Category Archives: Script Analysis

Bard To Go: Takeaways from Shakespeare Works When Shakespeare Plays 2015

I just got back from a great conference.  The best part was that I had a bunch of English teachers with me who are now excited about using theatre strategies to deepen their students understanding of literature, particularly scary, tough classical literature. I’m so lucky to get to work across the curriculum with these terrific colleagues, and so excited for what the future holds for our shared students!

The Shakespeare Works When Shakespeare Plays conference has been hosted by the University of California at Davis’s School of Education at the gorgeous Mondavi Center annually for the past five years. It’s a brilliant conference that brings practitioners from the Shakespeare theatre community who have adapted their educational outreach strategies to help classroom teachers teach Shakespeare the way that we think Shakespeare would have wanted himself taught, on our feet, through play.

I am a conference fangirl. I have been to every single one in Davis, I think, and now that they’re trying to hold it next July at the Globe I’m scheming to find a way to get there, despite limited resources to do so. The powerful work they do at this conference seeks to undo our deepest fears about teaching Shakespeare  to our students what Ralph Alan Cohen calls:

Shakesfear. That he’s boring, that the language is old, that it is therefore too difficult, and thus why even try teaching it in today’s soundbyte world?

Mostly tailored to English teachers who must combat the biggest hurdles in this regard, as many of them are directed to teach entire Shakespeare plays, the conference gets its participants up on our feet, moving and speaking Shakespeare’s language in ways that allow students of all ages to access the text, plot, and characters. But it has a lot to remind drama teachers about as well.

Here are some takeaways from the excellent teaching at the conference. In the coming weeks, I will attempt to synthesize and scaffold some of the games and activities as I move forward with new ideas for the drama classroom, but I want t to revisit some pedagogical truths at work in this approach, particularly as I hear from new teacher after new teacher concerned about discipline and accountability in the classroom. Rules. Our own accountability.  Students being focused. Following the rules. Not disrupting.

The act of teaching is disruptive. The most powerful things any of us ever learned in life were disruptive to us. Teaching Shakespeare and other texts on our feet is extraordinarily disruptive, and I would argue, necessary.

Here are three key takeaways that I saw emphasized across the conference, practices which can assist you in the eventual transformation of your classroom into a heaven for the adolescent scholar/practitioner.

1. WARM UP. Every single one of these great Shakespeare teachers started with a warmup. To paraphrase the wonderful Kevin Costa, the Education Director of Chesapeake Shakespeare Company who is also a full time classroom teacher, student need time in between classes to transition and refocus.

“If you don’t give it to them,” he says with a smile, they will take it.” 

Kevin keeps three beanbags in his pocket. He is known to start class by gently tossing the beanbags around the room in a circle, urging students to slow down and synchronize their throwing with their breath, then adding our names, so we gently lob the beanbag across the circle in a smooth and beautiful underhanded motion. Eye Contact-Breathe-Swoop-Arcadia. 

The best part of Kevin’s signature warmup is his evident joy in presenting it. He is relaxed, gentle, and delighted by the efforts of his students to move this object through space. It’s his warmup. It makes the class  and the space his, while bringing each student into their own body and into the present moment. It’s ritual, which our students thrive on, and if practiced regularly, with tolerance in the beginning for our students who seem hellbent on target practice, I can see it being a transformative classroom practice.

In order to do Kevin’s warmup, you need to not have students sitting in desks in rows. If you teach English, or  teach other classes that are row bound, one idea would be to teach students to quickly alter the space as part of the warmup. Pretty much any classroom that is configured in rows can also be configured in an O or a U without much trouble.  If you already have open space, you are ready to go.

If you need to keep students in their seats, consider playing music, batting around a balloon,  call and response, rhythm, or snapping warmups. The don’t have to be long.  But the long term power of allowing for transition, focusing students on themselves, and connecting them to the community has major effects outside of simply a nicer working environment.

Takeaway: SAFE, FOCUSED KIDS WHO ARE IN THE MOMENT WITH EACH OTHER CAN TAKE  GREATER ACADEMIC RISKS. Think about it.

2. WHOLE GROUP WORK. Another takeaway from the conference. We are concerned about students “performing.” We want them to present and to perform, and we’re disappointed, secretly or overtly, by their awkwardness and reluctance to do so. The teachers at the Shakespeare Works Conference were masterful at providing opportunities for whole group work. Kirsten Giroux and Joan Langley of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival had us turn outward and step forward and back in order to make vowel sounds and attach them to subtext, such as “You see a yucky thing on the floor” or “You’re trying to get a friend’s attention.” By the end of this brief activity, they had effectively tricked us into a vocal warmup of vowel sounds, and gotten us to explore the sounds, without being concerned about looking stupid.  

