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.

 

 

Status Update: Masters and Servants 1

You know how sometimes it’s hard for drama students to figure out what to do with themselves onstage? How they fidget, or pace, or mumble, or  have no idea how to engage their face, causing the general world to dismiss “the high school play” as a cute rite of passage that creates an intolerable audience experience and isn’t really worth attending unless you know a kid?

It doesn’t have to be that way.  A huge part of creating a mesmerizing work with adolescent actors is teaching them about a simple defining principle of theatre. Status.  Drama is at its core about the exchange of power. Not only are people not created equal onstage, they frequently spend entire plays locked in these unequal paradigms, much to the satisfaction of the audience. This miraculous concept can provide a map for blocking, for character analysis, and for the deep pursuit of the actor’s objective.

If you want to read a lot about this, read a book called Impro by the founder of TheatreSports, Keith Johnstone. It’s a bit pricy for a paperback, and it is worth every penny and you will keep it forever. It describes the philosophy behind the Masters and Servants, the project I’m going to explain as it plays out in improvisational scenarios.  This week will cover how to introduce the topic.

If you are uncomfortable with the monikers “Master” and “Servant”, “Boss” and “Employee” work just as well.  The main thing is to teach the concept of status.

WARMUP

The A’s and the B’s- Tas Emiabata from Globe Education gave me this one at the Shakespeare Works When Shakespeare Plays Conference, which is a truly amazing conference for English and Theatre teachers, annual, and worth attending if you can get there.

Students walk randomly, neutrally. Tell them that they are A’s, they own everything in the space, that they are surrounded by people who also own everything, and that they should greet everyone they see with a nice bright high five. Now they should vocalize, cheering when they greet the other people. Let this grow to a great celebration.

Stop them. Tell them that they don’t own as much, that they still should walk around and greet each other, but this time, they should acknowledge each other in a more mellow way, by doing a low five. Oh, and they should keep one hand over their heart, so they only have one hand to use.

Stop them. Walk into the group and split it down the middle. Tell one half of the group that they are A’s, and the other that they are B’s. Tell each side to mingle, but only acknowledge other people from their group. Let them do that for a few minutes.

Ask them what they noticed. They might say:

  • I felt like I was better than the B’s.
  • I felt like I didn’t want to go near the A’s
  • I felt embarrassed to be an A.
  • I felt sorry for the B’s.
  • I felt depressed to be a B.

Have them sit down.  Time to talk about status.

TEACHERS

Keith Johnstone begins his discussion of status with a discussion of teachers, and it’s a great place to start. So, ask them:

How do teachers keep their status? What do you notice about their behavior?

They might say

  • The teacher gives grades
  • The teacher gives directions
  • The teacher tells us what to do.
  • The teacher can eat and use her phone and we can’t.
  • The teacher is the authority on the subject matter

Ask for specific things teachers do. You might get:

  • They stand up and walk around.
  • They have a loud voice.
  • They make eye contact.

If you can handle it, sit down on the floor. With them. Ask them what has changed.

They might say: You’re just like us now. Ask how you’re keeping your status if you’re on the floor with them. They might say more things about voice, or eye contact.

or try: Lowering your head and inserting some ums and uhs into talking. Ask them what has changed. They just might tell you that you’ve lowered your status.

Ask them about low status things teachers do. For your information, here they are.

  • Try to be friends with the kids
  • Get emotional and talk too much about their personal life ( the same critique is not offered for getting emotional out of say, pride at student’s accomplishments)
  • Sit behind their desk and don’t move
  • Leave the classroom
  • Refuse to admit we don’t know the answer when we clearly don’t.
  • Overuse our yelling voice.
  • Favor or target students
  • Tolerate misbehavior

Ask them how students raise their status in such a classroom.  You may get:

  • make an alliance against the teacher
  • make jokes
  • take the fall for others
  • get the teacher off topic
  • go limp and refuse to do the work

Tell them to hold these thoughts. Move on to an exercise.

