Write Now: Creating a festival of student-written One Acts

Having students create their own work is a wonderful way to immerse them in the production process.  Creating a system with enough structure to give students writing, directing, performance and management opportunities is the key to a successful show. I’m going to talk about ideas for evolving that structure.

We recently created and produced an evening of One Acts at my school called THE RESTAURANT AT THE END OF THE UNIVERSE with over 130 students participating from three levels of theatre over the course of three nights. It was a great experience, and I believe this was due to the following factors:

Create a dominant theme.Some of our past have included Once Upon A Time, where each piece had to have an element of a fairytale, The Fortune Cookie, where students wrote plays based on fortunes they received on a massive cookie distribution day which involved the entire department, and this year’s Restaurant. The possibilities are limitless. Paint swatches? Tabloid headlines? Street names from their town?

The Restaurant had a menu of items. The students plays had to be titled one of those items, things like “The Cheese Stands Alone” and “Have Your Cake and Eat It Too”.

Place time limits on the plays.We also place character limits on them. Beginning students have a 5 minute limit, Advanced a 7 minute limit, and Advanced Honors a 10 minute limit. This allows reasonably timed evenings with many featured performances. Placing character limits on them, 3-5 for Beginning, 5-7 for advanced and 7-10 for Honors also makes it so plays can be about conflict and not feature a bunch of deus ex machina where one person rushes in with one line and solves a problem.

Consider having your most advanced students host each night in teams of two to four. This cuts down on having to do programs, because the advanced kids can simply announce the acts and it’s great practice for them in working in the variety show genre. You might have two or  four students who are up to the task. We had twelve, four for every night of One Acts.  Another wonderful side effect of this is that you can create stock characters that are available to be used in plays, played by the SAME ACTOR any given night. 

With Restaurant, we gave students four options for SERVERS. If they wrote a server, it was understood the server would be played by an advanced student who was hosting that night.  Since we had teams of four, there were four waiters, who had gender neutral names.

  • Logan, the world’s worst server
  • Pat, the longtime manager of the restaurant
  • Riley, the world’s best server
  • Casey, first day on the job

The hosts got the scripts ahead of time, were memorized, and it gave a cohesive and wonderful thread to the evening as beginning projects were elevated by the more advanced students’ performances. Since every project had been assigned an assistant, the assistants played the waiters throughout the process, giving these less experienced and less confident performers plenty of time to play and experiment without the pressure to have to go onstage.

 Create a set, or limit what sets they can use.  This cuts down on chaos, as inexperienced performers try to navigate the stage for the first time. This year we had a simple restaurant set with three tables, two screens, a “bar” and an offstage kitchen. If any patron  from any play walked into the kitchen, “Italian waiters” would make a great deal of noise (in fauxItalian)  and the patron would rush back onstage embarrassed. This running gag was maintained all three nights and delighted audiences. HAVE THE SET DESIGN AVAILABLE TO STUDENTS FROM THE BEGINNING, AND MAKE STUDENTS REHEARSE WITH IT, particularly if you don’t rehearse in the theatre.

Give a reasonable, but short block of time to produce this project across your classes. We usually do it in three weeks and it’s not enough. I would go for five, especially if you’ve never done it before.

Timeline is as follows: Introduce the project all at once to all classes. Consider teaching standard professional playwriting format,  easily Googleable, which will make it easier to organize scripts, as it is the industry standard and more importantly requires a title and character page, which will help figure out what night things are going if there’s more than one night, and who the waiters are.