Beru Tessema of Globe Education had us work simultaneously on the same scene from Othello, switching partners and using new focuses, in order to teach the methodology of exploring a scene, by repeating key words of each other’s dialogue, hitting the paper to emphasize certain words, moving towards and away from our partners, and choosing when to use eye contact. These are techniques one could use prior to assigning individual scenes to groups, or they  could be used  to work students simultaneously   on different scenes.  This family of strategies effectively tricks the students into a bout of close reading, requiring them to have read the scene out loud on its feet multiple times before settling down to think about “staging the scene.”

Takeaway: STUDENTS WILL SHUT THEMSELVES DOWN IN ORDER TO AVOID LOOKING STUPID. Free them, at first, from the spotlight, and they will gladly take it later.

3. SCAFFOLD DIFFICULT TEXTS. No teacher at the Shakespeare Works conference began anything by handing us a scene and telling us to go rehearse it for the rest of class, something I  have been guilty of and see over and over among my wonderful and well meaning colleagues who then wonder why they get a limp and unconnected product. Perhaps one percent of any given group of students are natural wordsmiths, bookworms who love reading long and complicated things out loud just for fun. Perhaps one percent are natural actors, who enjoy and instantly empathize with the character’s struggle, and want to find ways to portray it instantly. The rest of our students are people who have a typical relationship with the written word. People who didn’t grow up reading iambic pentameter, who did not grow up speaking English, who read at a slower pace, who have trouble comprehending what they read, who have been bred by the Internet.

You can start out with ONE WORD AT A TIME or work on A LINE as a group. Mary Hartman from Bard on the Beach handed out disambiguated Shakespeare lines and had us rearrange them while trying to keep the meaning.  Michael Bahr from Utah Shakespeare Festival had us turn a line from Macbeth, “O full of scorpions is my mind, dear wife” (3:2) into a moving picture.  I just Googled the line to check it and the first two entries are from No Fear Shakespeare, and the next six are from students posting on platforms like eNotes and Yahoo answers attempting to figure out what the line means. Now multiply that, and you’ve got a student’s desperate reading strategy for the scenes you are assigning.

I point this out because  the internet is where your students go when you hand them large chunks of “boring” text that they don’t understand and abandon them to wander in the wilds interpreting it. Start with a word, move to a line, move to half a page of text. Be as explicit as you can in class and insist on whole group think as an imperfect practice to decode text.  Particularly with a tough work, like a Shakespeare play, figure out ahead of time what in a text needs to be dealt with explicitly, physicalized,  or played with and presented, and what can be summarized, read aloud in groups, or shown during movie day.

Takeaway: YOU DO NOT HAVE TO TEACH EVERY WORD OF THE TEXT in order for your students to experience, understand, and write about Shakespeare.  You will again reap the rewards, and so will your students.

METHOD TO THE MADNESS

Many teachers are concerned about “personal accountability” among students when rearranging the teaching of the texts to incorporate so much ungraded group work. I respectfully submit that  this approach involves a shift in thinking as well as a shift in practice.

I recently pointed out on social media to a newer teacher who was concerned about discipline that  having a billion specific rules with consequences to follow in a classroom causes students to tally your infractions the way you’re tallying theirs.Similarly,  grading everything leads students to value the grade over the process, whereas multiple whole group strategies used to teach something will yield better individual comprehension on quizzes and papers by sheer value of repetition.

The educational world is currently exploding with wonderful techniques and strategies to facilitate close reading through active learning. I hope you can find something that works for you and your students. Honor your own ideas, play around and let yourself and your students have some fun.

For more information about Shakespeare Works When Shakespeare Plays, visit http://education.ucdavis.edu/shakespeare-works-when-shakespeare-plays.

 

 

 

 

God, I Hope I Get It: Strategies in Casting Youth Theatre

I just finished the annual task of placing students in their roles for our Fall Play. It was an extremely quick task this time, which may be because all of the students in my company are playing teenagers in this one (a rare occurence), but I thought I’d share some of the tips and tricks that make it work for me on a yearly basis.

WE’RE ALL IN THIS TOGETHER

First of all, it’s important to note based on some of these strategies that I run the mainstage arm of my department as an audition/interview only ensemble. This means that most of the students who will be participating in both mainstage shows have been prescreened by audition and have made a year commitment to the program, which they are receiving honors credit for. Advanced Honor students participate in two shows, competitions, and department one acts, as well as educational outreach for English classes. Advanced students participate in one or two shows and can audition for the musical, and Beginning students participate in department one acts. A student’s participation level increases with their learning.  There are myriad advantages to setting up your department that way:

1. If you can get your advanced or advanced class scheduled for the end of the school day, you can start rehearsing at 2 pm and be home by 4 or 5 instead of 6 in the early stages of production, like other teachers. I’m not saying it won’t get strange later, but being able to strategically front load quality of life gives you a significant advantage as tech week approaches.