PLAYING CARD PARTY

You’ll need between 6-10 playing cards, both high and low, depending on how many students you want to put onstage at once. Call up your volunteers.

Hand each one a playing card, face out so the student can’t see it, and have each student hold it to his or her forehead with one finger.

Tell the students to pretend they’re at a party, and treat the other performers like their card says to, gaining information about who they are based on how people treat them. Point out that someone might ask a lower status person to get them something, while they might complement a higher status person in order to get close to them.  Let them run with this.

Ask them then to line up according to where they think they are in the pecking order.

Ask them who they think they are and why, and have them look at their cards.

High status people (Kings, Queens, Aces, Jacks, ) will say things like:

  • People were bowing to me.
  • People wanted to be friends with me.
  • People kept saying nice things to me.

Low Status people (3’s, 4’s and 2’s)  will say things like:

  • People wouldn’t talk to me.
  • They wanted me to get me stuff.
  • They laughed at me.

Sometimes, people in the middle will have these revelations:

  • People basically treated me totally normally.
  • Half the people ignored me, half the people wanted to hang out with me.

A MODIFICATION FOR ADVANCED CLASSES OR EXTREMELY COMPETENT BEGINNERS

For fun, redo the exercise one more time, and this time add a Joker. Take note of where the Joker ends up. Some classes place him high, some low, some right in the middle.  In a more advanced class, this can be a great way to talk about:

  • the power of laughter
  • archetypical tricksters such as Coyote, Anansi, or Ganesh
  • the fool’s position as the only one who can talk to the King
  • Medieval Theatre Guilds positioning “the devil” as a comic character
  • Dark Knight Returns, Heath Ledger, Jack Nicholson, and the actor’s obligation to create  boundaries with certain roles

Any and all of these exercises and discussions will help students get ready for The Master/Servant Scene, or if that’s a tad too Depeche Mode, the Boss/Employee Scene. In the next installment, I’ll present more into games and discuss different types of masters and servants. Until then, consider updating your status based on what you now know.

 

The Great Floorplan Exchange: Elevating Scenework

For student actors to be effective, it helps to understand the language of designers and directors. Here are two projects using floorplans that will do just that.

In order to use these projects with your students, it will help to have  copies of floorplan symbols. I use the one Viola Spolin offers in THEATRE GAMES FOR THE CLASSROOM.  I have a laminated set for my room. You’ll find having access to this book very useful. It contains complete descriptions of many games and concepts that can be adapted or used outright with students in kindergarten through adulthood. There is a copy of the first assignment available at Drama Class Now’s store for peanuts. Consider picking up a copy to make your life easier!

You will also need:

  • Printer paper
  • playing cards (optional)

Last week, in Location Location Location,  I gave you some ideas for using “where” warmups and exercises to get students talking about creating space. Those warmups will create a great into for this work.

THE GREAT FLOORPLAN EXCHANGE

DAY 1-Prior to this, you will have wanted to teach them the terms you use to designate stage directions (Upstage and Downstage, Stage Right and Left and Center Stage and all the spaces in between.) I usually teach this the same day, by having them create a grid of these directions on the back of the sheet they’ll be using for the floorplan.

Students work in pairs. I usually have them confer and decide who the great visual artist is of the two, and let the other kid label the stage directions from above before the “artist” works on the floorplan. Each pair of students should receive a piece of printer paper, a playing card, and a copy of some floorplan symbols. They can use the  card as a ruler and a box guide to label their floorplans in the lower left hand corner, like a professional set designer would, or if you don’t want to get that schmancy, that’s ok. I have them put their names, their class period, and then “THE GREAT FLOORPLAN EXCHANGE: LIVING ROOM” or whatever room they’re going to design.

This is also a great time to work with scale, say 1/4 inch equals 1 foot, if you’d like.  Students can now create a room- tell them it has to have 3 to 5 elements in it, and the elements should be practical. Explain that they’re not trying to create an inexplicable fantasy room, even though they want to, although you certainly good use this assignment to do that.  Explain that they need to draw their room from a “birds eye” view, so from above.