  1. Give students at least a week to turn in scripts. Give ALL students credit for turning in a script. But then cull the pile. Get the most interesting ones, and make multiple copies of those, a couple of class sets. If you’re working with multiple levels of students, decide whether or not you’re going to mix levels. I recommend it.
  2. Have students read scripts, identify the ones they are interested in, and then what they are interested in doing.  Listen to their preferences, but ASSIGN.  Each student must be assigned to act, direct, write (which means rewriting their particular script at the behest of its team) or assist. Try to have an assistant for every director. They can run production meetings and handle paperwork. If you have multiple class periods, have someone in charge of that class. A TA or your most organized student who enjoys that type of thing. Your next stage manager.
  3. When directors have been assigned, have a director’s meeting where you go over basic responsibilities as well as ethics. In my department, the buck stops with me. If a director has a conflict with a cast member, they can bring it to me, and vice versa. Actors can be “fired” by me, as can directors.
  4. Casting. Require actors to read for everyone, and directors to read everyone. Your class assistants can keep a record of that. After this is complete, have another directors meeting where directors choose cast members. They need to go in order, negotiating, until all eligible people are cast. This prevents cliques, cronyism, and divas from taking over the whole thing.
  5. Announce and or post cast lists. Make adjustments as necessary.
  6. Have readthroughs. In front of you. To make sure the plays are appropriate and you didn’t miss any really wierd lines. My students have a habit of trying to hide crotch jokes and swear words in shows. The more advanced they get, the worse it is. Kids will be kids, but remember people are harder on original work. On the flip side, If a student is doing a challenging script that has integrity, you can now defend it, because you know it well.
  7. Have roughblocks.  In front of you. Don’t assume that because you’ve been teaching theatre skills all year long that the students will apply them. Live performance is when my students start forgetting the basics. Fear is a paralyzer.
  8. Hold them accountable for a production meeting and a memorization test. Make these small grades where you know that they know what they need to be doing to be ready.
  9. Have dress rehearsals in class if time permits. In my system, the class itself doesn’t all perform the same night, because we have three nights. But it’s still possible to have isolated dress rehearsals day of.
  10. Empower your technicians and managers.  The week of One Acts, my stage managers call 15 minute meetings with each cast in the theatre where they test volume, get specifics, and design sound to make it flow. Encourage your techs to use googledocs, spreadsheets, and calendars to organize a real production here.

One Week Before and the Nights of the Show…

Unless you have a publicity team in place, have a simple black and white poster that can go up around. Put the show in the announcements like any other show. Use social media. Charge a little.  Have a simple plan for concessions.  We sold popcorn this year and it was cost effective and well received by our audience.

Double check that each play knows what night they’re coming, and reinforce calltime. Make the call on the night of early enough that they can rehearse with stock character hosts if they need to, and that any last minute prop or costume things can be solved.  Since you have a theme, if you have stock, pull pieces or props that could easily work in the associated one acts. We had a table of just restaurant props.  We also managed to costume an apocalyptic Western out of items we had lying around.

Be hard on technique, easy on feelings.  For many of your students, this might be their first real time onstage. Be aware of that, but reinforce being seen and heard.  I have found, for instance, that students who don’t know they’re not projecting can be enlightened by going into the audience and having you or an advanced student say their line exactly as they are saying it.

Plan time each night before the show to gather as an entire group and do a warmup.  If you have multiple levels of drama performing, it’s neat to see them all together. This is also where you can identify the students who are running the show that evening, hosts and backstage tech, who should be easily identifiable via dresscode.  At our school, this is the first time beginners participate in some of the sacred “break a leg” rituals we do before shows for luck. Really affirming.

Have a system where performers can watch from the house before and after they go on. One Acts is a great opportunity for people to learn from each other! We ask performers to leave the audience two acts before theirs. Show order is posted on spreadsheets backstage.  A student manager meets them in the green room, holds them there for one, transfers them backstage to another manager, and then on, and quickly gets them out of the backstage when done. It’s like a dip in the pool.

After the show….

Debrief and celebrate. In our department we have the ice cream sandwich tradition, where each student must award an ice cream sandwich and say why they deserve it to another student. A great way to wrap up a season.

Ice Cream Sandwich

 

 

 

 

 

Waving from the Edge of the Pit: How To Get Over Your Obsession with “Teaching Them A Lesson”

Is being able to fail students one of the perks of the job? Is it really teaching students the “consequences of their actions”, or is a lazy way we have of making ourselves feel better about what we’re not doing to help them learn the material?

