to create a character through making choices.

This will describe the summative evaluation for this work, the Master/Servant scene, adapted from the works of Keith Johnstone for work in your classroom. For Parts 1 and 2 of this work, look back. Otherwise read on.

Masters and Servants are the building blocks of archetypes.  At one end of the spectrum, excuse the genderism,  is the King, the Sovereign,  and at the other end? The Fool. The only person who can tell the King the truth.

If you don’t think these images resonate with students, you’re not paying attention. Their lives are about status, who has it, who doesn’t, how to get it. In their peer groups, in their classrooms, at home. Letting them play with this in your classroom is very important. Because the drama classroom is a safe and sacred space to tell the truth. 

WARMUP

Sovereign, Warrior, Carer, Fool. From Philip Cumbus’s workshop through  Globe Education at the Shakespeare Works When Shakespeare Plays Conference ( I’m telling you, you gotta go!)

Sovereign- You can come at this out of a circle, or out of a mill and seethe.  Students raise their hands and put a “crown” on their head. Feeling the weight of the crown, they walk around the room being the King or Queen. You can put music on with this, I use “Hail to the Chief.”  When you notice raised chins, slow steps, great posture, and level eyecontact, praise that. They’re doing  “The Sovereign. ”

Warrior- Move one hand to the heart and the other to the side and up like they’re holding a sword. Tell them to cut a path through the air, without touching each other. Put on something suitably fighty, like the theme song to the Pirates of the Caribbean. The movie. Not the ride.

Fool-  Flex the feet. Bend the knees. Saunter up to other people, and when you meet them, spin around and snap at them while smiling.  This will cause much merriment. Put on “Be a Clown”.  Played by a Wurlitzer.

Carer- Hard for some. Put hands at heart. Walk slowly up to your classmates and open your hands in a gesture of opening your heart to the others. Use something sweet and cosmic. I like Lisa Gerrard’s “Now We are Free” from Gladiator, mostly because it makes kids suddenly go “Oh, this is from Gladiator!” while they are awkwardly connecting to each other.

Stop.  Send the students to four corners of the room according to the following direction:

Go where you felt the most comfortable. Sovereigns. over here by the stereo. Warriors, there by my desk. Fools, by the window. Carers, by the door.

Now tell the groups to work together for one minute to create a sculpture of the best things about being each archetype. Assign a group to go first, have everyone else just sit in their places in the quadrant, this works best without moving into proscenium mode.

You’ll see:

  • A Sovereign generously giving to his or her people while they look up to him or her with loyalty.
  • Warriors protecting the weak and fragile.
  • Fools entertaining and unifying a crowd.
  • Carers supporting the downtrodden.

If this is not what you see, or something like it, ask them what they were going for.  This exercise is a “powers for good” exercise, a sun side and shadow side exercise, and we’re about to get to the shadow.  We can’t display the shadow in an unsafe environment.

Then have them go to the area where they were the least comfortable. Watch where kids go and store that data for later. It’s pretty revealing of your class culture. A lot of warriors and fools? That’s a different class than one with a lot of sovereigns and carers. We think we know what we want them to be, don’t we?

Repeat the exercise.

You’ll see:

  • A Sovereign raised up on the backs of people while their people starve and are silenced.
  • A Warrior alone among a field of dead bodies. Or no one left.
  • Fools excluding and mocking one person so that they are completely emotionally ruined.
  • Carers smothering or tearing apart those they care for.

Ask them what they noticed.  The idea here is that people “get” certain types of things about certain characters, and can create aspects of character that are universally recognizable. Then put everybody into proscenium and move onto:

MASTERS AND SERVANT EXAMPLE SCENES

From Johnstone.

HAVE A SEAT-  Put a chair onstage. Ask for a Master volunteer and a Servant. Send the Servant to the periphery (just offstage, but better, onstage and visible) The private, or public conversation you have with the Master is as follows:

Invite your servant in. Tell them it’s ok to sit in your chair, offer them a snack, and at some point, let them know they’ve crossed the line. Try to make this moment spectacular.

Tell the Servant: You’re not comfortable accepting favors from the Master, but eventually give in, even though you know it probably won’t end well.

Purpose: Get Masters comfortable with throwing tantrums. Get Servants comfortable with pushing limits.

Repeat this with a couple of volunteers.

IT WAS YOUR IDEA:  A Servant-driven scene.  Servant’s goal? To use every challenge as an excuse to glorify or assuage the Master. Master simply needs to keep picking.  Send a Servant to the periphery. Give the Master the first line:

Master:  Servant! Why are you wearing that ridiculous uniform?

Servant: It’s Your birthday, Sir. (or Ma’am).

Alternately: “Servant! Why doesn’t this coffee have sugar in it?” “It’s already in there, Sir. ”

APPETITE FOR DESTRUCTION: Another Servant-driven scene. Servant makes it worse and worse and the master buys it.

Master: Servant! Why are you wearing that ridiculous uniform?

Servant: I burned the other one.

After a few rounds of these, they are perhaps ready to put together the scenario, available on my TPT site along with some of these exercises and a rubric you can customize.

THE SCENARIO

1. The Servant helps the Master get ready for an important event.

2. The Master is called away ( a meeting, a phone call, a costume fitting). He or she leaves the servant with specific instructions. Pick all the lentils out of the fire. Don’t sit in my chair. Put Ms. Edwina back in the bowl. Whatever.

