Monthly Archives: January 2015

Why We Tell This Story: Theatre History for Beginners

I took a theatre history class in high school as part of a summer drama program. I don’t remember much about it.

A graying, distinguished professor. A dusty lecture hall. Passing notes to my friends. Some stuff about the Greeks. That’s about it.  Then I went to college, and theatre history was tied to plays, and to production, so of course it made more sense, and fell into place. Somewhat.

Then I started teaching drama. And I felt a responsibility to it.  It is, after all, a standard, and shouldn’t we make sure that our creative artists have solid foundations in the why and wherefore of the divine madness?

But it still doesn’t seem to be something which is easy to teach to beginning drama students. And for many of us, who teach a basic, comprehensive drama class, that is a challenge.

The first time I ever attempted to teach theatre history, it was to advanced students, and even they were resistant. Take these kids who feel like they’ve been acting, doing, and start handing them handouts, and lecturing to them, and wanting them to read archaic texts, and there will be pushback. You could, of course, start the year with it, but then how do you ever wake up these potential performers who have been used to doing the book work of academia, but applied to theatre?

You make it active, using the principals of on-your-feet learning.

I’ve been able to jam a lot of content into students by distilling what I’m trying to teach into a few ideas, and putting those ideas into an active context which has a performance component.

Let’s begin with the beginning. Storytelling.

How Did Theatre Begin?

1. Ask your students: How did theatre begin? You can do this as a quickwrite, a snowball (write it down, throw it across the room, everyone pick up someone elses) a think/pair/share. You can have them actively make group sculptures that demonstrate their ideas.

2. Record their responses in physical form so that they can be referred to. On the whiteboard, on butcher paper, on your cool smartboard thing. Whatever.

3. They will give you responses that don’t go far back enough. Push them to get to early man, to groups of people who were trying to survive, who were governed by what we now call “magical thinking,”  a kind of thinking that made them create rituals in order to safeguard themselves.

Ritual can be defined as 1. A religious or solemn ceremony consisting of a series of actions performed according to a prescribed order. 2. of, relating to, or done as a religious or solemn rite.

Depending on your population, feel free to emphasize or deemphasize the religious element of this discussion. I go to great lengths to point out that when I mention religion in the classroom, as I frequently do while discussing theatre history, I am doing so in a way which considers religion as a force in culture rather than emphasizing any particular religion’s approach to anything.

You can bring up the commonly held theory that theatre evolved from ritual, and that you can divide early ritual up into a few performative elements:

Elements of Ritual

1. Shamanism ( a medicine man or woman who was responsible for preserving stories and traditions of a people, connecting the past, present and future, present in the traditions of ancient civilizations around the world. Frequently  used illusion and spectacle to communicate with those seeking guidance. )

2. Storytelling (oral traditions)

3. Music (chanting, rhythm, songs)

4. Dance (everything from imitating animals to recreating historical events to stylizing the preparations for coming of age ceremonies and weddings)

Types of Ritual

Now ask your students to give you examples of rituals, from ancient to modern, and classify them into 3 types.

1. Power (inagurations, parades, openings of athletic events, other civic ceremonies, graduation)

2. Pleasure (weddings, christenings, prom)

3. Duty (funerals, taking the SAT, naming ceremonies, christenings, voting, attending religious services)

Creating a Ritual

You can choose to handle this as a solo performance or a group project.

1. A Moment from Life is a project most of us do in some way, and it connects very well to ritual if one looks at ritual in a personal context, which is a really appropriate way to characterize it with beginning students.  I have a set of directions for this in my store.

2. Group Ritual is another fun way to see if students have internalized this. Have students depict a ritual, anything from brushing teeth to swearing in the president using the elements of ritual.  In other words, their piece should incorporate shamanism, storytelling, music or dance, or some combination of the four, with the intention of either elevating the routine or placing the sacred and specific into some sort of epic context. 

Whatever way you do it, these are really fun for students to work on, and they have the effect of cementing the purpose of ritual and the placement of ritual within the context of performance studies for them.

You can wrap this up with a discussion or journal or exit ticket, but you will be surprised at how “doing” a historical context can help students remember its placement and context.


