Category Archives: Stage Picture

Object Permanence: Small Items That Make a Huge Difference in The Drama Classroom

Welcome to a new  school year.  We never know where summer went, but once more into the breach we go.

While you’re doing your back to school shopping to trick out your classroom or mobile room to room cart, may I suggest laying in a stock of some of my favorite tried and true drama teacher essentials. Having these on hand will keep your creative juices flowing and your students on their toes.

  • Golf pencils. Great for when you expect your students to rehearse with a pencil in their hand.  These little workhorses are cheap enough to keep a supply of, small enough to not take up a lot of room, and strangely proportioned enough that your students may actually remember to return them. Supplying your own materials cuts down on boring conversations about students remembering materials, and allows everyone to get to the task at hand.
  • Sharpies and Highlighters. You need the clear “write on anything” power of the sharpie and your students need a few loaner highlighters around so they can count lines and drive their peers mad.
  • Rubber Balls. The kitschier the better. You’d be surprised at how much your students will enjoy tossing around a Frozen or Ant Man ball during warmup. Get at least three, I recommend five. On days when you can’t think of a warmup, nothing says instant fun like dumping a bunch of rubber balls in the center of the circle and letting students toss or gently kick them to each other. The possibilities are endless.
  • Squeaky toys, Koosh balls, Beanbags.  Important for gentle tossing games and much of Spolin’s whole group work.  Great to hand to a squirrelly kid as a fidget in a pinch.
  • Playing Cards. I use these to sort students for quick, random heterogenous grouping, one deck per class. I use them for quick oral quizzes- if four out of five students randomly called upon get the answers right, the whole class avoids a written quiz.  I use them to call on volunteers to get up in front of class, or make a comment on others’ work. I also use them for status exercises and occasionally as props. Teach middle school? Nothing is more of a crowd pleaser than handing out decks and getting students to play “I doubt it” in order to work on their poker faces. “I doubt it” is a game known in adult circles as “BS”, it is easy to teach and a great deal of fun to play.
  • Scarves. Instant props and costume accessories.  Groups of three students can use one to augment Boal’s “Columbian Hypnosis”, where one student moves the scarf and the others mimic the movements with their bodies. Scarves can be used as teacher attention getters while students are doing group work. They can be used as blindfolds for Dog and Bone or Hunter Hunted, and trust walks.
  • Dowels. Available at your local hardware store, these wooden babies are worth stocking up on. They can be used for group movement, used in sets of two to create dance movement before students are comfortable dancing, as swords for armed combat, to build squares on the floor. In a pinch, they are  canes for old characters or soft shoe. Students can work on balancing them on a finger.  Buy the half inch and have them cut to about three feet. Save the one foot pieces for rehearsal daggers and wands.
  • Index cards.  Write scene suggestions on them. Give them to groups to fill out as grade cards when starting a project. Use them to build white models (they are very easy to teach scale with and hold up well on a cardboard stage floor with nothing more than clear tape. Students can put their info on them for auditions.
  • Cups. Not environmental, so you may want to go dollar store permanent here, but the red cups that people give out at barbecues are great props, place holders, and amplify the sound of a cell phone’s speaker when placed inside it.
  • Corks.  A dying breed, but when cut into small discs, wine corks (or the type you can buy clean and unadulterated from a craft store) work wonders as diction exercisers for your mushmouthed students. Small enough to be carried in the pocket, a cork held between the teeth is a long time favorite trick of voice teachers to assist a student in popping those plosives.
  • Blue Painter’s Tape.  Make a grid on the floor. Create seating spots in a room with no furniture.  Put up cast lists, project groups,  poster or fliers. Allow students to create a temporary gallery for their designs. Create independence for your technicians, and save the wall from further paint peels.

As always, feel free to contact me with questions about how to use any of these items. Happy shopping, and have a tremendous beginning to your school year!

 

 

Write Now: Creating a festival of student-written One Acts

Having students create their own work is a wonderful way to immerse them in the production process.  Creating a system with enough structure to give students writing, directing, performance and management opportunities is the key to a successful show. I’m going to talk about ideas for evolving that structure.

We recently created and produced an evening of One Acts at my school called THE RESTAURANT AT THE END OF THE UNIVERSE with over 130 students participating from three levels of theatre over the course of three nights. It was a great experience, and I believe this was due to the following factors:

Create a dominant theme.Some of our past have included Once Upon A Time, where each piece had to have an element of a fairytale, The Fortune Cookie, where students wrote plays based on fortunes they received on a massive cookie distribution day which involved the entire department, and this year’s Restaurant. The possibilities are limitless. Paint swatches? Tabloid headlines? Street names from their town?