Why do we believe so much in our points systems? When we were learning the fine art of setting up a gradebook, which many of us were never actually formerly taught,  how did we decide what was worth what? How many points should be assigned? Now that standards based grading is a thing, how do we decide how to weight the rubric? If we grade on a curve, why? If we grade on “participation”, if we give students points for study guides, if every last thing in our classroom is worth points or it doesn’t happen, if we use points as punishment, as motivation, how is that working for us? Is it really possible for us to create an assessment, any assessment, that demonstrates without fail that our students have learned everything we were trying to teach them? I feel like we need to check ourselves on that one.

Are our systems working? Are we using failure, the fear of failure, the fear of “working at McDonalds”, to motivate our students? Have we ever actually questioned why we do that?  Why we set up a system which thrives on the certainty of failure, and the equal certainty that students will get in a hole they can’t crawl out of?

Why do we wait for them to fail and then wave at them from the edge of the pit?  

I didn’t coin that awesome phrase. I heard it in a staff development workshop a few years back. But it stuck. Along with the following question.

WHY IS ZERO SUCH A HERO?

Why is a zero a zero? Now bear in mind I teach drama, not math, which is all the more reason for me to question the numerical value I assign to tasks I expect my students to complete. I struggle with how many “points” something is worth in the grand scheme of a course. I adjust every year. But one thing I have come to embrace is that I no longer give zeros.

A zero means nothing was done, and it can never be done.

Now imagine that instead of zero, you put the same grade in at 50 percent. 50 percent means you expect it to be done. 50 percent is an insurance policy, where you grant students the trust that they will get it done in order to master what they need to know in your class.  Again, not my idea. I learned it in a training. But a really good one to think about.

A zero stops dialogue. Do it by my deadline, or else fail.  No late work. No excuses.  No bathroom passes. No excuses. Points off. Points off. Points off. 

Do we actually hear that every day at work in these “non McDonalds jobs” we want our students to aspire to? How long would anyone, all other things being possible, happily work for a boss who conveyed that message to us day in and day out?

Most of us would not.  And yet this is how some of us are conducting our rooms. We are using arbitrary numbers as weapons in what we are depicting as some sort of  giant battle to ensure student compliance. Without reflecting on the why or how, we are depending on numbers to do our communication for us.  And then we wonder “why we can’t reach them.” Why they aren’t more understanding of the fact that we are human. Why they are rude, and off-task.  Why they are disorganized and confused.

But if they aren’t there, how can I give them a grade? It’s not fair to the others. Reader, we all know that a student who does not show up and do their work will eventually fail. They will fail, without intervention, whether or not you’ve given a zero or 50 percent. But what about the day they walk back into class after whatever it was as they sometimes do? What then? They screwed up a semester. They didn’t commit unspeakable crimes against humanity. Why are we so attached to the power to “teach them a lesson” ? If they can’t come to our class, it’s pretty likely that they have a lot more on their plate than what we’re trying to pass along.

This doesn’t mean I don’t fail students. I am reduced to that occasionally. What it means is is that my class is not based around failure as a constant threat,  and my belief is that this makes my students feel safer to take risks, more creative, and more likely to work harder.

Instead of constantly threatening our students with failure, what if we set up another structure, where we meet them halfway? What if we set up checkpoints along the way, so that before they fail, there is a net to catch them?  When I talk about that, I am talking about ungraded tasks and practices whose chief purpose is to monitor information about how students are doing. Today’s buzzword for these is formative assessments, which provide us with the feedback about student performance we need to rescaffold so that we aren’t just failing people willy-nilly, trusting the points over our professional judgement.

Teachers new to teaching drama may wonder what that looks like.