Have them turn these in. Do something else.

DAY 2-  Same partners, but nobody gets back their floorplan. Hand out the floorplans to some other partnership. I usually walk around and say “Hey Ryan and Anushka, do you guys want Michelle and Candace’s floorplan, or Tony and Kapil’s floorplan?” And then they state a preference, and I give them that one, until every partnership has something they didn’t draw. Now the fun begins. The pair must come up with a scene that’s set in this space they didn’t create. And they have to exactly use what the other people drew. In the place they put it in. So if the TV is on the back wall, facing the wrong direction, this should be justified.

Also, LIMIT THEIR DIALOGUE. Last time I gave them 3 lines of dialogue.  I started with 2 lines and added a bonus line at the last minute. This keeps the scene focused on ACTION, which is the summative skill here, use of the space. It also keeps the scenes from dragging on and on.

Give them five minutes to talk and fifteen minutes on their feet. If you have rehearsal furniture, tell them to figure out what they are using. Then have them start performing them. They should set up, slate,  see This is Our Masterpiece for how to do that, and then perform.

What are they learning?

  • They’re learning to work with staging conditions that they can’t control.
  • They’re learning to collaborate with each other.
  • They’re learning to see other’s point of view and turn it towards something productive.
  • They’re learning not to blame other people for circumstances in their own work.
  • They’re learning to solve problems, quickly, to create products, quickly.
  • They’re learning about blocking.
  • They’re learning about the basics of set design.
  • They’re learning that onstage action translates to storytelling. 

Have fun with this one.

Got Advanced students? Second semester beginners? Need to find a set designer in your ranks? Want to kick it up a notch?

LOCATION LOCATION LOCATION- An Adler inspired project using the floorplans

The great acting teacher Stella Adler had her students describe rooms and the people who inhabited them, wanting the actor to use his or her life of the mind to fully get into someone else’s experience with truth and detail. Here’s a multipart project which takes the designer into the world of the actor/writer/pitchman, then back out to design.

You’ll need:

  • Printer paper
  • Playing Cards
  • Location descriptions
  • 3 by 5 cards
  • Clear tape
  • Cardboard floors to build models on
  • Markers or colored pencils
  • Rulers, tape measures, or yardsticks

DAY ONE-  Before you hand out floorplans to partnerships ( I recommend random partners, at least every other assignment, instead of letting them choose partners, which leads to a culture of social exclusion and cliques)  have each partner choose a place description. You’ll need 10-20, depending on how much choice you want students to have.   I selected my most recent list from the openings of scenes from major world theatre. Here are some examples.

The living room/kitchen of a rural cottage in the west of Ireland. 

McLean, Virginia, a wealthy suburb of Washington DC, around the corner from the Kennedys. The living room and a guest bedroom in the Pascal’s house. Thanksgiving, during a hurricane, some 20 years after JFK’s assassination. 

An open space before the royal palace at Thebes. 

An apartment above a storefront church in Harlem, NY. 

I type these up and pairs get a choice between two. Once they have these, they create floorplans for them. This is a deeper assignment than the first one. It requires research, and I am merciless. Once they’ve figured out their floorplan, I interview pairs about what is on their stage. They only have the information on their slip of paper, but I expect they’ve done the research. This gives them a chance to fix it before the next step.

DAY 2- I give them this direction.

“Work with your partner to tell the EMOTIONAL STORY of the FICTIONAL PEOPLE who inhabited the room you created.Root the story in SPECIFIC PROPS, COSTUMES, OR PIECES OF ARCHITECTURE that are significant. Prepare a rehearsed story that you tell with your partner on the set you set up according to the floorplan. NOT A SCENE. A STORY.”

Some of the students research the plays these selections come from, some elect to create fictional scenarios. Much like Rosencrantz and Guilderstern are Dead, some of these stories become riffs on real plays, some are completely imagined. I let them choose if the detail is good.