The Restaurant had a menu of items. The students plays had to be titled one of those items, things like “The Cheese Stands Alone” and “Have Your Cake and Eat It Too”.

Place time limits on the plays.We also place character limits on them. Beginning students have a 5 minute limit, Advanced a 7 minute limit, and Advanced Honors a 10 minute limit. This allows reasonably timed evenings with many featured performances. Placing character limits on them, 3-5 for Beginning, 5-7 for advanced and 7-10 for Honors also makes it so plays can be about conflict and not feature a bunch of deus ex machina where one person rushes in with one line and solves a problem.

Consider having your most advanced students host each night in teams of two to four. This cuts down on having to do programs, because the advanced kids can simply announce the acts and it’s great practice for them in working in the variety show genre. You might have two or  four students who are up to the task. We had twelve, four for every night of One Acts.  Another wonderful side effect of this is that you can create stock characters that are available to be used in plays, played by the SAME ACTOR any given night. 

With Restaurant, we gave students four options for SERVERS. If they wrote a server, it was understood the server would be played by an advanced student who was hosting that night.  Since we had teams of four, there were four waiters, who had gender neutral names.

  • Logan, the world’s worst server
  • Pat, the longtime manager of the restaurant
  • Riley, the world’s best server
  • Casey, first day on the job

The hosts got the scripts ahead of time, were memorized, and it gave a cohesive and wonderful thread to the evening as beginning projects were elevated by the more advanced students’ performances. Since every project had been assigned an assistant, the assistants played the waiters throughout the process, giving these less experienced and less confident performers plenty of time to play and experiment without the pressure to have to go onstage.

 Create a set, or limit what sets they can use.  This cuts down on chaos, as inexperienced performers try to navigate the stage for the first time. This year we had a simple restaurant set with three tables, two screens, a “bar” and an offstage kitchen. If any patron  from any play walked into the kitchen, “Italian waiters” would make a great deal of noise (in fauxItalian)  and the patron would rush back onstage embarrassed. This running gag was maintained all three nights and delighted audiences. HAVE THE SET DESIGN AVAILABLE TO STUDENTS FROM THE BEGINNING, AND MAKE STUDENTS REHEARSE WITH IT, particularly if you don’t rehearse in the theatre.

Give a reasonable, but short block of time to produce this project across your classes. We usually do it in three weeks and it’s not enough. I would go for five, especially if you’ve never done it before.

Timeline is as follows: Introduce the project all at once to all classes. Consider teaching standard professional playwriting format,  easily Googleable, which will make it easier to organize scripts, as it is the industry standard and more importantly requires a title and character page, which will help figure out what night things are going if there’s more than one night, and who the waiters are.

  1. Give students at least a week to turn in scripts. Give ALL students credit for turning in a script. But then cull the pile. Get the most interesting ones, and make multiple copies of those, a couple of class sets. If you’re working with multiple levels of students, decide whether or not you’re going to mix levels. I recommend it.
  2. Have students read scripts, identify the ones they are interested in, and then what they are interested in doing.  Listen to their preferences, but ASSIGN.  Each student must be assigned to act, direct, write (which means rewriting their particular script at the behest of its team) or assist. Try to have an assistant for every director. They can run production meetings and handle paperwork. If you have multiple class periods, have someone in charge of that class. A TA or your most organized student who enjoys that type of thing. Your next stage manager.
  3. When directors have been assigned, have a director’s meeting where you go over basic responsibilities as well as ethics. In my department, the buck stops with me. If a director has a conflict with a cast member, they can bring it to me, and vice versa. Actors can be “fired” by me, as can directors.
  4. Casting. Require actors to read for everyone, and directors to read everyone. Your class assistants can keep a record of that. After this is complete, have another directors meeting where directors choose cast members. They need to go in order, negotiating, until all eligible people are cast. This prevents cliques, cronyism, and divas from taking over the whole thing.
  5. Announce and or post cast lists. Make adjustments as necessary.
  6. Have readthroughs. In front of you. To make sure the plays are appropriate and you didn’t miss any really wierd lines. My students have a habit of trying to hide crotch jokes and swear words in shows. The more advanced they get, the worse it is. Kids will be kids, but remember people are harder on original work. On the flip side, If a student is doing a challenging script that has integrity, you can now defend it, because you know it well.
  7. Have roughblocks.  In front of you. Don’t assume that because you’ve been teaching theatre skills all year long that the students will apply them. Live performance is when my students start forgetting the basics. Fear is a paralyzer.
  8. Hold them accountable for a production meeting and a memorization test. Make these small grades where you know that they know what they need to be doing to be ready.
  9. Have dress rehearsals in class if time permits. In my system, the class itself doesn’t all perform the same night, because we have three nights. But it’s still possible to have isolated dress rehearsals day of.
  10. Empower your technicians and managers.  The week of One Acts, my stage managers call 15 minute meetings with each cast in the theatre where they test volume, get specifics, and design sound to make it flow. Encourage your techs to use googledocs, spreadsheets, and calendars to organize a real production here.

