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.