2. Keeping roughly the same group (with a few guests added as musical season comes around) enables you to create a serious culture which is enforced by students. They get a built in “family” and you get boots on the ground and role models for new performers in such areas as early memorization, silence backstage, the how can I help approach, and student ownership of design and stage management. You no longer have to be the enforcer, your seasoned vets take care of some problems before they arise.

3. Asking students to stay in a company environment where they regularly audition for opportunities makes the audition process a lot less painful for you and for them. They get practice and eventually get good at winning roles, and the same peer ethic gets passed down to the younger generation.

4. It makes certain standard drama teacher problems (hunting for male performers, sports conflicts) simply disappear. If you’re doing a sport while a show is rehearsing, you work crew. Otherwise, choose. I don’t work around anyone’s schedule, and therefore I don’t have problems securing anchor performers. The students are there because they are serious. Less serious students can pursue less serious opportunities.

5. Choosing shows becomes infinitely easier when you have some sense of who will be involved in a cast. A disadvantage, of course, is that if you’re going to give this opportunity to students, you must reward them by doing shows that cast as many of them as possible, so remember that when auditioning a group for the upcoming year. Most of my shows have to be in that magic 23 to 40 character range. This cuts out a lot of major playwrights, who get relegated to competition cuts.

DECISIONS/DECISIONS

I came in this year without a game plan. What I had was about five potential scripts that kind of spoke to me. Nothing was awake and alive in my brain. I was, frankly, terrified. So with the help of my assistant director, we did this:

1. Volunteer student readers went through the scripts and selected 5 minute sections of them for staged readings.

2.  On the first day of school, the students were artfully divided into mixed casts designed to break up cliques as well as place more experienced ensemble members with our new performers.

3. Groups had two in class rehearsal days to stage their section.

4. The entire company, my assistant, and I watched all performances.

5. We held a talkback where the company gave feedback on what they think the best choices were for our group, based on marketability, technical demands, and quality of writing. We made our decision based on both the performances we had seen and this student feedback.

The result is that the cast already felt good about the project before auditioning for it.

GOD, I HOPE I GET IT

We run auditions for the fall show like this:

1. I xerox short sections of text, 2 to 4 character scenes, and the occasional standout monologue where I’m looking for something specific. I use color coding, xeroxing on different colored paper so that I can tell kids: “Thanks, go pick up a blue side, or look at the green monologue.” This is easier than asking them to actually read things before they grab them.

2. Stage managers work the door in teams of two or 3, collecting audition sheets and sending in groups. This means that STUDENTS are responsible for discipline and order, and you are free to cast.

Audition sheets require that:

  • students list the roles they are interested in, as well as previous roles they’ve played
  • students list special skills
  • students list the classes they are taking (All AP’s? Think before giving them the lead.)
  • students list known, longstanding conflicts
  • students see mandatory tech week and performance dates
  • students understand absence policies

If you have problems with student flakiness or egomania, have parents sign it too.

 

3. Students come in in pairs and are then triaged to new reads. We do this until we’ve heard everybody or until the posted end time for the audition is over. When at all possible, respect students time, and they will respect yours.

4. We then immediately publish the callback list for the next day, on social media in our case and on the door for the musical, because that is more involved and complicated.

5. If a student requests to be called back for a particular role, LET THEM. Callbacks are public, they will then be able to see how they measure up to the other students called back. This is an area in which I diverge from “the professional standard.” These are actors, but they are YOUNG ACTORS. Their sense of themselves is not fully formed. Kill that without good reason, and hell hath no fury. They will take you down. Get them to appreciate what they’re up against, and that will either get them to work harder or fall back, both of which are worthwhile paths.

CALLBACKS

1. A simple way to see all your “Romeos” and “Juliets” is to bring them all into a room together and have them read line by line, alternating lines.

Then pair them up and have them read the same section.

Then repeat any pairs you want to see again or make new mixes. Voila.

Casting considerations to ponder when casting leads:

  • Do you want a short Romeo and a tall Juliet? Is type important to you as a director? I’ve been burned a lot by falling for type.
  • Do you believe them when they talk to each other?
  • Will both of them work hard?
  • Do they have the facility with the text or the genre you are trying to do?
  • Are they vocally and physically ready?
  • Are they easy to work with?  If you have a track record with them, you know. Don’t lie to yourself.
  • Do they take direction?
  • How prepared are they for the audition?
  • Can they psychologically handle being leads? The notes, the isolation? Not every young person can.
  • What’s your backup plan?