One Week Before and the Nights of the Show…

Unless you have a publicity team in place, have a simple black and white poster that can go up around. Put the show in the announcements like any other show. Use social media. Charge a little.  Have a simple plan for concessions.  We sold popcorn this year and it was cost effective and well received by our audience.

Double check that each play knows what night they’re coming, and reinforce calltime. Make the call on the night of early enough that they can rehearse with stock character hosts if they need to, and that any last minute prop or costume things can be solved.  Since you have a theme, if you have stock, pull pieces or props that could easily work in the associated one acts. We had a table of just restaurant props.  We also managed to costume an apocalyptic Western out of items we had lying around.

Be hard on technique, easy on feelings.  For many of your students, this might be their first real time onstage. Be aware of that, but reinforce being seen and heard.  I have found, for instance, that students who don’t know they’re not projecting can be enlightened by going into the audience and having you or an advanced student say their line exactly as they are saying it.

Plan time each night before the show to gather as an entire group and do a warmup.  If you have multiple levels of drama performing, it’s neat to see them all together. This is also where you can identify the students who are running the show that evening, hosts and backstage tech, who should be easily identifiable via dresscode.  At our school, this is the first time beginners participate in some of the sacred “break a leg” rituals we do before shows for luck. Really affirming.

Have a system where performers can watch from the house before and after they go on. One Acts is a great opportunity for people to learn from each other! We ask performers to leave the audience two acts before theirs. Show order is posted on spreadsheets backstage.  A student manager meets them in the green room, holds them there for one, transfers them backstage to another manager, and then on, and quickly gets them out of the backstage when done. It’s like a dip in the pool.

After the show….

Debrief and celebrate. In our department we have the ice cream sandwich tradition, where each student must award an ice cream sandwich and say why they deserve it to another student. A great way to wrap up a season.

Ice Cream Sandwich

 

 

 

 

 

Why We Tell This Story: Theatre History for Beginners

I took a theatre history class in high school as part of a summer drama program. I don’t remember much about it.

A graying, distinguished professor. A dusty lecture hall. Passing notes to my friends. Some stuff about the Greeks. That’s about it.  Then I went to college, and theatre history was tied to plays, and to production, so of course it made more sense, and fell into place. Somewhat.

Then I started teaching drama. And I felt a responsibility to it.  It is, after all, a standard, and shouldn’t we make sure that our creative artists have solid foundations in the why and wherefore of the divine madness?

But it still doesn’t seem to be something which is easy to teach to beginning drama students. And for many of us, who teach a basic, comprehensive drama class, that is a challenge.

The first time I ever attempted to teach theatre history, it was to advanced students, and even they were resistant. Take these kids who feel like they’ve been acting, doing, and start handing them handouts, and lecturing to them, and wanting them to read archaic texts, and there will be pushback. You could, of course, start the year with it, but then how do you ever wake up these potential performers who have been used to doing the book work of academia, but applied to theatre?

You make it active, using the principals of on-your-feet learning.

I’ve been able to jam a lot of content into students by distilling what I’m trying to teach into a few ideas, and putting those ideas into an active context which has a performance component.

Let’s begin with the beginning. Storytelling.

How Did Theatre Begin?

1. Ask your students: How did theatre begin? You can do this as a quickwrite, a snowball (write it down, throw it across the room, everyone pick up someone elses) a think/pair/share. You can have them actively make group sculptures that demonstrate their ideas.

2. Record their responses in physical form so that they can be referred to. On the whiteboard, on butcher paper, on your cool smartboard thing. Whatever.

3. They will give you responses that don’t go far back enough. Push them to get to early man, to groups of people who were trying to survive, who were governed by what we now call “magical thinking,”  a kind of thinking that made them create rituals in order to safeguard themselves.

Ritual can be defined as 1. A religious or solemn ceremony consisting of a series of actions performed according to a prescribed order. 2. of, relating to, or done as a religious or solemn rite.

