Category Archives: Emotional Athleticism

Look Around: Mindful Moments in the Drama Classroom

A few years ago, my theatre teaching practice was transformed by a conscious decision to begin class in a circle every day.

It’s not a perfect ritual, but it’s comfortable, a good way to get a headcount and a pulsecheck on the room, and it mostly builds energy for the students. It is easy to see the difference on days when we have to move class to a different location such as to the theatre for a presentation, how the students handle their confusion and bristle a bit before settling into their typical class personas, closed, individual, side to side. Shadows of the students I see in circle, bolder, able to grab a room, able to make a false step and bounce back in front of an audience of their peers.

Beginning every class with a grand opening has its disadvantages, mostly in the guise of teacher stress. On a human day, an off day, if you start class with a projection on the board or handing something out, you can hide behind those activities a little bit. If you’re working sick or tired or angry in a circle, there is no mercy. You gotta fake it so you can make it, so about a year ago, I started meditating in the mornings to see if I could fake it better, bringing myself into better regulation and form to deal with the 30 plus needy and disregulated young geniuses around me every hour.

It really worked. I still got cranky and frustrated at times with innattentive or disruptive kids, but I had way more energy and stamina overall, and simply enjoyed being with them more. When life got very strange and sad at the end of last semester with the impending loss of our classroom, I was able to mostly just be there for how sad it was, which helped my students step up and be there too. Looking back on this, I credit my practice with helping me make it through.

Last year, I dabbled a bit in doing some mindfulness work with students, mostly at the advanced level. This year I decided to formally bring the work into my curriculum,  in a way that would be appropriate for them and hopefully serve as an extra tool in their self- discovery toolkits.  I took an online course over the summer, Mindfulness for Educators, and started incorporating lessons into my classroom practice every week.

If you haven’t heard of mindfulness, it’s just, well, the practice of being for a moment.

Google defines mindfulness as the following: ” 1. the quality or state of being conscious or aware of something, or 2. a mental state achieved by focusing one’s awareness on the present moment, while calmly acknowledging and accepting one’s feelings, thoughts, and bodily sensations.” It describes it as a “therapeutic technique”, but that’s not really the focus I try to bring across in my classroom.

Basically, we sit down, get comfortable, talk about what is essentially the practice of “noting” or identifying thoughts without judging them in various capacities (good/bad, past/present, etc) and then focus on watching our breath for a minute to two, depending on the class. Nobody has to participate, as long as they don’t disturb others, and the discussion surrounding it is extremely clinical and non-sectarian. My students are invited to be curious about their minds, and ok with their feelings, for a minute or two at a time.  If there is an implicit goal being expressed about the work, it is for us to know ourselves better so that we can have an easier time going about the business of the day.

The concept of “noticing” is a big one in my classes, as it invites students to respond to the work of others and their own work with honest reflection, an eye towards detail, and a way to discuss aesthetics of performance without labeling positive or negative. Some things we do in performance are effective, others are not. It takes the evaluation process away from personality and that silly word ‘talent” and moves it into achievable outcomes such as enough rehearsal and maintaining effective working relationships while practicing skills.

This language is very important to my highly analytical, sometimes socially cautious crowd, and when we “note” our feelings and reactions in mindful practice, it reinforces the idea that creativity and community are also practices which can be developed.

In order to maintain a very secular approach to the work, I use a Vibra-Tone, rather than a singing bowl. This is an instrument available on amazon or through music shops, which allows you to create a beautiful tone when you strike it with a mallet. It’s not a necessity, but it’s cool, and it helps students build on a foundation for settling down for an inclusive class ritual.

So what have I “noticed” while implementing mindfulness in my class?

  • It’s easier to bring my class to focus at other times. Since we’re all calmer, I don’t have to escalate, vocally or emotionally,  to get them back to attention paying mode from, say, simultaneous group work.
  • Students appreciate the break. It goes without saying that our students are stressed by factors beyond their control, socioeconomic, societal, parental, media generated, personal, you name it. Most of my students actively look forward to a few moments away from these pressures, and the chance to be in their own moment.
  • Students have better vocabulary to describe what they’re hearing, seeing and feeling. Because the discussion of feelings, of noticing is normal in my room, this extends to their feedback for each other’s work and reflection on their own.
  • Students are incrementally able to focus a bit longer on rehearsing, relating, and watching. It’s a subtle shift, but one which is noticeable. We recently had one of the most delightful and distractible weeks at our school, Homecoming Week, where there’s a huge class rally every day with dances and  a skit, and we still practiced. We had a room full of silent students with their eyes closed mere moments after a high energy rally, while the school was still exploding with excitement outdoors. It didn’t take away from students’ enjoyment of their week, but it gave them a moment to really notice how it was affecting them.

I hope as always you found some ideas here that could be helpful in your rooms. Happy Fall Shows to you!

Shaping Space: Lessons from Presenting at CETA Conference 2015

We know, as performing arts teachers, that space matters. Space wars and space envy are real things on campus.  We’ve all been to each other’s classrooms or schools and silently, internally shaken our heads with envy or empathy about what another colleague gets to work with. You’re doing a play in the cafeteria with the ripped curtains where you have to rehearse around the show choir and your dear friend down the road gets the multimillion dollar “performing arts facility” with the flyspace and the inflexible theatre manager. Everybody’s situation is different and rarely ideal. Some of us have to share space and resources to the point of chaos, some of us are geographically isolated or scattered all over campus, and we all know there is never enough time with students or without, a kind of space itself.