FORMATIVE ASSESSMENT IN DRAMA CLASS

  • Mini lessons for scene work, focussing on just one skill to practice (today, let’s make sure everyone in the scene is projecting. Here’s how. Let’s practice acknowledging unseen offstage events. Here’s how. )
  • Readthroughs of proposed material, making sure it fits the performer in both ability and interest. If you hear a mismatch, you have time to make a change before it counts.
  • Watchits, where groups perform for a small audience of peers and receive informal feedback before performance
  • Memorization “quizzes” halfway through the scenework process, focusing on the first 10 lines or half the scene. Have students score them, but don’t put them into the gradebook, instead use the data to identify those kids who are struggling with memorization BEFORE the public shaming of getting onstage and blowing it for a grade
  • Do-overs- No penalty phase where the unready must actually get onstage, demonstrate unreadiness, and receive more time to prepare.
  • Interviews and Self-Assessments. Grading these assignments defeats the purpose of them.
  • Production Meetings- Either whole group or small, time for a group to formally confirm where they are in a process involving a larger product, such as a festival of one acts.

TOO EASY FOR THE “REAL WORLD”?

In the “real world” of work, it’s common to meet to discuss ideas before implementing them and assign tasks to stakeholders that then need to be completed. In the “real world”, while being unprepared for a presentation may eventually lead to being fired, it does not lead immediately to being cast out of the office and being forced to work in the boiler room.  In the “real world”, actions have natural consequences. I am in no way saying that our role as teachers is to coddle and hand hold students, or that students should never fail,  but I think we need to get over our fear that if nobody fails our class, nobody learned anything. This idea that you need losers to make winners, that the way to success is to master an arbitrary system,  is ill-conceived, particularly, for the following reasons:

It fosters the kind of sociopathic competition among students that we’re always shocked by. We say we want our students to be “good people” first. We’re in it for the “outcome, not the income”, we say. If that’s true, why do we leave it to a gradebook to decide what our room looks like?  We need to examine whether we’re in it to ensure that high achieving students maintain their status and low achievers make them look better by comparison, or whether we’re really in it to create individual growth and learning in all students.

It ignores the contributions of many gifted students and maintains an intellectual status quo. Earning points doesn’t actually motivate some of the brightest kids. They have different needs. They are motivated by being able to develop ideas or pursue their own interests. Some of them are motivated by a desire to lead or stand apart. How are we articulating the purpose of assignments for these students and connecting them to the material?

It presents as an irrelevant, hopeless game for our lowest achieving students. If you know you can’t win, you won’t play. These kids won’t grub for points, because they don’t translate into power for them. Community will. Responsibility will. Connection will. But those things need safety to function and I would argue that by creating a competitive, points driven climate in the classroom you are destabilizing safety as a curriculum. How do you grade someone’s ability to care? To self-advocate? How do you grade empathy? Passion? Those things have to be in place in order to create an person who wants to achieve. The most beautiful thing about teaching theatre is that it contains a story for everyone.

We have the power to fail students, but we also have the power to ensure that they don’t. We have the power to decide what lessons to teach.

 

 

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.

 

 

 

 

Reading an Elephant: Martin David on Script Analysis

I don’t know about you, but for me, teaching young actors how to unpack a script is pretty challenging. Even when they have been doing newfangled “talking to the text” Common Core work in their English classes, the fact is that most English teachers, even though they might teach plays, don’t focus on the text of a script in a way that helps a young actor understand how to mine it for character, a character that will need to be played. Character analysis for actors is wildly different than for students of literature, and is a teachable skill.

Most young actors may be unaware that there is work to be done. Thankfully, my friend Martin David, a terrific actor and teacher out of Denver, has written a concise guide to this important practice.  It’s available for peanuts on Amazon here.

The great thing about this work that he has created is that it can go directly to your students without filtering from you. Much of what I bring to the classroom is my attempt to adapt the teachings of great masters into adolescent-friendly form. I read books, I take workshops, and then I make the tweaks and adjustments necessary to translate the work into a meaningful way for my students, which has worked for me with some pretty impenetrable material, everything from Michael Chekhov to Meisner to the Rasaboxes.