Depending on your population, feel free to emphasize or deemphasize the religious element of this discussion. I go to great lengths to point out that when I mention religion in the classroom, as I frequently do while discussing theatre history, I am doing so in a way which considers religion as a force in culture rather than emphasizing any particular religion’s approach to anything.

You can bring up the commonly held theory that theatre evolved from ritual, and that you can divide early ritual up into a few performative elements:

Elements of Ritual

1. Shamanism ( a medicine man or woman who was responsible for preserving stories and traditions of a people, connecting the past, present and future, present in the traditions of ancient civilizations around the world. Frequently  used illusion and spectacle to communicate with those seeking guidance. )

2. Storytelling (oral traditions)

3. Music (chanting, rhythm, songs)

4. Dance (everything from imitating animals to recreating historical events to stylizing the preparations for coming of age ceremonies and weddings)

Types of Ritual

Now ask your students to give you examples of rituals, from ancient to modern, and classify them into 3 types.

1. Power (inagurations, parades, openings of athletic events, other civic ceremonies, graduation)

2. Pleasure (weddings, christenings, prom)

3. Duty (funerals, taking the SAT, naming ceremonies, christenings, voting, attending religious services)

Creating a Ritual

You can choose to handle this as a solo performance or a group project.

1. A Moment from Life is a project most of us do in some way, and it connects very well to ritual if one looks at ritual in a personal context, which is a really appropriate way to characterize it with beginning students.  I have a set of directions for this in my store.

2. Group Ritual is another fun way to see if students have internalized this. Have students depict a ritual, anything from brushing teeth to swearing in the president using the elements of ritual.  In other words, their piece should incorporate shamanism, storytelling, music or dance, or some combination of the four, with the intention of either elevating the routine or placing the sacred and specific into some sort of epic context. 

Whatever way you do it, these are really fun for students to work on, and they have the effect of cementing the purpose of ritual and the placement of ritual within the context of performance studies for them.

You can wrap this up with a discussion or journal or exit ticket, but you will be surprised at how “doing” a historical context can help students remember its placement and context.

 

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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.

Status Update: Masters and Servants 2

The Master/Servant Scene is a scene designed to allow students to improvise within a form that requires them to play status. By presenting a simple scene within the form, students strengthen their skills in devised theatre as well as timing, character development, sharing the stage picture, and saying yes. Here’s more work.

WARMUPS

SAY HELLO- Mill and seethe. Tell them to greet each other like their parents, like their teachers, like kindergarteners, like senior citizens, like insert your high school stereotype here. Mean girls, gangsters, gamers, people who are at the wrong party.

BOTH SIDES OF THE COIN- From Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s teacher training. Walk and monologue for one minute about the benefits of being in charge. Lay down on the floor and list the benefits of being a servant. Scoot up and get a partner.

PROSPERO AND ARIEL- From OSF and Globe Education. Yes, you can just throw Beginning students a Shakespeare scene, as long as it’s short. No, you don’t have to teach them about Shakespeare’s life, summarize the plot, or have them build a scale model of the Globe. They can just read an awesome master/servant scene in English.

So cut 2:1 from THE TEMPEST to this (courtesy of Globe Education), and hand it out to the partners.

ARIEL All hail, great master! grave sir, hail!

PROSPERO Hast thou, spirit, perform’d to point the tempest that I bade thee?

ARIEL To every article.

PROSPERO My brave spirit! Ariel, thy charge  exactly is perform’d: but there’s more work.

ARIEL Is there more toil? Since thou dost give me pains, let me remember thee what thou hast promised, which is not yet perform’d me.

PROSPERO How now? moody? What is’t thou canst demand?

ARIEL My liberty.

PROSPERO Before the time be out? no more!

ARIEL I prithee, remember I have done thee worthy service;

PROSPERO Dost thou forget from what a torment I did free thee?

ARIEL No.

PROSPERO Thou liest, malignant thing! Hast thou forgot?

ARIEL No, sir.

  • Have the students sit back to back and read it once. Ask:
  • Who are these people? Who’s Prospero? Who’s Ariel? What does Prospero want? What does Ariel want?
  • Have them turn around and face each other, and read it again, this time with a poke or a pat. Each line, they either poke or pat the other performer.  Ask: Who pokes more? Who pats more?
  • Have them get on their feet. Prospero should walk away from Ariel on each line, each time, turning when Ariel says something. Reverse it. Now Ariel has the power.
  • Tell them all to sit back down. Last people down perform their scene. They can poke, they can pat, they can walk away, but they have to make choices. Applaud wildly. Tell them to pick two more volunteers. Repeat one more time. Ask.