THERE ARE NO SMALL PARTS, ONLY SMALL ACTORS

1. Read smaller roles FIRST, and let them go when they’re done. Make leads stay to the bitter end of the callback.

2. Having trouble casting ensemble members, as we were with this play, where it’s full of named, distinct people in large groups? Grab short sections with a lot of characters and cast right off your ensemble list, mixing up those called back for leads into their lead roles in each section. You’ll see and hear a lot that way.

3. Consider concluding a large group audition by having each student get up and do ONE LINE from the script in front of the whole group. Note which line each student picks, they’re not being philosophical, it’s usually the part they want! If given a choice between students who desperately want a particular smaller  role and those who are indifferent or open, if all things are equal, the magical part of being a drama teacher is you can please some of the people some of the time!

POSTING

I post Fridays after school. This gives students two days to hate me if they must, before back to business as usual. I go mute on social media for those two days, and I expect professional behavior when we all get back.

If a student comes to you to question their role, congratulate them on having guts. These are kids, again, not grownups. Give them technical feedback about what they can do to improve, which means specific behaviors that they can control. You clearly don’t have to explain to them that a decision was based on their physicality or seniority. They can’t control those things.  They CAN work on:

  • Planting their feet
  • Taking risks
  • Listening to other performers and sharing the stage picture
  • Diction or Articulation
  • Taking dance or working with a vocal coach
  • Focusing their energy on stage
  • Developing their skills as a manager or technician

Ultimately, students do theatre because they want to belong, and be seen and heard. There is a place for most everyone in theatre, it’s just not always on stage. One of the beautiful and heartbreaking things about working in youth theatre is how much we all (teachers and students) learn while doing it, sometimes the hard way.

But hey, there’s a barn. Let’s put on a show.

 

 

 

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

 

 

 

 

 

Athlete of the Emotions: Exploring Rasaboxes

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

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

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

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

BACKGROUND

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

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

INTRODUCTION TO THE WORK

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

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

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

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

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

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

Give the kids crayons.

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

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

Give them the next assignment.

LETTERS

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

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

GESTURES

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

THREE LINES

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

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

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

TWO STUDENTS

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

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

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

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

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

TEXT

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

Here are some scenes that work well.

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

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

Crucible- The forest scene between Proctor and Abby

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

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

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

IDEAS FOR FINAL ASSESSMENT

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

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

 

 

 

 

Reading an Elephant: Martin David on Script Analysis

I don’t know about you, but for me, teaching young actors how to unpack a script is pretty challenging. Even when they have been doing newfangled “talking to the text” Common Core work in their English classes, the fact is that most English teachers, even though they might teach plays, don’t focus on the text of a script in a way that helps a young actor understand how to mine it for character, a character that will need to be played. Character analysis for actors is wildly different than for students of literature, and is a teachable skill.

Most young actors may be unaware that there is work to be done. Thankfully, my friend Martin David, a terrific actor and teacher out of Denver, has written a concise guide to this important practice.  It’s available for peanuts on Amazon here.

The great thing about this work that he has created is that it can go directly to your students without filtering from you. Much of what I bring to the classroom is my attempt to adapt the teachings of great masters into adolescent-friendly form. I read books, I take workshops, and then I make the tweaks and adjustments necessary to translate the work into a meaningful way for my students, which has worked for me with some pretty impenetrable material, everything from Michael Chekhov to Meisner to the Rasaboxes.

But Martin’s guide could go right into your rooms and be applied to the scripts they are working on now. He breaks the process of approaching the script into simple pieces, covering:

  • What script analysis is and why it’s important
  • The parts of a play from act to scene to beat and how to break it down
  • What a beat actually is ( and he gives a wonderful, very accessible example from Hamlet)
  • The different types of beats, objective, personal, and the very interesting physical type
  • The importance of annotating a script, even down to the permisison to give personal names to beats
  • The secret world of what I’ve always called “actor talk”
  • The three simple questions which guide an actor’s relationships to the words in a text:
    • What am I saying?
    • Why am I saying it now?
    • What does it mean to me?
  • How to put it all together.

In short, Martin David’s simple, logical, user friendly approach will give novice actors not only the tools to systematically examine a script, but also the confidence to begin to trust their own instincts and imagination in the acting process.

I highly recommend this work and plan to test drive it in my classroom this semester.  Check it out, you’ll be happy you did.

“Do you hear a faint heartbeat? That is your character beginning to breathe and come to life.” – Martin David