3.  The Servant, left alone,  disobeys, fails to accomplish, or sabotages the Master’s direct orders.

4. The Master returns and punishes or fires the Servant.

That’s it. Request that this is what happens in the scenes. If you have a group of three, have the Master fire a servant in the first scene, bring on the second, have that servant disobey, and then be fired and the first one rehired. Simple.

Give them most of a class period to put these together. If performances run over, give five minutes at the beginning of the next class to reconnect.  Encourage whimsy, loudness, and absurdity. Discourage perversion, cruelty, and equality. Push them out of their comfort zones by encouraging them to laugh wierdly, have complete meltdowns, and be arrogant, lazy, and codependent.

If a scene is boring or cruel, stop it and make them redo it. If there are a couple of students who totally get this, and there always are, or if you have TA’s, have them mentor the students.

Ask them what they noticed.

 

 

 

Status Update: Masters and Servants 1

You know how sometimes it’s hard for drama students to figure out what to do with themselves onstage? How they fidget, or pace, or mumble, or  have no idea how to engage their face, causing the general world to dismiss “the high school play” as a cute rite of passage that creates an intolerable audience experience and isn’t really worth attending unless you know a kid?

It doesn’t have to be that way.  A huge part of creating a mesmerizing work with adolescent actors is teaching them about a simple defining principle of theatre. Status.  Drama is at its core about the exchange of power. Not only are people not created equal onstage, they frequently spend entire plays locked in these unequal paradigms, much to the satisfaction of the audience. This miraculous concept can provide a map for blocking, for character analysis, and for the deep pursuit of the actor’s objective.

If you want to read a lot about this, read a book called Impro by the founder of TheatreSports, Keith Johnstone. It’s a bit pricy for a paperback, and it is worth every penny and you will keep it forever. It describes the philosophy behind the Masters and Servants, the project I’m going to explain as it plays out in improvisational scenarios.  This week will cover how to introduce the topic.

If you are uncomfortable with the monikers “Master” and “Servant”, “Boss” and “Employee” work just as well.  The main thing is to teach the concept of status.

WARMUP

The A’s and the B’s- Tas Emiabata from Globe Education gave me this one at the Shakespeare Works When Shakespeare Plays Conference, which is a truly amazing conference for English and Theatre teachers, annual, and worth attending if you can get there.

Students walk randomly, neutrally. Tell them that they are A’s, they own everything in the space, that they are surrounded by people who also own everything, and that they should greet everyone they see with a nice bright high five. Now they should vocalize, cheering when they greet the other people. Let this grow to a great celebration.

Stop them. Tell them that they don’t own as much, that they still should walk around and greet each other, but this time, they should acknowledge each other in a more mellow way, by doing a low five. Oh, and they should keep one hand over their heart, so they only have one hand to use.

Stop them. Walk into the group and split it down the middle. Tell one half of the group that they are A’s, and the other that they are B’s. Tell each side to mingle, but only acknowledge other people from their group. Let them do that for a few minutes.

Ask them what they noticed. They might say:

  • I felt like I was better than the B’s.
  • I felt like I didn’t want to go near the A’s
  • I felt embarrassed to be an A.
  • I felt sorry for the B’s.
  • I felt depressed to be a B.

Have them sit down.  Time to talk about status.

TEACHERS

Keith Johnstone begins his discussion of status with a discussion of teachers, and it’s a great place to start. So, ask them:

How do teachers keep their status? What do you notice about their behavior?

They might say

  • The teacher gives grades
  • The teacher gives directions
  • The teacher tells us what to do.
  • The teacher can eat and use her phone and we can’t.
  • The teacher is the authority on the subject matter

Ask for specific things teachers do. You might get:

  • They stand up and walk around.
  • They have a loud voice.
  • They make eye contact.

If you can handle it, sit down on the floor. With them. Ask them what has changed.

They might say: You’re just like us now. Ask how you’re keeping your status if you’re on the floor with them. They might say more things about voice, or eye contact.

or try: Lowering your head and inserting some ums and uhs into talking. Ask them what has changed. They just might tell you that you’ve lowered your status.

Ask them about low status things teachers do. For your information, here they are.

  • Try to be friends with the kids
  • Get emotional and talk too much about their personal life ( the same critique is not offered for getting emotional out of say, pride at student’s accomplishments)
  • Sit behind their desk and don’t move
  • Leave the classroom
  • Refuse to admit we don’t know the answer when we clearly don’t.
  • Overuse our yelling voice.
  • Favor or target students
  • Tolerate misbehavior

Ask them how students raise their status in such a classroom.  You may get:

  • make an alliance against the teacher
  • make jokes
  • take the fall for others
  • get the teacher off topic
  • go limp and refuse to do the work

Tell them to hold these thoughts. Move on to an exercise.

PLAYING CARD PARTY

You’ll need between 6-10 playing cards, both high and low, depending on how many students you want to put onstage at once. Call up your volunteers.

Hand each one a playing card, face out so the student can’t see it, and have each student hold it to his or her forehead with one finger.

Tell the students to pretend they’re at a party, and treat the other performers like their card says to, gaining information about who they are based on how people treat them. Point out that someone might ask a lower status person to get them something, while they might complement a higher status person in order to get close to them.  Let them run with this.

Ask them then to line up according to where they think they are in the pecking order.