It takes students time to grasp that what I want them to do is set up an empty room, then walk around it, telling us what happened there, But once they get that, it’s awesome.  It’ll take them about two days to perform these after they get them set, longer if you have a lot of students, like I do.

I want these stories to…

  • Show us the room
  • Make us feel for the people
  • Ground a conflict in symbolism

And the best ones do.

DAY 5, 6 Once performances are concluded, it’s time to make white models.  The students use their scale floorplans to elevate their drawings, and build flats out of index cards, which they then stand up and brace with tape. Some of them color them in and add 3-D touches.

They are faced with an additional layer, that of realizing their floorplans as sets and thus masking their back walls, which I encourage them to do as practically as possible for our theatre, so they build cycs, legs, and projection walls as well as entire walls of back flats.

DAY 7-  Using the Gallery Walk technique, we set up the models, and one team member stays to explain while the other walks around, then we switch. All students have a post-it or another token to give to their favorite model. Their pitches should include the following info:

  • What they were trying to accomplish in terms of mood and theme of their model
  • How they went about it
  • What challenges they faced and how they handled them

After the pitches, we ask the top 3 teams to present their models, and listen to general comments from the audience- eg “if you picked this one, why?” or “If you didn’t pick this one, why not?”

What they’re learning

  • The power of research
  • Accepting given circumstances
  • Creating an effective presentation with a partner
  • Working off someone else in a pitch
  • Realizing imaginary ideas
  • Owning a story
  • Improvising to cover mistakes
  • Time management
  • The relationship between designer, director, and actor in realizing a story

In short, floorplan projects are a great way to engage students in the skills they will need for mainstage production in a low-stakes environment. Floorplan activities stretch both design and acting muscles and require students to commit to making choices and value the power of research and design in bringing a product to life.  Floorplan work is a fun way to force your actors to think and your designers to feel.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Location Location Location: Warmups for Working with Where

How do we know where we are? Students will respond with many answers to this question. “We can see the walls.” “The people around us.” “Google maps?”It’s the opener to a discussion of where.  Viola Spolin’s “Creating a Where” and the call for a “location” in the beginning of any improvisation have in common the mandate that good scene work take an empty space and transform it.

As an isolated skill,  weighting “where” is  extremely valuable to practice, and it is one that embeds itself deeply not just in improvisational scene work, but in the work of the actor, in script analysis and in set design.

WARMUPS FOR “WHERE”