You’ll get responses like this:

  • “Sometimes the servant has more power than the master.”
  • “All three scenes were very different.”

Responses you may not get, but will be received at least partially:

  • “Shakespeare is English. If I can read English, I can perform Shakespeare.”
  • “Gestures arise out of what is being said.”

1,2,3,4- From ComedySportz. Put a 1, a 2, a 3 and a 4 onstage.  One chair. Tell 1 they are in charge, they make all decisions, they have to come up with everything that happens in the scene. Tell 2 they work for 1 and want 3 to do all their work. Tell 3 they work for 2 and want 4 to do all their work. Tell 4 they work for 2, and can either try to do everything they tell them, or try to do nothing.

Now tell them all that they work at McDonald’s, or what works a lot better where I work, that they have 10 minutes to plan and execute a high pressure project for their rocket science class.

Watch the scene.

Afterwards, ask them all how they felt. Ask the audience what they saw.

Pleasing the Ruler- 3 students on stage, one chair. One student is the ruler, leader, master, the other two work for him or her. Game is simple. Master issues orders. Servants follow. Master can “fire” one servant the first time he or she is displeased. This leaves the winner as the new master. Watch the dynamics in this ongoing scene, because you want to look for patterns.

Types of masters and servants will appear. These are some I have noticed in my classes over time, and I usually hand my students a chart to look at. My students are very mathy, so it helps to literally break character work down to pieces like a commedia actor would. A great into into discussing archetypes.

MASTERS

  • The Dictator. Voice may vary. May be rapid and incomprehensible or loud and overly pretentious. Grandiose, ridiculous, unnattractive, flamboyant. Seeks power, flattery and mastery over situations. Never gets any of it.  Will send a servant down to the quarter store to purchase uranium, likes uniforms, uses malapropisms. High energy, verbally dominant. Capitan esque, A bit Dottore with occasional touches of Pantalone.
  • The Evil Genius. Creepy, nerdy, petulant, scientifically or computer oriented. Has a complicated lab that he or she can’t explain. More Pantalone. Feels skinny or pasty. Voice in the nose, hands creeping out of elbows, posture.
  • The Diva. Easily accessible to today’s youth. Very hip-hop or Hollywood, glitz and bling and the cult of personality. Surrounded by expensive things that he or she does not use. Emotionally fragile, sensitive to cracks about his or her appearance, sentimental, throws tantrums.
  • The Pushover. Elderly and myopic, or granolaesque and clueless. Think that substitute teacher who doesn’t make you do work but regales you about her trip to Greece in 1962. Easy to pacify, but obsessed with certain details or criteria. If you meet these, you can get away with murder. May insist on manners, nutrition, or a quiet environment. Often kills with kindness. Usually female.
  • The Nice Guy. A middle manager, passive aggressive. His way or the very nice highway. Uses words like “team”, “Pal”, and “What I’m gonna want you to do is”. Tasks assigned are impossibly bureaucratic. Not very creative, a rule follower, expects the servants to be as well.
  • The Fusser. Straight lines, perfect pillows, fears of food-borne illness.  Orthorexic. Exact numbers, perfect crafts. An artist. May melt into diva or dictator if crossed.

SERVANTS

  • The Yes Man. Does everything told efficiently and amazingly. Lays complements down in order to get ahead. Thrives on being perfect. When alone, is actually evil, mocking, or slavishly devoted to the master to the point where if fault is found or employment is terminated actual insanity may take hold. Watch out.
  • The Smiler. Stands around like a mannequin on display. Uses attractiveness to distract the master. Not incredibly bright, but really good at surviving.
  • The Slacker. Did not hear you the first time you called. Is late. Expends the least amount of energy possible. Possesses a negative attitude. Sometimes even hostile. May possess more than one phone. They’re doing you a favor by working for you, and they’re not doing much.
  • The Fool. Often doesn’t speak or speaks in grammelot. Everything is a great adventure. You won’t get what you want, but you may get a wonderful surprise you didn’t want. Off balance.
  • The Nervous Wreck. Incapable, incompetent, clumsy, drops things, cannot understand simple directions, loses everything, creates chaos. Fire them and they will cry loudly until you rehire them.

Encourage your students when you see one of these. Give them the tips and tricks to strengthen the characters.