Ask them who they think they are and why, and have them look at their cards.

High status people (Kings, Queens, Aces, Jacks, ) will say things like:

  • People were bowing to me.
  • People wanted to be friends with me.
  • People kept saying nice things to me.

Low Status people (3’s, 4’s and 2’s)  will say things like:

  • People wouldn’t talk to me.
  • They wanted me to get me stuff.
  • They laughed at me.

Sometimes, people in the middle will have these revelations:

  • People basically treated me totally normally.
  • Half the people ignored me, half the people wanted to hang out with me.

A MODIFICATION FOR ADVANCED CLASSES OR EXTREMELY COMPETENT BEGINNERS

For fun, redo the exercise one more time, and this time add a Joker. Take note of where the Joker ends up. Some classes place him high, some low, some right in the middle.  In a more advanced class, this can be a great way to talk about:

  • the power of laughter
  • archetypical tricksters such as Coyote, Anansi, or Ganesh
  • the fool’s position as the only one who can talk to the King
  • Medieval Theatre Guilds positioning “the devil” as a comic character
  • Dark Knight Returns, Heath Ledger, Jack Nicholson, and the actor’s obligation to create  boundaries with certain roles

Any and all of these exercises and discussions will help students get ready for The Master/Servant Scene, or if that’s a tad too Depeche Mode, the Boss/Employee Scene. In the next installment, I’ll present more into games and discuss different types of masters and servants. Until then, consider updating your status based on what you now know.

 

The Great Floorplan Exchange: Elevating Scenework

For student actors to be effective, it helps to understand the language of designers and directors. Here are two projects using floorplans that will do just that.

In order to use these projects with your students, it will help to have  copies of floorplan symbols. I use the one Viola Spolin offers in THEATRE GAMES FOR THE CLASSROOM.  I have a laminated set for my room. You’ll find having access to this book very useful. It contains complete descriptions of many games and concepts that can be adapted or used outright with students in kindergarten through adulthood. There is a copy of the first assignment available at Drama Class Now’s store for peanuts. Consider picking up a copy to make your life easier!

You will also need:

  • Printer paper
  • playing cards (optional)

Last week, in Location Location Location,  I gave you some ideas for using “where” warmups and exercises to get students talking about creating space. Those warmups will create a great into for this work.

THE GREAT FLOORPLAN EXCHANGE

DAY 1-Prior to this, you will have wanted to teach them the terms you use to designate stage directions (Upstage and Downstage, Stage Right and Left and Center Stage and all the spaces in between.) I usually teach this the same day, by having them create a grid of these directions on the back of the sheet they’ll be using for the floorplan.

Students work in pairs. I usually have them confer and decide who the great visual artist is of the two, and let the other kid label the stage directions from above before the “artist” works on the floorplan. Each pair of students should receive a piece of printer paper, a playing card, and a copy of some floorplan symbols. They can use the  card as a ruler and a box guide to label their floorplans in the lower left hand corner, like a professional set designer would, or if you don’t want to get that schmancy, that’s ok. I have them put their names, their class period, and then “THE GREAT FLOORPLAN EXCHANGE: LIVING ROOM” or whatever room they’re going to design.

This is also a great time to work with scale, say 1/4 inch equals 1 foot, if you’d like.  Students can now create a room- tell them it has to have 3 to 5 elements in it, and the elements should be practical. Explain that they’re not trying to create an inexplicable fantasy room, even though they want to, although you certainly good use this assignment to do that.  Explain that they need to draw their room from a “birds eye” view, so from above.

Have them turn these in. Do something else.

DAY 2-  Same partners, but nobody gets back their floorplan. Hand out the floorplans to some other partnership. I usually walk around and say “Hey Ryan and Anushka, do you guys want Michelle and Candace’s floorplan, or Tony and Kapil’s floorplan?” And then they state a preference, and I give them that one, until every partnership has something they didn’t draw. Now the fun begins. The pair must come up with a scene that’s set in this space they didn’t create. And they have to exactly use what the other people drew. In the place they put it in. So if the TV is on the back wall, facing the wrong direction, this should be justified.

Also, LIMIT THEIR DIALOGUE. Last time I gave them 3 lines of dialogue.  I started with 2 lines and added a bonus line at the last minute. This keeps the scene focused on ACTION, which is the summative skill here, use of the space. It also keeps the scenes from dragging on and on.

Give them five minutes to talk and fifteen minutes on their feet. If you have rehearsal furniture, tell them to figure out what they are using. Then have them start performing them. They should set up, slate,  see This is Our Masterpiece for how to do that, and then perform.

What are they learning?

  • They’re learning to work with staging conditions that they can’t control.
  • They’re learning to collaborate with each other.
  • They’re learning to see other’s point of view and turn it towards something productive.
  • They’re learning not to blame other people for circumstances in their own work.
  • They’re learning to solve problems, quickly, to create products, quickly.
  • They’re learning about blocking.
  • They’re learning about the basics of set design.
  • They’re learning that onstage action translates to storytelling. 

Have fun with this one.

Got Advanced students? Second semester beginners? Need to find a set designer in your ranks? Want to kick it up a notch?

LOCATION LOCATION LOCATION- An Adler inspired project using the floorplans

The great acting teacher Stella Adler had her students describe rooms and the people who inhabited them, wanting the actor to use his or her life of the mind to fully get into someone else’s experience with truth and detail. Here’s a multipart project which takes the designer into the world of the actor/writer/pitchman, then back out to design.