  • WELCOME TO FRANCE- Perhaps you’ve done the exercise with students where you’ve had them mill around shaking hands, and then have given them characters to change into while shaking hands. Try using music to further strengthen this. In an exercise introduced to me by Kevin Coleman at a Shakespeare Plays workshop, we were walking about when he suddenly said, “And welcome to France” and put on French cafe music, which changed our walking into promenading down the avenue, until we realized we were late, then lost, then, no, the clock was wrong and we had plenty of time, but wait, we were still lost, oh no, we knew where we were…
  • SHIP AHOY- From Talia Pura’s excellent book STAGES: CREATIVE IDEAS FOR TEACHING DRAMA,  I like to play music from PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN with this one. High energy game that has students:
    • “hit the deck” (lie down on the ground)
    • “man overboard” (one stands up and grabs a prone partner’s leg like a wheelbarrow)
    • “officer aboard” (everyone stands and salutes)
    • “helicopter” (partners grasp hands and spin)
    • “dive bomber” (everyone simulates airplanes)
    • “Captain’s daughter” (one person takes a knee, the other sits on their lap)
  • DIRECTIONS TO MY HOUSE- This is for pairs. Each partner explains to the other how to get to his or her house from school.
  • MY ROOM- Class sits in a circle. One person goes into the circle and literally “walks” us through their room, then  goes back to the circle, sits down, and sends other students into their “room” to work with imaginary stuff. “Grab my book from the shelf and put it on my desk. ” “Turn on my computer”.  And so on. Do this with a few volunteers.
  • HEY BUDDY-From the Red Ladder Theatre Company. Useful to help students create details of a where through action.  Students in lines of maybe five. Student at the head of line A mimes a simple object.  Student in line B tries to guess what it is by saying “Hey Buddy, get away from my toothbrush, my hairdryer,my blender…” whatever it is. When person B guesses it, they high-five person A and go to the end of the A line, and person A goes to the end of the B line. Continue as necessary, and to intensify, narrow what can be mimed. “Anything from a kindergarten classroom.” “Something you only find in a gym.”
  • OBJECT SWAP- Start this in a circle.  Work with air like clay, then pull an object out of the air. Let students work on this simultaneously. When you are all holding your mimed objects, turn to one student and say, “Do you want this thing I have?” Then describe the thing, but don’t tell them what the thing is. Say you have made a jar with a butterfly in it.  Tell them it’s fragile, it has something alive in it, you can see the thing, the thing has wings, and the thing is colorful and there are lots of varieties of it. When they figure it out, have them describe what they have to you, and give them your jar and take their hamster or whatever. Let everyone go around and trade objects for awhile.  Then ask, who got something beautiful, dangerous, expensive, unusual, scary, and listen to their answers.
  • BOOKSHELF- In partners, students can build a bookshelf. This works great right after object swap. Have them build their imaginary bookshelf out of any material they want, then with their partner put three things on it. Something rare, a piece of technology, something alive. Have them step back and admire it. Then, and they love this, have them start an argument with each other about the bookshelf. Let the argument lead to a “breakup, ” where they must divide the objects and go in search of a new partner with whom to rebuild. Have them build a new bookshelf with their new partner, then ask them what was on their first bookshelf, why they broke up with their first partner, and what was better about the new one. The answers you will get are incredible.
  • FIVE IN, FIVE OUT.  Students can retire to the audience. Ask for a volunteer and give them a location (convenience stores seem to work really well).  Have this volunteer go onstage and interact with one mimed thing in the 7-11 and then leave.  Then send the next one in. They have to interact with the first thing and then create their own. The next person must interact with the first two things, then create another, and so on, up to five. Then start a new scene.

These exercises will go a long way towards preparing students to work with floorplans, which I’ll describe in the next installment. Stay tuned.

In Grammelot: The Wisdom of Gibberish

Many theatre teachers get students going with text as soon as they can in the year.  I don’t. I work first with the picture, then the body, and finally with speech, before text.  I tend to restrict dialogue in early scenes to two or three lines or sound effects, preferring that my students focus on behavior. Then  I introduce gibberish.

I taught a great day of gibberish yesterday. I knew it was great because the students said goodbye to me at the end of class. They do that when they’ve had fun.  I laid it out as follows.

WARMUPS

It was Friday, so we start with the game we always play on Fridays, Bibbety Bibbety Bop, also known as Bibbety Bop. I have a Friday game because it’s something I don’t have to think about, it basically covers all bases, and the students thrive on routine and tradition. If you don’t already, and you’re having issues with either focus or class culture in your classroom, please consider creating a routine warmup with which you begin every day, or the practice of the warmup. Clapping, a tongue twister, any energy circle, toss around a ball.  The kids love a good classroom practice like we love a good yoga practice. It is comforting and unifying.

BIBBETY BIBBETY BOP

Bibbety Bibbety Bop is a game where students stand in a circle and one student ( or sometimes we play with up to three students simultaneously) has to walk up to someone in the circle and say “Bibbety Bibbety Bop.” The student who is being addressed must say “bop” before the first student is done speaking, or they are now out, or rather in the circle, and the first student gets to take their spot. You then add on caveats, rules and mods as follows:

  • BOP- If the first student says “Bop”, the second student cannot say anything. If they do, they are now in.
  •  JELLO– The first student can also point at someone and say “Jello” and then begin counting to ten. The person they point to must shake like jello, and the students on either side of that person must place their arms around the person, becoming “the bowl.” If any of the three fails to do this by ten, they are in.
  • ELEPHANT– The first student points to someone who must now place their arm in front of their face, cradled by their other arm, making the trunk of the elephant. The people on either side become “ears”.
  • AIRPLANE- Person in the middle makes the ok sign with both hands, flips them up on her face to become goggles. Side people become wings. Everyone makes an airplane noise.