TIPS AND TRICKS FOR GOOD CLASS CULTURE

  • We NEVER want to actually feel sorry for a servant. Encourage masters towards the hyperbolic, not the sadomasochistic or  revolting. Certainly stop anything racial or stereotypical not created by a performer themselves in its tracks. Talk about it. Let people be heard. This is what drama class is for.
  • NEVER let  a kid start a scene by calling their servant by the servant’s real name. We can’t play if we feel it’s “us.” Have a list of accessible names at your fingertips, throw the kids onstage and say “Your name is the Heatmeiser and your servant’s name is Pancake. Go.”
  • ALWAYS applaud a big performance, a clever task, a wonderful retort from a servant.
  • STOP every few scenes during “Pleasing the Ruler” and analyze what people are creating.

Next week, the big summative assessment, plus a couple more exercises to make it work.

 

 

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Location Location Location: Warmups for Working with Where

How do we know where we are? Students will respond with many answers to this question. “We can see the walls.” “The people around us.” “Google maps?”It’s the opener to a discussion of where.  Viola Spolin’s “Creating a Where” and the call for a “location” in the beginning of any improvisation have in common the mandate that good scene work take an empty space and transform it.

As an isolated skill,  weighting “where” is  extremely valuable to practice, and it is one that embeds itself deeply not just in improvisational scene work, but in the work of the actor, in script analysis and in set design.

WARMUPS FOR “WHERE”

  • WELCOME TO FRANCE- Perhaps you’ve done the exercise with students where you’ve had them mill around shaking hands, and then have given them characters to change into while shaking hands. Try using music to further strengthen this. In an exercise introduced to me by Kevin Coleman at a Shakespeare Plays workshop, we were walking about when he suddenly said, “And welcome to France” and put on French cafe music, which changed our walking into promenading down the avenue, until we realized we were late, then lost, then, no, the clock was wrong and we had plenty of time, but wait, we were still lost, oh no, we knew where we were…
  • SHIP AHOY- From Talia Pura’s excellent book STAGES: CREATIVE IDEAS FOR TEACHING DRAMA,  I like to play music from PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN with this one. High energy game that has students:
    • “hit the deck” (lie down on the ground)
    • “man overboard” (one stands up and grabs a prone partner’s leg like a wheelbarrow)
    • “officer aboard” (everyone stands and salutes)
    • “helicopter” (partners grasp hands and spin)
    • “dive bomber” (everyone simulates airplanes)
    • “Captain’s daughter” (one person takes a knee, the other sits on their lap)
  • DIRECTIONS TO MY HOUSE- This is for pairs. Each partner explains to the other how to get to his or her house from school.
  • MY ROOM- Class sits in a circle. One person goes into the circle and literally “walks” us through their room, then  goes back to the circle, sits down, and sends other students into their “room” to work with imaginary stuff. “Grab my book from the shelf and put it on my desk. ” “Turn on my computer”.  And so on. Do this with a few volunteers.
  • HEY BUDDY-From the Red Ladder Theatre Company. Useful to help students create details of a where through action.  Students in lines of maybe five. Student at the head of line A mimes a simple object.  Student in line B tries to guess what it is by saying “Hey Buddy, get away from my toothbrush, my hairdryer,my blender…” whatever it is. When person B guesses it, they high-five person A and go to the end of the A line, and person A goes to the end of the B line. Continue as necessary, and to intensify, narrow what can be mimed. “Anything from a kindergarten classroom.” “Something you only find in a gym.”
  • OBJECT SWAP- Start this in a circle.  Work with air like clay, then pull an object out of the air. Let students work on this simultaneously. When you are all holding your mimed objects, turn to one student and say, “Do you want this thing I have?” Then describe the thing, but don’t tell them what the thing is. Say you have made a jar with a butterfly in it.  Tell them it’s fragile, it has something alive in it, you can see the thing, the thing has wings, and the thing is colorful and there are lots of varieties of it. When they figure it out, have them describe what they have to you, and give them your jar and take their hamster or whatever. Let everyone go around and trade objects for awhile.  Then ask, who got something beautiful, dangerous, expensive, unusual, scary, and listen to their answers.
  • BOOKSHELF- In partners, students can build a bookshelf. This works great right after object swap. Have them build their imaginary bookshelf out of any material they want, then with their partner put three things on it. Something rare, a piece of technology, something alive. Have them step back and admire it. Then, and they love this, have them start an argument with each other about the bookshelf. Let the argument lead to a “breakup, ” where they must divide the objects and go in search of a new partner with whom to rebuild. Have them build a new bookshelf with their new partner, then ask them what was on their first bookshelf, why they broke up with their first partner, and what was better about the new one. The answers you will get are incredible.
  • FIVE IN, FIVE OUT.  Students can retire to the audience. Ask for a volunteer and give them a location (convenience stores seem to work really well).  Have this volunteer go onstage and interact with one mimed thing in the 7-11 and then leave.  Then send the next one in. They have to interact with the first thing and then create their own. The next person must interact with the first two things, then create another, and so on, up to five. Then start a new scene.

