Category Archives: Voice

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.


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?


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.


  • 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.


  • 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.


  • 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.



In Grammelot: The Wisdom of Gibberish

Many theatre teachers get students going with text as soon as they can in the year.  I don’t. I work first with the picture, then the body, and finally with speech, before text.  I tend to restrict dialogue in early scenes to two or three lines or sound effects, preferring that my students focus on behavior. Then  I introduce gibberish.

I taught a great day of gibberish yesterday. I knew it was great because the students said goodbye to me at the end of class. They do that when they’ve had fun.  I laid it out as follows.


It was Friday, so we start with the game we always play on Fridays, Bibbety Bibbety Bop, also known as Bibbety Bop. I have a Friday game because it’s something I don’t have to think about, it basically covers all bases, and the students thrive on routine and tradition. If you don’t already, and you’re having issues with either focus or class culture in your classroom, please consider creating a routine warmup with which you begin every day, or the practice of the warmup. Clapping, a tongue twister, any energy circle, toss around a ball.  The kids love a good classroom practice like we love a good yoga practice. It is comforting and unifying.


Bibbety Bibbety Bop is a game where students stand in a circle and one student ( or sometimes we play with up to three students simultaneously) has to walk up to someone in the circle and say “Bibbety Bibbety Bop.” The student who is being addressed must say “bop” before the first student is done speaking, or they are now out, or rather in the circle, and the first student gets to take their spot. You then add on caveats, rules and mods as follows:

  • BOP- If the first student says “Bop”, the second student cannot say anything. If they do, they are now in.
  •  JELLO– The first student can also point at someone and say “Jello” and then begin counting to ten. The person they point to must shake like jello, and the students on either side of that person must place their arms around the person, becoming “the bowl.” If any of the three fails to do this by ten, they are in.
  • ELEPHANT– The first student points to someone who must now place their arm in front of their face, cradled by their other arm, making the trunk of the elephant. The people on either side become “ears”.
  • AIRPLANE- Person in the middle makes the ok sign with both hands, flips them up on her face to become goggles. Side people become wings. Everyone makes an airplane noise.

You can look up endless variations of this online. You can make your own.


From some brilliant improv teacher somewhere. Students grab a partner.  This won’t work with a group of three, so you may need to play.

Person 1: A

Person 2: B

Person 1: C

Person 2: A

Person 1: B

Person 2: C.

Once they get that going, tell person 1 to change “A” to a nonsense sound. Like: “Blargh!” or “Lololololo!” or whatever they do.

Now it goes:

Person 1: Kaching!

Person 2: B

Person 1: C

Person 2: Kaching!

Person 1: B

Person 2: C.

Now B adds a nonsens sound, so you get:

Person 1: Kaching!

Person 2: Splerk!

Person 1: C

Person 2: Kaching!

Person 1: Splerk!

Person 2: C.

And then you replace C, so you end up with:

Person 1: Kaching!

Person 2: Splerk!

Person 1: Greooooow!

Person 2: Kaching!

Person 1: Sperk!

Person 2: Greooow!

They love it, the are now warmed up vocally a bit, and feeling fancy.


Have them tell their first partner that they’ll never forget them, and then have them get a new partner. If you have TA’s, use them when people have trouble finding partners.

Have them count, alternating, 1-10.

Then tell them to do it again like they’re having an increasingly funny conversation. Now like they’re having an increasingly frustrating conversation. Now like they’re getting real sad, or really into each other, or whatever.

Then have them create a scene using these numbers as dialogue where two people interact. The numbers should go in order but don’t have to alternate. One person can say “1,2,3” and the next “4” and so on. Give them five minutes. Tell them to sit when they are done. Walk around the room and notice the strong ones. Ask them to volunteer as tribute.

Watch 3 to 5 of these scenes. Ask students what they noticed. then talk to the students about subtext, what’s behind a piece of dialogue. There’s no “right way” to say a line. Pick up an object.


Without skipping a beat, transition into gibberish. Don’t explain it first, because if you do, it becomes awkward. Just, you know, go from “Make sense, everybody? To “Squakalinga verbochylla. Locky fee fie, cha si morunga twa.” And hold up the object. Give it a gibberish name. It’s best if it’s an object like a ball, that does stuff. Address a student, the one who’s the most likely to humor you. “Spee ba fro rocka? La rocka”, indicating the ball. If they don’t say “La rocka,” continue on until you find someone who does, and then ask more kids, and toss them the ball, and get everyone to call the ball “La rocka” or whatever, and then stop and ask them what language you were speaking.

You weren’t, they will say. What you said didn’t make sense. Then ask  how did they know what to call the ball? They will say  you demonstrated, you repeated it, you held it up.

Tell them that the language is a special language for theatre, that it is called gibberish.  You may also add that it dates back to the 16th century, when it was called grammelot by the Commedia Del Arte performers who used it to mimic the vernacular of whatever country they were performing in so that audiences could understand the performance, and also so avoid the censorship of the Church. Great into if you’re doing a Commedia unit.


Ask them to take their original 1-10 partner and grab another partnership, making a group of four, and come up with a scene where someone is either TEACHING people to do something or SELLING something.

The scene can be short, English can be used for brand names or money (give the example of a soccer announcer, for instance, speaking Spanish and then saying “Nike” or “Facebook”.

Give them about 10-15 minutes, give each scene a number, then watch the scenes. Ask them what they noticed.  This is a formative assessment among many others exploring voice.


The school I teach at, Cupertino High School, is a school where most of the students are bilingual. There are usually between 5 and 20 other languages understood by students in any given classroom. Therefore, students, particularly immigrants, may feel uncomfortable with gibberish, either because they have experienced negativity around issues of learning English or speaking accented English, or because they may feel they are mocking a relative, culture, or heritage. Since my students have previously done an assignment called A Moment From Life where they were encouraged to speak their language of origin in a naturalistic scene from their own lives,  they hopefully feel a bit more comfortable with language by this point, but maybe not.

Get this all out on the table. On your side to help you are the teacher from Charlie Brown, Beaker from the Muppets, Boomhauer on King of The Hill, and the Minions from Despicable Me. Gibberish is speech without speech and is designed to help the audience understand and free the performer from having to think. It is a unifier, not a divider.

If you haven’t already had the stereotypes talk in your classroom, every drama teacher’s is different. Mine is basically this. When you’re doing theatre, use your powers for good. If you want to use ethnicity, race, or gender as a factor in character, check with your group members. If you are an audience member and you feel frustrated by a particular portrayal, it’s ok to say something. If you don’t feel comfortable saying something, it’s ok to tell the teacher and have the teacher say something.

This opens the door for students to be able to portray the people around them and to bring their experiences from their homes and their countries of origins into the classroom, instead of drama class being the land of the homogenous.  It’s not perfect all the time, and it requires courageous conversations, but it makes for happier kids and better theatre to allow them to play, argue, and grow in an environment where their voices are heard.