You can look up endless variations of this online. You can make your own.

ABC

From some brilliant improv teacher somewhere. Students grab a partner.  This won’t work with a group of three, so you may need to play.

Person 1: A

Person 2: B

Person 1: C

Person 2: A

Person 1: B

Person 2: C.

Once they get that going, tell person 1 to change “A” to a nonsense sound. Like: “Blargh!” or “Lololololo!” or whatever they do.

Now it goes:

Person 1: Kaching!

Person 2: B

Person 1: C

Person 2: Kaching!

Person 1: B

Person 2: C.

Now B adds a nonsens sound, so you get:

Person 1: Kaching!

Person 2: Splerk!

Person 1: C

Person 2: Kaching!

Person 1: Splerk!

Person 2: C.

And then you replace C, so you end up with:

Person 1: Kaching!

Person 2: Splerk!

Person 1: Greooooow!

Person 2: Kaching!

Person 1: Sperk!

Person 2: Greooow!

They love it, the are now warmed up vocally a bit, and feeling fancy.

1-10

Have them tell their first partner that they’ll never forget them, and then have them get a new partner. If you have TA’s, use them when people have trouble finding partners.

Have them count, alternating, 1-10.

Then tell them to do it again like they’re having an increasingly funny conversation. Now like they’re having an increasingly frustrating conversation. Now like they’re getting real sad, or really into each other, or whatever.

Then have them create a scene using these numbers as dialogue where two people interact. The numbers should go in order but don’t have to alternate. One person can say “1,2,3” and the next “4” and so on. Give them five minutes. Tell them to sit when they are done. Walk around the room and notice the strong ones. Ask them to volunteer as tribute.

Watch 3 to 5 of these scenes. Ask students what they noticed. then talk to the students about subtext, what’s behind a piece of dialogue. There’s no “right way” to say a line. Pick up an object.

GIBBERISH

Without skipping a beat, transition into gibberish. Don’t explain it first, because if you do, it becomes awkward. Just, you know, go from “Make sense, everybody? To “Squakalinga verbochylla. Locky fee fie, cha si morunga twa.” And hold up the object. Give it a gibberish name. It’s best if it’s an object like a ball, that does stuff. Address a student, the one who’s the most likely to humor you. “Spee ba fro rocka? La rocka”, indicating the ball. If they don’t say “La rocka,” continue on until you find someone who does, and then ask more kids, and toss them the ball, and get everyone to call the ball “La rocka” or whatever, and then stop and ask them what language you were speaking.

You weren’t, they will say. What you said didn’t make sense. Then ask  how did they know what to call the ball? They will say  you demonstrated, you repeated it, you held it up.

Tell them that the language is a special language for theatre, that it is called gibberish.  You may also add that it dates back to the 16th century, when it was called grammelot by the Commedia Del Arte performers who used it to mimic the vernacular of whatever country they were performing in so that audiences could understand the performance, and also so avoid the censorship of the Church. Great into if you’re doing a Commedia unit.

TEACHING OR SELLING

Ask them to take their original 1-10 partner and grab another partnership, making a group of four, and come up with a scene where someone is either TEACHING people to do something or SELLING something.

The scene can be short, English can be used for brand names or money (give the example of a soccer announcer, for instance, speaking Spanish and then saying “Nike” or “Facebook”.

Give them about 10-15 minutes, give each scene a number, then watch the scenes. Ask them what they noticed.  This is a formative assessment among many others exploring voice.

SPECIAL ISSUES WITH GIBBERISH

The school I teach at, Cupertino High School, is a school where most of the students are bilingual. There are usually between 5 and 20 other languages understood by students in any given classroom. Therefore, students, particularly immigrants, may feel uncomfortable with gibberish, either because they have experienced negativity around issues of learning English or speaking accented English, or because they may feel they are mocking a relative, culture, or heritage. Since my students have previously done an assignment called A Moment From Life where they were encouraged to speak their language of origin in a naturalistic scene from their own lives,  they hopefully feel a bit more comfortable with language by this point, but maybe not.