You’ll need:

  • Printer paper
  • Playing Cards
  • Location descriptions
  • 3 by 5 cards
  • Clear tape
  • Cardboard floors to build models on
  • Markers or colored pencils
  • Rulers, tape measures, or yardsticks

DAY ONE-  Before you hand out floorplans to partnerships ( I recommend random partners, at least every other assignment, instead of letting them choose partners, which leads to a culture of social exclusion and cliques)  have each partner choose a place description. You’ll need 10-20, depending on how much choice you want students to have.   I selected my most recent list from the openings of scenes from major world theatre. Here are some examples.

The living room/kitchen of a rural cottage in the west of Ireland. 

McLean, Virginia, a wealthy suburb of Washington DC, around the corner from the Kennedys. The living room and a guest bedroom in the Pascal’s house. Thanksgiving, during a hurricane, some 20 years after JFK’s assassination. 

An open space before the royal palace at Thebes. 

An apartment above a storefront church in Harlem, NY. 

I type these up and pairs get a choice between two. Once they have these, they create floorplans for them. This is a deeper assignment than the first one. It requires research, and I am merciless. Once they’ve figured out their floorplan, I interview pairs about what is on their stage. They only have the information on their slip of paper, but I expect they’ve done the research. This gives them a chance to fix it before the next step.

DAY 2- I give them this direction.

“Work with your partner to tell the EMOTIONAL STORY of the FICTIONAL PEOPLE who inhabited the room you created.Root the story in SPECIFIC PROPS, COSTUMES, OR PIECES OF ARCHITECTURE that are significant. Prepare a rehearsed story that you tell with your partner on the set you set up according to the floorplan. NOT A SCENE. A STORY.”

Some of the students research the plays these selections come from, some elect to create fictional scenarios. Much like Rosencrantz and Guilderstern are Dead, some of these stories become riffs on real plays, some are completely imagined. I let them choose if the detail is good.

It takes students time to grasp that what I want them to do is set up an empty room, then walk around it, telling us what happened there, But once they get that, it’s awesome.  It’ll take them about two days to perform these after they get them set, longer if you have a lot of students, like I do.

I want these stories to…

  • Show us the room
  • Make us feel for the people
  • Ground a conflict in symbolism

And the best ones do.

DAY 5, 6 Once performances are concluded, it’s time to make white models.  The students use their scale floorplans to elevate their drawings, and build flats out of index cards, which they then stand up and brace with tape. Some of them color them in and add 3-D touches.

They are faced with an additional layer, that of realizing their floorplans as sets and thus masking their back walls, which I encourage them to do as practically as possible for our theatre, so they build cycs, legs, and projection walls as well as entire walls of back flats.

DAY 7-  Using the Gallery Walk technique, we set up the models, and one team member stays to explain while the other walks around, then we switch. All students have a post-it or another token to give to their favorite model. Their pitches should include the following info:

  • What they were trying to accomplish in terms of mood and theme of their model
  • How they went about it
  • What challenges they faced and how they handled them

After the pitches, we ask the top 3 teams to present their models, and listen to general comments from the audience- eg “if you picked this one, why?” or “If you didn’t pick this one, why not?”

What they’re learning

  • The power of research
  • Accepting given circumstances
  • Creating an effective presentation with a partner
  • Working off someone else in a pitch
  • Realizing imaginary ideas
  • Owning a story
  • Improvising to cover mistakes
  • Time management
  • The relationship between designer, director, and actor in realizing a story

In short, floorplan projects are a great way to engage students in the skills they will need for mainstage production in a low-stakes environment. Floorplan activities stretch both design and acting muscles and require students to commit to making choices and value the power of research and design in bringing a product to life.  Floorplan work is a fun way to force your actors to think and your designers to feel.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Building Trust in the Room

I hear from many theatre teachers who do not fundamentally trust their students, and whose students do not trust each other. Teaching drama is a tough job because the rules of a typical classroom often don’t quite fit.  Trust in the theatre classroom cannot be a state without boundaries, but it is entirely fundamental to the process of teaching a good class and allowing students to truly thrive and grow.  No amount of contracts, posted rules, or forced participation through points can create this for you. Restricting your students access to the bathroom, tallying their tardies, and punishing them with the gradebook will not make them trust you, unless you are also creating a curriculum where they don’t want to miss a minute. Fostering an atmosphere of intense competition constructed from unfair comparisons and favoritism will also not help your room. If you’re strict, that’s cool. If you believe you are creating discipline in your students by controlling these little personal behaviors, maybe you are.  But if they don’t feel right, and you can, try making it a bit easier on yourself and on them.  If you are just, they will trust.

Being just is different than than being fair. Being  just means differentiating learning, and juggling multiple interactions with your students.  It means giving students opportunities to monitor their own behavior,  to self soothe, to take care of each other, and to promote from within. It means you don’t allow your room to be taken over or students to be systemically ostracized. It means creating a physically and psychologically safe space, and confronting it when you or students make it unsafe, and restoring it to that place of safety.

You create trust in your room through establishing an atmosphere of trust through the practice of trust exercises,  being trustworthy and expecting trustworthiness in return. Trust exercises are only one part of that.