Vacation, All I Ever Wanted: The Power of Vacation Stories to Reconnect Your Students

Happy New Year! If you’re like me, you’re looking at January with a mixture of fascination and dread. What great learning will happen in your classroom? What new challenges will arise?

The first day back at school after a vacation can be a bit overwhelming. It is also a great time to use the lived experience of students  to make some new theatre and reconnect.


Circle Crosses. Some nice circle crosses are always appreciated, and give you a sense of what’s been happening with your students. Cross the circle if you:

  • Saw family this holiday
  • Had an unexpected conversation
  • Taught an older person about technology
  • Got a gift you didn’t know you wanted
  • Made an important decision
  • Spent too much time in the car
  • Left your house, the city, the state, the country (tailor to your population, mine often leaves the country)
  • Were responsible for someone else
  • Won a game

Keep these circle crosses open enough that kids can think to participate, and specific enough that they focus on people, places, events and ideas that may have happened over the break.

5 Person Sculptures. Groups of at least 4, no more than 7. Ten seconds or less. Entire group works together to form a 3-D sculpture.

  • Make the biggest object a member of your group saw this break.
  • Make the most impressive snack someone had.
  • Make the smallest item someone lost.
  • Make the strangest holiday gift someone received.

Partner Stories. Grab a random partner. Select and A and a B. Tell them the most astonishing thing that happened to you over break. Switch. Switch again.

A tell B  the story again, focusing on the people in it.

Switch. Same thing. B tell A.

Switch. A tell B the story again focusing on the place in it.

Switch. Same thing.

Switch. A tell B the story again focusing on events and ideas.

Switch. Same thing.


There are many options now that the details of the story have been brought out.

1. Pairs– Students can continue to work in pairs, choose one of the stories, and do a remembering scene in front of class where both tell the one story as if they were both there.


Lizette: So you remember how we were supposed to be in a flash mob at Christmas in the Park?

Tim: Yeah, that was awesome. We were totally looking forward to it. 

Lizette: Except that then you wanted to go look at that one display to see if they still had the raccoon in the purple dress…And we thought we had time, but then we got distracted…

Tim: So we missed the flash mob. 

Lizette: Yeah. And our friends were really annoyed. 

Tim: You were really annoyed. 

2. Fours- Two pairs join forces and work on one person’s story. That person narrates and the other three become the actors in the story.

Andrew:  My dad and stepmom stayed up late setting up this huge expensive train set for my new little brother. It’s really big and you can ride it around in a circle.  They bought it like two years ago when he was born and had been hanging onto it, waiting to have this impressive Christmas morning reveal. So then to top it off, they put an Olaf stuffed animal in the center of the carpet where it goes around. They figure he’ll go crazy for the train.  But he comes out in the morning, totally ignores the train, and goes right for Olaf, and no matter what they do, he won’t let go of Olaf and he’s scared of the train when they turn it on, and he starts crying, so they can’t get their perfect movie moment. 

Two actors play the parents and one the little boy. Andrew himself doubles as Olaf.

3. Monologues– A good into if you’re going to start working with monologues and if you’re pressed for time. Have everyone sit in the audience, and have students tell each other’s stories as if they had happened to them. All they should change are the pronouns, if they must.

Example: Jasper told Amanda a story about waiting in the car on New Year’s Eve with his younger siblings while his parents fought inside the house, and having it turn midnight without the whole family there. Amanda tells this story as if it were hers. Jasper tells the class Amanda’s story about coming out of a store on Christmas Eve where she’d been waiting in line for the whole family’s tamales, seeing a homeless guy, and handing him her Christmas tamales and watching as he took them and distributed them among other homeless people, and then just getting back in line to get more because she could.

TIP: With sensitive stories, don’t ask whose story is whose. Let the stories stand on their own, as much as possible. If you work towards an open, supportive environment, an hour of stories will include hilarity and the solemn acknowledgment that truth has been spoken to power. This is a great activity to simply enjoy your students and absorb their lived experience. You can jump back into the next project tomorrow.

What they’re learning:

  • How to tell a story, alone, with a partner, or with a group.
  • Stories change with the people in them.
  • The retelling of a story makes it better and different.
  • We are the keepers of each others stories.
  • Drama class is a place to invest in one’s own voice, and in the community of voices.

Have a great first day back, everyone. I’ll be doing my part to make this a semester to remember.