But Martin’s guide could go right into your rooms and be applied to the scripts they are working on now. He breaks the process of approaching the script into simple pieces, covering:

  • What script analysis is and why it’s important
  • The parts of a play from act to scene to beat and how to break it down
  • What a beat actually is ( and he gives a wonderful, very accessible example from Hamlet)
  • The different types of beats, objective, personal, and the very interesting physical type
  • The importance of annotating a script, even down to the permisison to give personal names to beats
  • The secret world of what I’ve always called “actor talk”
  • The three simple questions which guide an actor’s relationships to the words in a text:
    • What am I saying?
    • Why am I saying it now?
    • What does it mean to me?
  • How to put it all together.

In short, Martin David’s simple, logical, user friendly approach will give novice actors not only the tools to systematically examine a script, but also the confidence to begin to trust their own instincts and imagination in the acting process.

I highly recommend this work and plan to test drive it in my classroom this semester.  Check it out, you’ll be happy you did.

“Do you hear a faint heartbeat? That is your character beginning to breathe and come to life.” – Martin David

 

 

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.

WARMUP

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.

BRINGING THE STORY TO LIFE

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.

Example:

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.

 

cropped-on-thursdays-we-wear-plaid.jpg

The Five People You Meet in Cupertino

How can we create opportunities for students to immerse themselves in the production process?

Especially when they’re not quite ready for participation in a mainstage production?

It’s wonderful when students can come to mainstage productions with some understanding of what it’s like to be a part of a production team. It makes the process easier to assimilate to, and more fun. It’s even more wonderful when their minds have been opened to the myriad of other possibilities for people who like creating stories beyond acting.

Most drama students love acting. Most won’t become actors. It’s very important to acknowledge that there is a place for everyone in theatre, and allow students opportunities to take on “roles” that are not only those in the spotlight. It’s equally important to introduce students to the work of hard collaboration, deadlines, and the pressures of production, preferably before they encounter a real audience.

For a long time, my Beginning Drama students did a great project called Soap Operas, passed on to me by my master teacher John Ribovich. You can find that project here if you are interested. This was back in the day, when kids grew up with an awareness of soap operas, passed down to them by family members who loyally watched a particular show over time. Kids who didn’t watch often had relatives who did, so these products were fairly faithful to the genre.

Then came reality TV and a lot more programming in the animated or scifi/fantasy genres, as well as increasing options for entertainment. Fewer students were having common viewing experiences.  I tried for a couple of years to contextualize soap operas in the context of TV history, and tried again to link the project to its popularity in other markets that were relevant to my students- it is still, for instance, an important and popular genre in South America, India, and Korea. But the scripts were no longer really holding together, as the students had not internalized the model, so after a brief flirtation with the idea of doing “Adventure” stories, I decided that there must be an easier way to work on the concepts of stock characters and situations with my students, as well as forcibly immerse them in production in a low-stakes way.  And so this year I experimented with a project called “The Five People You Meet in Cupertino.”  And it worked.

You can do this. But obviously change the name to the name of your school. It makes a great summative assessment. A nice final exam.

SETUP

Lunch-If you’ve already worked with your kids on archetypes via status work, this will be a natural shift. If not, print out a black and white map of your school, like the emergency preparedness one,  and hand a copy to each kid. Ask them to create a visual map of “lunch” depending on where students hang out. You will gain a lot of insight, because you will clearly see the social network of your school, and the territory claimed by each tribe.

You might get responses like this:

  • Popular people hang out at this one table in the cafeteria.
  • Kids who play “insert newest card game” hang out here.
  • All the ELA kids tend to hang out near this bench.
  • Skaters hang out behind the gym.
  • Preps hang out in the library but don’t eat.

So then divide your students into groups of 5 or 6 (I suggest choosing the groups to balance gender, ability, and background). I suggest doing this because they will be together for 2 or maybe 3 school weeks, and group dysfunction will throw off class climate.  Then introduce the activity.

What makes our school unique? Who are the 5 people you meet at our school?  Ask for four, and then ask for a type of adult to make the project interesting.  Aim for a broad enough category that gender is flexible, that ethnicity can be worked into it.