TRUST EXERCISES

First of all, if you’re playing whole group games with your students, trust is already building, as long as you’re working with them on inclusion and cooperation. If you feel sheepish or uncomfortable about working with your students on the concept of trust, it will shine through. If you don’t trust them to trust each other, well, that’s something to think about.  They’ve seen a lot of Youtube videos where people have fallen down. So start small and build, using the WHOLE GROUP to connect into raising, rather than falling, trust.

I used to give  blindfolds to students and let them lead each other around the campus in pairs.  I used to fill rooms full of obstacles and let them coach each other across. Both of those activities were overly time consuming, sloppy, and there was always some kid who ran into something, and that’s obviously not what we want.

So I suggest the following sequence.

RUN IN

Stand in a circle. Invite students to remain quiet and sense when it’s time to “run in”, towards the center of the circle. Tell them don’t signal, don’t make eye contact, just try to feel when. They will quickly try to go before they feel anything. Pull them back. Tell them to take a deep breath, wait, and….they’ll try it again. Do this a few times. Praise them for going all at the same time.

CROSS THE CIRCLE

Stand in a circle. Students cross the circle one at a time, again without signalling. Just feeling the room.  This does two things. It helps the students pay attention to their own impulse, to the impulse of the group, and it mixes up the group, which breaks up cliques who like to stand next to each other and distract each other.

BLIND CIRCLE

Stand in a circle. You go first. Yes, you. You close your eyes, and say, “Hey, kids, notice that I am crossing the circle, and that my eyes are closed. When I reach the edge of the circle, please reach out and gently redirect me by quickly touching my shoulder.”

You will reach the edge. You will feel a tentative little shove on your shoulder. It will send you walking to the other side, where you will feel it again. Do this a couple more times and then open your eyes and ask who wants to go . Let everyone go who wants to. Do not talk while the student’s eyes are closed and they are being redirected. It feels scary.  Be vigilant about sharp corners or breaks in the circle. Make it clear that we are keeping people safe.

I have never been hurt or humiliated during this exercise, and I’ve done it many times with many groups of students. I have never had a student hurt during it either. If the unthinkable should happen and a kid should shove too hard, which sometimes students do to their friends, meaning to be playful.  stop the exercise, ask the overly zealous shover to step out of the room and settle down, and keep going with at least one more student so that they get that this is important and worthwhile.  If that’s impossible, shelve it and repeat it the next day. Move on to Brags and Accomplishments below.

But if this went well,  move on to:

RAISING TRUST

This exercise is from the teacher’s manual to an old textbook called THEATRE, ART IN ACTION published by Glencoe McGraw Hill. You may be able to get a used copy online by poking around. It contains numerous interesting exercises and projects.  I always start this exercise by bringing up unpleasant Youtube trust fall videos. So that I can assure them that that’s not what we’re going to do.

Go to four circles, or groups of at least ten and not more than twelve. Ask for a volunteer, a young woman if possible, because young women have more trouble with this exercise.  Ask them to lie down on the floor, feet together, arms crossed across their chest.

Station one person at their head, hands underneath it.  Another person goes to their feet, hands pressing down on the tops of their shoes. At least three people go to each side, hands flat under their back, upper and lower legs.

The control of this exercise begins with the person being lifted. They  say “One, Two Three”, and then the group lifts them TO STANDING by holding down their feet and raising them to a vertical position.

In their circles, ask for 2/3 of the group to participate. When they are done, tell them to sit on the floor.

Ask them what it was like if they went, or if they didn’t.

The next day, you can try

RAISING TRUST TOO

Same exact exercise and setup, only this time, after the student is raised to standing, the other students keep their hands where they are and guide the student back down to the floor.

PROBLEMS WITH RAISING TRUST AND HOW TO COMBAT THEM

The person being lifted bend their knees and try to help while coming up, resulting in a botched lift. Monitor and encourage them to take a deep breath and repeat.

Larger students don’t feel they can be easily lifted or experience a botched lift.  in my experience, most students can be lifted if they allow themselves to be. Encourage everyone to pitch in to help. Big kids need body confidence as much as we all do.  Deep breath, repeat.

Female students feel uncomfortable. Address this before you repeat this exercise.  Call it like you see it. Make sure groups are as equal as possible with regards to gender. Ask the students if they want to be in a classroom where half of the people can’t do one of the exercises because of fear. They will say no. Stress to students that even casual comments about someone’s body while they are in a lift can cause the person to feel like they are unsafe.

3 GOALS, 3 BRAGS

If all went well, your students are now sitting in nice little discussion circles. Hand out index cards or half sheets and pencils. Have students write down three things they could brag about and  three goals they have for themselves this year. THEY DO NOT HAVE TO BE RELATED TO SCHOOL.   Let students share something from the card, either a brag or a share, with each other. Float around and don’t really listen too hard.

Drama students need to know they can trust the room, a small group, or another individual with information, emotions, and their working body. These exercises can bring them closer to getting to that place. You can help bring them the rest of the way.

 

 

 

This is Our Masterpiece: On Presenting, Rehearsing, and Responding to Student Performance in Class

Were your students born knowing how to rehearse and give helpful feedback after class performances? Mine sure weren’t. Luckily, it’s a teachable skill.

We tell our students to “rehearse” because we know it’s the key to good classroom presentations and of course to good theatre. But do we break down the process for them into manageable chunks? If our students are not rehearsing independently as well as they should,  are there strategies we can implement to make their time more productive?

