Monthly Archives: November 2014

The Kids are Alright: How SNL Missed the Mark

We interrupt our gentle exploration of drama class pedagogy for something completely different.

Perhaps you saw this today?

https://screen.yahoo.com/snl/high-school-theater-show-074944587.html

It’s  Saturday Night Live’s  sketch entitled “High School Theatre Show” .  Knowing what I do, friends were joyously sharing it on my Facebook wall. They expected me to be amused. Sorry, but I’m not. And I’m not sorry.

It’s a sketch  that satirizes high school students doing an experimental theatre collage regarding social issues. It involves moving black boxes around. Too much. That’s the joke. The other jokes are about how the “parents hate to think the kids think they’re teaching them”, and how the kids are unprofessional, and have seven intermissions, and think it’s powerful to walk around in character during them, and how doing expressionistic theatre about social issues is pathetically laughable.

And it’s lame. It’s lamer than any high school play I’ve ever seen, or any high school theatre festival offering I’ve ever seen, because of this reason.  It’s lame because it’s mean spirited, and aggressively, well, a tool of the oppressor.  It’s lame because it sends the message that theatre at its most accessible, youth theatre,  has nothing to teach us.

It involves parents depicted as well-heeled adults, who don’t remember what it’s like to be kids, looking back awkwardly at students’ attempts to be creative, to engage with the world, to say something. It involves an audience of such adults,  who are too jaded to care if their kids are trying to say something. And it mocks the roots of where most of these adults actually come from. We’re supposed to watch it, and laugh at these other adults, playing teenagers  trying to say something, and having that rejected by the people who are supposed to love and support them.

And that, well, that’s a problem. You want an authentic experience, full of struggle and dedication and the desperate attempt at connection to a higher plane of human communion? Go see a high school play. The experience is vastly, tediously underrated by entertainment, by academia, and by society at large. It’s where it all begins, and attention should be paid.

Elliot Eisner said that the arts symbolize to kids what adults think are important. And when we gleefully,  (yeah, I went there) and at a high level, mock the arts and their place in education from our snarky, high finance chairs, we aren’t using our powers for good.  And in an increasing culture of the corporatization of, well, everything, public education included, and a general climate of complete misinformation when it comes to the value of the arts, I find this particular offering from SNL unnecessary.

You probably think I’m taking myself too seriously as a teacher, or overvaluing what my kids can do, that I’m blinded by love. Maybe. But it’s this love that gets kids through high school, that gives them a chance at determining their own paths, that allows them to find their unique potential in the world. This love opens doors. This love changes lives. This love, and the love of the arts that it fosters and engenders,  puts more and more  self-aware, creative, alive people into our society.

So point your snark elsewhere, Saturday Night Live. At the world’s real hypocrites. Not those who will eventually shape its creative destiny.

The kids are alright.  Leave them alone.  And clap once in awhile.

Status Update: Masters and Servants 3

23 carlstrass

Masters and Servants is ultimately an exercise in typecasting. The word has a negative connotation for many drama students, and  some instructors. But typecasting works to tell a story,  and may help students to learn how to create a character through making choices.

This will describe the summative evaluation for this work, the Master/Servant scene, adapted from the works of Keith Johnstone for work in your classroom. For Parts 1 and 2 of this work, look back. Otherwise read on.

Masters and Servants are the building blocks of archetypes.  At one end of the spectrum, excuse the genderism,  is the King, the Sovereign,  and at the other end? The Fool. The only person who can tell the King the truth.

If you don’t think these images resonate with students, you’re not paying attention. Their lives are about status, who has it, who doesn’t, how to get it. In their peer groups, in their classrooms, at home. Letting them play with this in your classroom is very important. Because the drama classroom is a safe and sacred space to tell the truth. 

WARMUP

Sovereign, Warrior, Carer, Fool. From Philip Cumbus’s workshop through  Globe Education at the Shakespeare Works When Shakespeare Plays Conference ( I’m telling you, you gotta go!)

Sovereign- You can come at this out of a circle, or out of a mill and seethe.  Students raise their hands and put a “crown” on their head. Feeling the weight of the crown, they walk around the room being the King or Queen. You can put music on with this, I use “Hail to the Chief.”  When you notice raised chins, slow steps, great posture, and level eyecontact, praise that. They’re doing  “The Sovereign. ”

Warrior- Move one hand to the heart and the other to the side and up like they’re holding a sword. Tell them to cut a path through the air, without touching each other. Put on something suitably fighty, like the theme song to the Pirates of the Caribbean. The movie. Not the ride.

Fool-  Flex the feet. Bend the knees. Saunter up to other people, and when you meet them, spin around and snap at them while smiling.  This will cause much merriment. Put on “Be a Clown”.  Played by a Wurlitzer.

Carer- Hard for some. Put hands at heart. Walk slowly up to your classmates and open your hands in a gesture of opening your heart to the others. Use something sweet and cosmic. I like Lisa Gerrard’s “Now We are Free” from Gladiator, mostly because it makes kids suddenly go “Oh, this is from Gladiator!” while they are awkwardly connecting to each other.