These exercises will go a long way towards preparing students to work with floorplans, which I’ll describe in the next installment. Stay tuned.

Getting the Picture- Boal, Spolin, and Tableaus

Viola Spolin uses the term “sharing the stage picture” as a way to begin to teach young performers to break out of their awkwardness onstage and learn to use interesting stage movement in performance. Her suggestion to the teacher is to “sidecoach” while students are engaged in whole group play to increase students’ awareness of others onstage.

I find the best way to begin this discussion is through the use of sculptures and tableaus. I began using tableaus as my into to being onstage a few years ago, when I noticed that students weren’t telling stories onstage in ways that translated theatrically.I do these exercises very early in the year, but you can incorporate them at any point necessary. These can take up to a week of class time.

WARMUP POSSIBILITIES

  • Fruit Basket.  From the good folks at Young Actors Theatre Camp. Tell students to get a partner and become an apple. Then have them find another partner and become a pear with that new person. Now go to a new partner. Become a banana. A new partner. Become an orange. Your fifth and final partner. Become a strawberry. Now find your apple. Your orange. Your banana. Your apple. Your orange. Your strawberry. Your pear. Your apple. Your pear.  Now they are laughing.
  • Make Something….Groups of 4-6. Quickly. Make something round, make something sharp, make something beautiful.  Go around, ask What did you make, what did you make, what did you make, good job. Do it again. Make something edible, make something important, make something ridiculous.
  • Sneaky Statues. They loved it in elementary school, they love it now. Everyone freezes. One student is the “guard” who has to walk around and catch people moving. When he or she does, they have to become the person who was moving. You can do variations by giving them exhibit titles. “Trouble at the Old Mill”, “Selfie”, whatever.
  • James Bailey’s excellent “Artist, Model, Clay” from Teaching Improvisation: A Practical Guide for Classroom Educators, Bedlam Press, played in groups of 3. One person faces the other two, who stand one behind the other. He or she is the artist, the middle is the clay, and the person in the back is the model. The model strikes a pose, and the artist tries to sculpt the air around the person who is “clay” to get them into the position. The groups can then switch and switch again until everyone has done all three roles.

Before I start any onstage work with students, I do an exercise from Augusto Boal.  I don’t know where I got this, whether from one of Boal’s texts or a workshop I took with USC professor Brent Blair at the Camp Bravo Teacher’s Weekend,  which you totally need to do sometime if you’re a Drama teacher near California.  I just call it “Chairs.”

CHAIRS

Put 4 chairs, identical if possible, and a table in your “stage” area. Have the students sit in the audience.

Tell the students a little bit about the founder of the Theatre of the Oppressed, Augusto Boal, if you think they will dig that.  I like to tell them some basic facts, that he was a theatre practitioner in Brazil who was educated in the United States, that he went back to Brazil and tried to remake classical theatrical texts to educate people about oppressive structures in the society, but that approach didn’t reach the people he wanted, so he developed Legislative Theatre.

To the students, Boal is interesting because he was making theatre with real people for a purpose, he was standing up for his beliefs, and he was addressing injustice and hypocrisy. Teenagers are very concerned with injustice and hypocrisy, and they should be. I tell them a story that Brent Blair told in a workshop I took with him at Camp Bravo about art projects Boal did like giving cameras to people living in the slums of Rio and having them take pictures of what the word “Home” meant. One boy brought back a picture of a nail on a wall. Boal asked him what the nail meant. The boy told Boal he was a shoeshine boy in a big hotel. To keep his kit safe, the hotel required that he rent a nail on their wall, eating up most of his profits from his work.

This resonates with the students. So now I tell them, we’re going to look at power, because that’s what Boal was looking at all the time, and it’s a major issue in theatre.

So then I ask them, if there’s a person in each of these four chairs, who has the power? And they give me various answers, the chair at the head of the table, all of them because they’re grouped around the table, excetera.

Then I ask for a volunteer to get up and “change the picture”- give the “power” to a new “person”. Someone gets up and they move the chairs, very simple. And I ask, who has the power now. And I get new answers. And I ask for a new volunteer.

The students can easily work on this for 20 minutes. I’ve had it go half an hour. I do it until there are no more volunteers.

What is this doing for students?

