So you’re teaching Drama.
How do you start the year? Where do you want them to go first?
I start the year by building community through play. It is my intense focus. I want students to begin to observe, trust, communicate, create before they work with text or do any “acting.” If this feels unacademic to you, have the students keep a daily journal where they respond to what they have learned in these games addressing whatever standards or vocabulary you wish. You will find gold. I do a lot of that through discussion.
The first day of school is the most boring, where I do the green sheet or course description. I have not yet found a way around that, because I don’t handle paper every day with the students, so I prefer to get it out of the way all at once. To soften the boringness, I hand out letters from former drama students to the new students, written at the end of the year. They say things like “this class is fun, just go with it and you won’t have a problem” and “you will learn a lot in here, just don’t make her mad. She may seem crazy, but her heart is in the right place.” I consider these honest observations from teenagers, who have trouble distinguishing between passion and “a bad mood” as my friend Lou who teaches music at the college level recently pointed out, to be complementary, and I feel like they help set an environment for honesty and openness.
CALLING THE GROUP- THE EMMALINDA
If we have time on the first day, I teach the students the Emmalinda, a clapping sequence designed to assemble the group, which they will use pretty much every day for the rest of their careers with me. It is named after the extraordinary student who brought it into the department (I think she learned it in her summer theatre class), a gifted actress and designer who also went on to become a teacher. It indicates to the students that it’s time to get in a circle and get ready for class. All classes, with the exception of a few, begin with this circle, because I have found for the previous six years that the more group games and routines I include in my practice, the better the kids are when they leave. By better, I mean they are more focused, more open, more confident, more skilled, more dedicated, more compassionate, and more resourceful.
It goes like this. Two fast claps, then another clap. And when the students hear it, they do it all together as they form a circle. It continues until the last student has made it into the circle. All, as they like to say on my campus, means all.
To stop clapping, I gradually slow it down, or the students gradually speed it up until it evolves into applause. Or I clap a pattern and they return it, which they love. We are now ready to work.
Invariably, I work next with games that involve a ball, a large, rubber ball which you can get at the drugstore in the seasonal section. I always have between 3 and 8 of these in my classroom, and as students destroy them, I accumulate more. I have a colleague, Kevin, who teaches on the East Coast who likes to use bean bags. I have used those as well.
Before you start with a ball, acknowledge that you need to be easy with it. You’re inside, and this is not dodgeball. Enforce if you need to. Also point out that we tend to look at dropped balls as opportunities to laugh at people, and that’s not incredibly helpful.
Here are some things you can do with a ball, or several. You could do a few one day, or one a day for a few weeks, or one occasionally.
1. Have the students pass it around the circle, saying their name. Have them then find out the name of the person next to them and pass it to that person saying the other person’s name. Then two doors down on one side, then on the other. Focus on moving the object and not worrying too much when someone drops the ball, because they will.
2. Have them toss (a beanbag works better for this) the ball while saying their name, connecting their name to the breath in one motion. Thanks to my colleague Kevin for that one.
3. Have them go into the center of the circle and learn three names, then toss the ball around saying names. It’s easier to work with people if you feel like they know your name.
4. In the beginning of class, before the clapping, or even during announcements if that happens, have the students silently toss the ball to each other or push it with their feet in a seated circle.
5. Deposit several balls in the circle and allow students to toss them lightly around.
6. Number the students off. Then have the entire circle switch places. Tell them to find the person before and after their number. These are their two partners. Starting with the ball at number one, have them toss the ball in a pattern. Have them do the pattern backwards. Have them close their eyes. Tell them to open them only long enough to receive and send the ball to the next person. Catching a ball only seconds after your eyes have opened is a really interesting experience. Waiting in the dark to hear your name and number brings up some stuff. Ask students what they notice.
DOG AND BONE
This is a Viola Spolin classic, and it works with students of all ages. Have them stay in the circle. One student (you’ll always have that volunteer) goes in the center to be the “dog.” He or she sits crisscross applesauce, and you place a soft object (a tug of war, a koosh ball, a beanbag) in front of him or her just out of reach. This is his or her “bone”. Another student will silently try to steal the bone from the “sleeping dog’ by creeping up on him/her. Unless he or she gets tagged. If the student gets away successfully, they will become the new dog. And repeat.
I let as many students try this as want to and as time permits. I stop periodically and point out the reactions of the audience to particularly skilled ‘dogs’ or “thieves.” I ask them why they want to watch certain people. I ask them what people do to get the bone. This opens a discussion of the hero/protagonist. The villain/antagonist. The prize to be won, goal, or obstacle. The interesting thing about theatre is that many times, the roles are reversed. A great dog on a winning streak will eventually wear out the audience, and they’ll want him to lose to a disadvantaged thief who’s waiting patiently. Students invariably try to use their shoe as a distraction. This is a prop. The audience starts to participate. The game is a great vehicle to begin to discuss performance.
More games later.