Stop.  Send the students to four corners of the room according to the following direction:

Go where you felt the most comfortable. Sovereigns. over here by the stereo. Warriors, there by my desk. Fools, by the window. Carers, by the door.

Now tell the groups to work together for one minute to create a sculpture of the best things about being each archetype. Assign a group to go first, have everyone else just sit in their places in the quadrant, this works best without moving into proscenium mode.

You’ll see:

  • A Sovereign generously giving to his or her people while they look up to him or her with loyalty.
  • Warriors protecting the weak and fragile.
  • Fools entertaining and unifying a crowd.
  • Carers supporting the downtrodden.

If this is not what you see, or something like it, ask them what they were going for.  This exercise is a “powers for good” exercise, a sun side and shadow side exercise, and we’re about to get to the shadow.  We can’t display the shadow in an unsafe environment.

Then have them go to the area where they were the least comfortable. Watch where kids go and store that data for later. It’s pretty revealing of your class culture. A lot of warriors and fools? That’s a different class than one with a lot of sovereigns and carers. We think we know what we want them to be, don’t we?

Repeat the exercise.

You’ll see:

  • A Sovereign raised up on the backs of people while their people starve and are silenced.
  • A Warrior alone among a field of dead bodies. Or no one left.
  • Fools excluding and mocking one person so that they are completely emotionally ruined.
  • Carers smothering or tearing apart those they care for.

Ask them what they noticed.  The idea here is that people “get” certain types of things about certain characters, and can create aspects of character that are universally recognizable. Then put everybody into proscenium and move onto:

MASTERS AND SERVANT EXAMPLE SCENES

From Johnstone.

HAVE A SEAT-  Put a chair onstage. Ask for a Master volunteer and a Servant. Send the Servant to the periphery (just offstage, but better, onstage and visible) The private, or public conversation you have with the Master is as follows:

Invite your servant in. Tell them it’s ok to sit in your chair, offer them a snack, and at some point, let them know they’ve crossed the line. Try to make this moment spectacular.

Tell the Servant: You’re not comfortable accepting favors from the Master, but eventually give in, even though you know it probably won’t end well.

Purpose: Get Masters comfortable with throwing tantrums. Get Servants comfortable with pushing limits.

Repeat this with a couple of volunteers.

IT WAS YOUR IDEA:  A Servant-driven scene.  Servant’s goal? To use every challenge as an excuse to glorify or assuage the Master. Master simply needs to keep picking.  Send a Servant to the periphery. Give the Master the first line:

Master:  Servant! Why are you wearing that ridiculous uniform?

Servant: It’s Your birthday, Sir. (or Ma’am).

Alternately: “Servant! Why doesn’t this coffee have sugar in it?” “It’s already in there, Sir. ”

APPETITE FOR DESTRUCTION: Another Servant-driven scene. Servant makes it worse and worse and the master buys it.

Master: Servant! Why are you wearing that ridiculous uniform?

Servant: I burned the other one.

After a few rounds of these, they are perhaps ready to put together the scenario, available on my TPT site along with some of these exercises and a rubric you can customize.

THE SCENARIO

1. The Servant helps the Master get ready for an important event.

2. The Master is called away ( a meeting, a phone call, a costume fitting). He or she leaves the servant with specific instructions. Pick all the lentils out of the fire. Don’t sit in my chair. Put Ms. Edwina back in the bowl. Whatever.

3.  The Servant, left alone,  disobeys, fails to accomplish, or sabotages the Master’s direct orders.

4. The Master returns and punishes or fires the Servant.

That’s it. Request that this is what happens in the scenes. If you have a group of three, have the Master fire a servant in the first scene, bring on the second, have that servant disobey, and then be fired and the first one rehired. Simple.

Give them most of a class period to put these together. If performances run over, give five minutes at the beginning of the next class to reconnect.  Encourage whimsy, loudness, and absurdity. Discourage perversion, cruelty, and equality. Push them out of their comfort zones by encouraging them to laugh wierdly, have complete meltdowns, and be arrogant, lazy, and codependent.

If a scene is boring or cruel, stop it and make them redo it. If there are a couple of students who totally get this, and there always are, or if you have TA’s, have them mentor the students.

Ask them what they noticed.

 

 

 

Status Update: Masters and Servants 2

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

WARMUPS

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

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

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

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

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

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

ARIEL To every article.

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

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

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

ARIEL My liberty.

PROSPERO Before the time be out? no more!

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

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

ARIEL No.

PROSPERO Thou liest, malignant thing! Hast thou forgot?

ARIEL No, sir.

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

You’ll get responses like this:

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

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

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

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

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

Watch the scene.

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

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

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

MASTERS

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

SERVANTS

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

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

TIPS AND TRICKS FOR GOOD CLASS CULTURE

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

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