Monthly Archives: October 2014

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.

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.

WARMUPS

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

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.

ABC

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.

1-10

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.

GIBBERISH

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.

TEACHING OR SELLING

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.

SPECIAL ISSUES WITH GIBBERISH

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.