THIS IS OUR MASTERPIECE- TEACHING STUDENTS TO SLATE

The first “performance” my students ever give is an extremely brief one. It’s called “This is Our Masterpiece” and I’m pretty sure I made it up.

I stand in front of the class and explain to students how to introduce themselves in a line, starting at stage right (audience left) and proceeding down the line ending at stage left (audience right).If I have TA’s who are more advanced, I let them model this. If my class is tentative but there are students who are beginning to show themselves as potential class leaders, I use them as models.  Then I sit down, I take out my roll sheet, and I call them up in groups of about 5 to try it.

It goes like this. They line up. Then, from their right, and our left, they introduce:

Person 1: Hi, I’m Amy.

Person 2: I’m Juan.

Person 3: I’m CJ.

Person 4: I’m Priya.

Person 5: I’m David. And this is our Masterpiece.

That’s it. It’s a very short performance, we clap loudly, then move onto the next group. I tell my students that this is called a slate, which is what it’s called when students introduce themselves in a competition or an audition. I tell them to do this before every class performance, that they can use “Masterpiece” as default titles for scenes that don’t have titles.  This helps with our class culture and procedure in several ways:

  • In the beginning of the year, it helps you learn names and identify cliques so that you can decide whether to let students choose their own groups for projects. I advocate for a mixed approach. They choose their groups for some projects, I choose for others. Letting students repeatedly choose their partners results in an unfocused class where rivalries and power struggles outstrip the work of the ensemble.  Just because it’s drama class doesn’t mean it has to be anarchy.
  • It gives students practice in introducing themselves, which means that over time, they stop fidgeting, mumbling, and shuffling their feet, as well as looking less awkward and ironic, which translates into better work.
  • When students reach more advanced levels of theatre and start competing, as my Advanced Honors students do, and auditioning in other places,  as my preprofessional students begin to do, introductions are second nature. “Masterpiece” becomes “A Selection from Death of a Salesman, where I will be playing Biff”, or whatever.
  • It teaches students about “the first 15 seconds” onstage. A lackluster introduction generally breeds a low-energy performance. Introducing means they need to learn to fake it till they make it, which is valuable.

REHEARSAL PROCEDURES

Now that they know how to present a performance, it’s time to get down to the details of how to rehearse. You probably love theatre and love to rehearse, and so when you get a new script or devised assignment, you work on it with your group members until it’s good or good enough.

Why don’t our students do the same thing?  Because they don’t know how.

I start out by telling my students that they need to get it fixed in their head that any scene for class that does not include text needs to be run three times on its feet. On its feet means up and running, not “sitting around and talking about what they’re going to do while sneaking  glances at their phones.”

To enforce this, I break the rehearsal process up for them by acting as an activity leader for it. I assign the task, explain it, provide a model if appropriate or feasible, and then give them 5-10 minutes to talk about it. This talk should include the who what where when why of the scene and then of course difficulties (big moments such as violence, affection, or emotion) as well as the stage pictures the audience will see.

I then call “On Your Feet”, which means get up, find furniture/props, and start running it.

ON YOUR FEET

  • Identify and REHEARSE difficult moments. (violence, affection, emotional outpourings)
  • Up on your feet. Get furniture you need. Create the space- entrances and exits.
  • Walk it through, identifying stage pictures.
  • Run it with a rough idea of who’s going where.
  • Run it again.
  • Run it again until you can do the entire thing with no script or if there is no script, no stops.  Run it and have someone watch.*
  • Run it until it’s ready or you run out of time, whichever comes first. And then every time you’re going to perform it, run it again.

If grading a project takes longer than one day ( four groups perform one day, but you don’t get to everyone) give 5 minutes for a quick run the next day.

*For a longer project, they then should get some other students to Watch It before it performs for the class.

WATCH IT

Although basically unnecessary for a short scene,  a “Watch It” period can provide structure and enhance rehearsal of a longer project. Have students pair up with another group, run their piece,  and give feedback (positive and improvement).  If you’d like students to be accountable for this piece or want to practice Aesthetic Valuing skills, you can have students record their progress on a half sheet or in a journal.

THE MEMORIZATION TEST

Memorization, crucial to the actor who performs in a mainstage show, is often extremely difficult for beginning performers and often stands in their way of effective scenework of pieces that involve text.  If your students are having trouble with memorization, try the simple “first 10 lines”  memorization test.  Have students get in their groups and work rapidly to try to memorize the “first 10 lines” of their scenes.  Give them no more than 10 minutes. Then give them a 1/4 sheet and have them “test” each other on lines. A perfect score would be no line calls, a B would be one to two line calls, a C would be two or more, under that redo.

AUDIENCE RESPONSE

If you allow your students to be critical of each other’s work, it will inhibit everyone’s natural creativity and create a caste system in your class. If you never allow them to respond to each other’s work, it will create a disingenuous, unchallenging environment where you have far too much power.  You’re between a rock and a hard place. Therefore, I advocate for the following strategies to build a healthy, curious, inquiry based environment.

ASK THE ACTORS

It’s done all the time in college classes and on Reality TV competitions. Do it gently. You teach high school.  Let’s say that Daniel and Kadisha have just performed a duo scene. Ask them to stay up there. They are now experiencing  self evaluation.

Ask Daniel to say what he liked about the scene.

Ask Kadisha to add what she felt they may have improved upon.