  • It’s getting them onstage, without “acting,” where they are creating a spectacle or having an effect, which is what you want them to do when they do act.
  • It’s providing an outlet for students who are unsure about the class or what they’re doing there to participate nonverbally.
  • It’s showing you your directors, your leaders, and your rebels. You need these kids in your corner.
  • It’s demonstrating that students have creative freedom and agency in your room.

You will see stuff on the stage. You will see Mean Girls, the Principal’s Office, the Family Dining Table, The Classroom.  You will see war, and you will see death. You will see what the kids see and what they want to see,  because they will show it to you.  Stay cool.

I had a young man put a chair behind another and another chair in front and tell me that what he had created was an “inappropriate” (the word my students use when they don’t want to say pornographic) film shoot. I didn’t send him out of class. I simply asked him who had the power. He said the person in back. Again, I didn’t freak out. I suggested to him that perhaps it was the person with the camera. He got it. So did the rest of the class.

Boal 1, “Inappropriate Film Shoot” 0.

THE STAGE PICTURE- LEVELS, RELATIONSHIPS, AND SHAPES

From Jeff Kramer at Comedy Sportz San Jose. Send up one student to do a pose. Send up another to connect to them somehow. And again, and again, and again, until you have 5-10 people up there. Point out the places where people chose to go in at a different level than the others. You might see relationship at this point. Look at places in the statue where people seem to know each other. Complement them if they didn’t stand in a line, if they used interesting shapes like triangles I usually tell my students that lines are generally good onstage if you are doing A CHORUS LINE or something military, but otherwise aim for more complex shapes.

Now repeat the exercise, but this time give them a title. Either you pick the title or solicit one from the audience. Notice how the picture is probably more interesting now that there’s a title.

You can also repeat it without a title and have the audience start titling them, which they enjoy.  But regardless, the last time you do it, pick a title, because it will help you with this next thing.

Pick a title like “Boredom” and tell them to do a “Boredom” sculpture. Complement them on their levels, relationships, and the shape the picture makes.

EMOTION SCULPTURES, CONCEPT OR ABSTRACT NOUN SCULPTURES

  • Divide them quickly into groups of 5-6. I like to use playing cards for this, with a student’s name written on the inside of each card, it makes it easy to randomly group them.
  • Hand out index cards that have emotional states like FEAR, ANGER, JOY, SUSPICION, GRIEF, LOVE written on them. I like to give groups a choice between two, like you give toddlers the choice of the red or blue cup. It gives them a feeling of confidence and leads to less “blaming the topic” in the critique.
  • Give them around 10 minutes to come up with a sculpture which embodies one of these emotions.
  • Watch them.  Talk about them. For how, see the post in Class Culture: This is Our Masterpiece: On Presenting, Rehearsing and Responding to Student Performance in Class.
  • You can repeat this again tomorrow with Abstract Nouns. They can be germaine to other things you want to teach during the year, to a particular play perhaps, or to universal human themes. Comedy, Friendship, War, Justice, Revenge, Celebration. It’s good to do two days of it, with different groups.

THE MORAL OF THE STORY

You can do this as a larger, graded assignment. Have ready quotes or statements (a great into for teaching a play as well) such as

  • Blood is Thicker Than Water
  • It Takes A Village To Raise A Child
  • You Can Lead a Horse to Water, but You Can’t Make Him Drink

And so forth. Feel free to customize these however you like, but they should be universalish, and capable of being “the moral of a story.” Make sure students understand their proverbs or quotes before you let them make a scene about them.

Have the students (groups of 4-6)  create 3 pictures to illustrate a story which ends with this statement as its moral, linked together by narration from either an outside narrator or characters in the story. Plan for maybe 20 minutes of rehearsal to make a thorough job of it, and a quick 5-10 minute check in the next day if the project runs over.

Example:

As my Grandma Grace used to say, “You Show Me Your Friends, I’ll Show You Who You Are.”

Picture One: A student, Jack, sits chastened with a teacher frozen over him in a “yelling at him” position.

Teacher: Jack was always in trouble.

Picture Two:  Three other actors surround “Jack” and act like “bad kids”

One of Them: That was because Jack had dangerous friends.

Picture Three: The three actors change to “good kids.”

Another of Them: So Jack got new friends who liked doing nice things. And he never got in trouble again.

All of Them: The moral of the story is, “You show me your friends, I’ll show you who you are.”

Comment on dynamic pictures that look like they’re moving, on the use of levels, shapes, and distinct characters. Ask, what did you notice?

The picture might be a little clearer now.

 

 

 

 

 

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.