Here are some of the five people(students),  you meet in Cupertino, according to my kids.

  1.  The Overachiever. Does everything, joins everything, has a 6.0 GPA unweighted.
  2. The Slacker. Does nothing, but has a lot of potential.
  3. The Poser. Appears to be or tries to be one way, is actually another.
  4. The Foreigner. New to the community. Trying to learn the rules. Or not.
  5.  The Sidekick. Always hanging out with one of the other characters, mirroring their actions.
  6.  The Gamer/Phone Freak, or Hacker.  Obsessed with the virtual world.
  7. The Helicopter Parent- Constantly embarrassing their kid in front of others with their lack of boundaries and vast array of connections.
  8.  The Superenthusiastic Teacher- Constantly in the face of the students. Their relentless positivity extends beyond the boundaries of failure. Including their own.
  9. The Adolescent-  Adult. Wants to fit in with all the cool kids. Problem is, that ship sailed in 1989.

The idea is, you want five people. They don’t have to be, and shouldn’t, be the five people above.

All groups need to use the same five people.

Then move onto five events. 

Here are some things that always happen in Cupertino, according to my students, at least this year:

  1. Someone breaks their phone or another significant piece of technology.
  2.  An online conversation.
  3. People meet for Boba tea. ( a form of tea with tapioca in it popular with some Asian students),
  4.  There is an event of academic dishonesty.
  5. There is a bromance ( an intense friendship between two guys). 
  6. There is an academic competition.
  7. Something goes wrong on clubs day.

You can allow students to tailor make the situations to your school. The idea is, they should be general enough to be universally applicable. Stay away from things that are tied to race or gender, let the kids figure it out as it applies to your world.

So they now have five people and five situations that they own. They must use all five people and all five situations to write an original script, which will then be performed for the class.  You can also give them standard titles, based on things that are said around your school or current teenspeak. They love them, and they help them frame the story. This year, our plays were called:

  • Actually, Though
  • Lol
  • We Feel Good, Oh We Feel So Good ( a reference to one of our spirit chants)
  • I Literally Can’t Even
  • Quick Question
  • What the…?

TIMELINE

Day 1-2 Groups assign roles, name their characters, and write a summary of a proposed plot.

Day 2-3 Two members of each group pitch the project to the class and to you. This is a tough exercise, and well worth it. You can figure out which groups are gelling, and clarify any issues with story construction before they get out of control.

Day 3-4. Introduce standard professional playwriting format. One way to make this easier for students is to use a program like Celtx, which students can access through a free trial in order to help them format their script. It’s never too early to introduce this skill and it makes it easier for students who go on to really want to write to submit their work to professional contests and the like. Plus, because the groups are fairly large the students can teach each other.

Day 4-5-6 Students create a draft of their script and conduct a readthrough of their first scene in front of the class.  This allows you to quickly assess whether groups are on track.

Day 6-7-8 Students work with the script they have created (check for multiple copies and support this as necessary) to block their play.

Day 7-8 Students should have a production meeting where they cover where they are in the memorization process, who is bringing/making props and costumes and what furniture they will need to use from the class stock if you have that. and lights and sound if you want them to do that, as simple as flipping the lights on and off, or playing sound effects on the class sound system or speakers off their phones.  If you want a form for this, I just made one. Email me and I’ll send it to you.

Day 9-10. Final touchups on the projects, students rehearsing in their groups. Maybe an opportunity for two groups to watch each other and give feedback, something I call a watch it.

Now you are ready for performances.

If you have steered the boat correctly, there will be a great deal of excitement on performance day as students rush around.

I assess these (and I’ll send you the rubric if you want it) on preparation, script quality, characterization, voice, blocking, and pace, which includes smoothness of set changes.  I want a well-rehearsed, well-executed play which shows that actors worked together and understand basic principles of characterization, staging, and performance skills.

Try this out and let me know how you like it the next time you find yourself with a vast expanse of untrammelled time between projects. I’d love to know how it works in other places.

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.