ASK THE AUDIENCE WHAT THEY NOTICED

Ask the audience what, as the great teacher Kevin Costa says, they noticed.
Ask two members, one of whom is raising his or her hand, one of whom is not. Keeps them on their toes. If you don’t get an answer from somebody, come back to them next time. Keep track. Make them participate.

CREATE THE RUBRIC AS YOU GO

You probably write a lot of the same comments on rubrics, and you probably find that they don’t contain the scope of what’s happening in a performance. Here are comments I write constantly in Beginning and Advanced Theatre Classes.

Energy in Intro. Set Stage before Slate. Share the Stage Picture. Share Your Voice. Find Truth in Dialogue. Cheat Out. Don’t let Set Upstage You. Make Gestures Specific. Use the Space to Tell the Story.

I learned the following technique from the English Department at my school, who created targeted feedback responses for students aimed at helping them understand how to improve on essays, and modified it for Drama class. I was already giving notes to the casts of mainstage shows, and I am noticing that this is an excellent way to begin training for students to learn to pay attention to notes.

I suggest doing an ungraded “free trial” of this technique before you start using in in assessment, but after trying it you may become a believer.

1.Set up the points for a particular assignment.  (10, 5, 6, whatever you do).  Let me model this for a 5 point assignment.

2. When the first group performs, they are group 1. Make sure you have their names on an index card (they can just fill these out and give them to you) or a little grade sheet, or whatever. It’s important for students to remember what group number they are because they will be looking at the feedback and identifying the feedback as a group.

3. Watch group 1’s performance and write down the comments in the areas where they seem to fit.

  • Positive comments are in the 5 zone. Great Characters. Creative Intro. Nice Energy. Good Use of Stage Picture.
  • Maintenance/what if comments are in the 4 zone. Share your voice. Cheat Out.Share the Stage Picture. Raise the Stakes.
  • Improvement comments are perhaps in the 3 zone. Raise energy on intro. Find Focus. Use Space to Tell the Story. Keep Hair Out of Face.
  • Redo/Not Yet- Is the scene incomprehensible? Poorly planned? Stop ‘em. Send ‘em out to rehearse for five more minutes.

4. When group 2 goes, add to the comments, and so on, until all the groups have performed. You now have a custom sheet of notes for your group, and they see both their positive and improvement areas. Pop it up on the projector or print out six  or however many copies and have the groups look at it.

5. Go around the room. Have each group share out. Have them summarize in one sentence,  what they learned, what they need to work on. Total assessment. Nice wrap-up. The focus is on the ethic of improvement.  And they know they need each other to make them all better.

Because this is their masterpiece. And yours.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Link

WHOLE GROUP MOVEMENT AND THE WORK

We hear a great deal about “class participation” when we are teachers. We encourage it, we grade students for it, we expect that a student who is fully engaged will be a go-getter. The squeaky wheel gets the grease, so as teachers, we enjoy our interactions with our outgoing students, and dread our interactions with the distracted class clowns who seem to be out to get us.

And then there are the rest of the students, those who give us nothing. And we’re not quite sure what we’ve done wrong, or how to make it work for them.

One starting point is to take the pressure off the individual through whole group involvement.

Last week we left off with a Viola Spolin classic game, Dog and Bone, which allows the entire group to participate by allowing the students to switch between what Augusto Boal called “a spect-actor” (Boal, Legislative Theatre 67)  and the audience. The game depends on volunteers switching roles to quickly make something happen, and then regaining their position in the circle. The game does not require that all students “participate”, in fact it values the spectator/audience member for both their spectatorship and their reflection  of the process.

Games like Dog and Bone are vital to play at the beginning of work with students. They are also extremely vital to practice throughout the year because they get the group together, keep the group together, and create opportunities for individuals to grow in a safe space. They do this by allowing students  to observe themselves and others to create awareness without self-consciousness, create without the burden of talent, and perform without acting.

SELF OBSERVATION

Acting teachers and actors alike will tell you that self-observation is key to beginning to create a character, as well as surviving in rehearsal, onstage, and as part of any creative project.

Teenagers  are both intensely self-conscious and narcissistic, and the times we are living in make them ever more so as often every element of their lives, triumphant and awkward, is systematically documented on film and subsequently broadcast to the world by themselves, their parents, and even the educational system in the service of school activities, teaching and learning.  Therefore, asking them to observe themselves or others becomes an exercise in discomfort, often yielding superficial results as they strive to be unoffensive, or unpleasant results as they attempt to deflect the spectacle off themselves. Whole group games eliminate both these extremes and allow them, if they wish, to experience without reporting.

THE WORK

Excited audience members often come up to me at the stage door after shows at Cupertino Actors Theatre and tell me my students are “talented.” These people are supportive, well-meaning and love the students in this community. But this is not a word I use with my students if I can avoid it. The word is overused, and unhelpful when teaching young artists, and it reduces the complex experience of creativity to its dog and pony show result. The best explanation of what folks eventually recognize as talent is that it is an impulse in a young artist that becomes a practice, which becomes an obsession, which reveals itself as what I was raised to call “the divine madness” of being able to produce a performance that captivates. Madness, of course, puts people off, so I use another term from my parents.

The Work.

When you are working with beginning students, they don’t need to worry about talent. Experiment. Let them become concerned with it later. In the beginning, get them instead to do the work. To engage, focus, participate and create.