I’ve been thinking about space a lot recently. This past Saturday, I presented some of my work on Rasaboxes, a space based practice,  at the California Educational Theatre Association Conference , a  great organization for theatre educators,  at the Asilomar Conference Grounds in Pacific Grove, which is a beautiful space to work in.

When I present or teach adults or adolescents, I try to get there early enough to customize the space.  All of the fears inherent in teaching, that we will be unable to run our rooms, or discovered as a fraud, are wrapped up for me in preparing the room ahead of time. At the beginning of a school year, I often dance in my empty classroom before the first bell rings, a way of calling it all in. Teaching adults is tremendously satisfying and more nerve wracking, so I am careful to make very conscious choices about where and how I want people to be.

When you present work at a conference, all of the mechanisms of teaching out of a designated space, your classroom, must be replicated in a strange and neutral location. This is what often bewildered me about my college and graduate school classes, where my professors seemed to be able to teach wonderful things in strangely shaped, poorly lit rooms, without even the benefit of a personal item or desk drawer for backup.  I learned from watching them that if they didn’t like the way a room was laid out, they took a few moments to unapologetically adjust it- the seating, the windows, the temperature.

The last two times I have presented, my rooms have been long, empty, bowling alley like affairs that I must somehow curtail for an unknown group of participants a half hour before in order to create the space I like to work in. This, of course is the exact opposite situation from what a mired classroom teacher with a set number of students faces. We’re usually trying to make more space, and at a conference, I often find I am trying to make less.

What I did before and during my presentation to shape the room got me thinking about the importance of designating space for our work. Here are a few takeaways from what worked for me and what I need to work on.

1. Enclose and define your space to create emotional and physical safety.  This particular room was set up for a lot of open play space, because active, ensemble work is what drama teachers love the best about conferences. New games and warmup are what we live for, because they engage, exhaust, and focus our students. I love those workshops, but I needed a tighter space because I was teaching a multi day process that involved working on a taped floor grid. I still wanted a circle though, so I moved chairs in.  I wanted the focus on the grid, on the lesson. I wanted people about one step away from the grid, so that anyone could enter it.  And I wanted them close to each other.  Every class has its own story. The safer the space, the more possibilities for students to participate in telling that story.  The shorter the distance to “onstage”, the more likely it will be that students will travel that distance.

2. Create open space within your classroom practice.  Allow students to “act” without consequence by creating space for emotional risk and decision making.  I asked my colleagues to place the butcher paper with the different emotions of the rasas on the floor  in one of eight squares, avoiding the middle, as they came into the room, thus utilizing those first often awkward few minutes to our advantage.  This meant that eight individual “students” had already gone into the boxes on a neutral errand before we started working with it, owning the choices they’d made. There were 23 students in the workshop, so that created a curiosity and openness right off, a kind of moving anticipatory set.  Later, I set five  students up for one of the activities, which was simply to read a letter and move to a box showing how the letter made them feel, while other students were finishing up with the activity I’ll describe next, graffiti.

3. Allow and require students to own the space. Having laid down the rasas in a way that was particular to this exact group,  the architecture of the session was laid out by the students themselves, part of the story. Next, students to go around and “graffiti”  the various emotions- I like to use crayons, inspired by the work of Comedy Sportz LA’s  James Bailey, who was actually in the session! This action gets students collaborating, taking turns, engaged in self-expression, and supporting each other in creative action, all before they’ve made any theatre together.  This is vital, particularly as a way to cultivate the community and emotional honesty that theatre demands.  Activities like this are great icebreakers when the group doesn’t know each other, but are particularly important to continue to revive as the group knows each other more, because it keeps the space democratic, rather than full of territoriality.

4. Music equalizes, neutralizes and energizes the space. I thought ahead and brought my laptop to play music, as I usually do before class. I play music, my music and theirs, with teenagers because music is their language.  I feel all groups respond well to it. When CETA luminary Amanda Swann introduced me, the music wonderfully and randomly switched to a circus calliope verson of “Be A Clown”, which made everyone laugh as I rushed over to switch it off. For some reason, this made me feel better, because this inadvertent toppling of my status allowed me to feel, well, less burdened by the need to “teach” and more in the space I wanted my participants to be in, that “sharing”  space which is necessary for the emotional connection that I find happens with Rasaboxes.

5. Time is space.  As we shape space in our classrooms, it’s also important to manage time.  As usual, I overplanned activities for this workshop, which could have gone far more deeply into text. I did, however, make the necessary space for discussion of each exercise I presented, which is what I noticed my colleagues needing, as I was giving them a lot to process.  I underplanned materials (ran out of handouts, left key contact info off my worksheet) as well. I laughed that off, but in general, we all know that overplanning trumps underplanning. One of the advantages we have as mostly solo practitioners, except for when dealing with productions, is that it’s ok for units to run over, to spill out into the next day.  That frustrates those of us who like a calendar and have a set agenda of skills we’re trying to get through, but it shouldn’t. Running a good room means that the needs that the people in it are met. Consider that you, as the teacher, can shape your 55 to 80 minute block in any way that you wish, but that the constraints of time are a powerful teaching tool.

I had a great time presenting at CETA and enjoyed learning from my colleagues as I hope they did from me.  Our spaces matter, and as performing arts teachers, we have the power to define them in the way that works best for ourselves and our students. With some planning, experimentation and reflection, we can improve our own relationships to space, allowing our students to experience our curriculum more deeply.

 

 

 

 

 

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.