THE MYTH OF “ACTING”

If watching ourselves and others is difficult, being in the spotlight, even figuratively,  can be excruciating. A lot of  beginning drama students share the same fear. They don’t want to “get up on stage and act”.  And since we, as drama teachers, don’t share this fear, it can be perplexing. So we sometimes tend to gravitate gratefully to the students who are bold, who are funny, who volunteer, and who are not afraid.  We want to make things happen, so we allow these students to perform, and others to “watch”, or we create early, complicated, mandatory performances to encourage them to “get their feet wet”, rather than growing the desire to “dive in” more slowly and organically. Then we wonder why some kids “never want to participate”, or “ruin it for everyone else with their attitude.” It’s the same reason we don’t want to participate in stuff that makes us uncomfortable. It is fear, and it is overcome by the positive peer pressure of simultaneous performance.

GAMES FOR THE GROUP

There are several excellent resources for finding simultaneous whole group games for your students to play.  As I previously mentioned, the work of Augusto Boal, which is rooted in doing theatre with people for people, is an excellent resource for games you can adapt for use with your students. His book, Games for Actors and Non Actors,  is particularly accessible.  Another excellent resource is Viola Spolin’s Theatre Games for The Classroom. A third, more recent and not widely available book is ComedySportz LA’s James Bailey’s great improvisation manual for the classroom, which can be procured through emailing the folks at ComedySportz LA.

These games require the ability to work in a large, open space. If you don’t have a large, open space, consider doing one of the following:

1.Reorganize your desks or tables to create a playing space in the middle of your room.

2.Teach students a system to stack the desks in your classroom and put them back quickly. They enjoy activities like this more than you might imagine.

3. In nice weather, take them outside to the field, a quad or a hallway.

4. In inclement weather, try to use a gym, cafeteria, multipurpose room or other open space. If you get pushback from the powers that be, INVITE THEM TO YOUR CLASS. Not to watch. To play.

CAMERA ABOVE

From Spolin. This is a nice game to start with in the first few weeks because it involves the entire group. Tell them to imagine that there is a “camera above” them, and ask them to form various things, the letter A for example, the number 23, symbols such as the @ sign. Count to 10 on the first one and then give them less and less time to work together to form the thing with each subsequent challenge. If they’re really off, give them a short grace period to “fix it” or “make it extreme.” End each shape with whole group applause.  This game can be used again, and the possibilities are endless. Use it to introduce concepts. Have two large groups race to form the shape. Introduce twists…a busy B, a crazy 8.

The game reinforces cooperation, owning an idea, and improvisation. It does not require students to form levels or relationships, which is why it’s a great opening game for the awkward. They just have to agree to stand somewhere, next to someone else, in a shape they decided on. Progress.

PEOPLE, CABIN, STORM

From Boal. Initial groups of 3, two standing and facing each other, one sitting between them. One person, maybe you, left out. The two who are facing each other raise their hands and press them against each other to form a triangular shelter over the sitting one. They are the cabin. The person below them is the person. If the person left out calls “people”, all the sitting students must switch places. If the person calls “cabin”, all the cabins must disassemble and find someone new with whom to make a cabin. If the person calls storm, EVERYONE must reconfigure. Only one person is left out at a time, because when they call people, cabin or storm, they switch into the game, leaving someone out.

The game is great because it invites the 30 second leader. This person controls the room for a short moment, must make a decision, share their voice, and stick by the decision. The others must creatively make quick choices and stick with them for the duration. Acting.

ATTACKER/DEFENDER

I was introduced to this game at a workshop at Southern Oregon University  during a class hosted by their summer theatre MA program for drama teachers.  It was, I believe, called something like “cure and disease.” The visionary improvisation teacher James Bailey calls it Attacker/Defender. If one of these names bothers you, feel free to make up your own name.

Students walk randomly, a basic tenet of whole group work also known as “milling and seething”, a termed coined by Kevin Coleman of Shakespeare and Company.  He used it during his excellent workshop at the Shakespeare Works When Shakespeare Plays Conference hosted by UC Davis, a conference I thoroughly recommend for anyone interested in play-based instruction for Drama and English classes.   “Milling and Seething”  means they walk without touching each other, without talking to each other, and of course at first without making eye contact inasmuch as they need to to avoid slamming into each other. Tell them to keep walking until you ask them to stop, that you will give further guidance while they are walking.

You’ll find that at first students do one of two things. They all try to go through the middle of the room, creating a logjam, or they all walk in a circle, like a school of fish. Try encouraging them to “fill the space”, that tends to break it up a bit.

Then encourage them to silently identify another performer who he or she is trying to get away from. His or her “attacker” or “disease.” Have them, keeping that person in their periphery, try to walk so they are far away from that person.

Next, have them identify their “defender” or “cure.” Have them keep walking, trying to keep that person in between them and the other person.

They may go nuts with this at first. Running, screaming, whatever. Stop and ask them why. Ask them to try it again, as Bailey says without panicking. It will usually  go more smoothly the second time.

What are students doing in this game? They’re learning to walk around by themselves in the space in order to tell themselves a story, a very important actor skill. They’re creating imaginary relationships, and letting them play out in a physical arena, without violating the personal space or boundaries of others. They’re experiencing adversity and adjusting themselves in order to cope. They are playing, and becoming an ensemble, while beginning to learn to share the stage picture.

Play on.