Get this all out on the table. On your side to help you are the teacher from Charlie Brown, Beaker from the Muppets, Boomhauer on King of The Hill, and the Minions from Despicable Me. Gibberish is speech without speech and is designed to help the audience understand and free the performer from having to think. It is a unifier, not a divider.

If you haven’t already had the stereotypes talk in your classroom, every drama teacher’s is different. Mine is basically this. When you’re doing theatre, use your powers for good. If you want to use ethnicity, race, or gender as a factor in character, check with your group members. If you are an audience member and you feel frustrated by a particular portrayal, it’s ok to say something. If you don’t feel comfortable saying something, it’s ok to tell the teacher and have the teacher say something.

This opens the door for students to be able to portray the people around them and to bring their experiences from their homes and their countries of origins into the classroom, instead of drama class being the land of the homogenous.  It’s not perfect all the time, and it requires courageous conversations, but it makes for happier kids and better theatre to allow them to play, argue, and grow in an environment where their voices are heard.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Getting the Picture- Boal, Spolin, and Tableaus

Viola Spolin uses the term “sharing the stage picture” as a way to begin to teach young performers to break out of their awkwardness onstage and learn to use interesting stage movement in performance. Her suggestion to the teacher is to “sidecoach” while students are engaged in whole group play to increase students’ awareness of others onstage.

I find the best way to begin this discussion is through the use of sculptures and tableaus. I began using tableaus as my into to being onstage a few years ago, when I noticed that students weren’t telling stories onstage in ways that translated theatrically.I do these exercises very early in the year, but you can incorporate them at any point necessary. These can take up to a week of class time.

WARMUP POSSIBILITIES

  • Fruit Basket.  From the good folks at Young Actors Theatre Camp. Tell students to get a partner and become an apple. Then have them find another partner and become a pear with that new person. Now go to a new partner. Become a banana. A new partner. Become an orange. Your fifth and final partner. Become a strawberry. Now find your apple. Your orange. Your banana. Your apple. Your orange. Your strawberry. Your pear. Your apple. Your pear.  Now they are laughing.
  • Make Something….Groups of 4-6. Quickly. Make something round, make something sharp, make something beautiful.  Go around, ask What did you make, what did you make, what did you make, good job. Do it again. Make something edible, make something important, make something ridiculous.
  • Sneaky Statues. They loved it in elementary school, they love it now. Everyone freezes. One student is the “guard” who has to walk around and catch people moving. When he or she does, they have to become the person who was moving. You can do variations by giving them exhibit titles. “Trouble at the Old Mill”, “Selfie”, whatever.
  • James Bailey’s excellent “Artist, Model, Clay” from Teaching Improvisation: A Practical Guide for Classroom Educators, Bedlam Press, played in groups of 3. One person faces the other two, who stand one behind the other. He or she is the artist, the middle is the clay, and the person in the back is the model. The model strikes a pose, and the artist tries to sculpt the air around the person who is “clay” to get them into the position. The groups can then switch and switch again until everyone has done all three roles.

Before I start any onstage work with students, I do an exercise from Augusto Boal.  I don’t know where I got this, whether from one of Boal’s texts or a workshop I took with USC professor Brent Blair at the Camp Bravo Teacher’s Weekend,  which you totally need to do sometime if you’re a Drama teacher near California.  I just call it “Chairs.”

CHAIRS

Put 4 chairs, identical if possible, and a table in your “stage” area. Have the students sit in the audience.

Tell the students a little bit about the founder of the Theatre of the Oppressed, Augusto Boal, if you think they will dig that.  I like to tell them some basic facts, that he was a theatre practitioner in Brazil who was educated in the United States, that he went back to Brazil and tried to remake classical theatrical texts to educate people about oppressive structures in the society, but that approach didn’t reach the people he wanted, so he developed Legislative Theatre.

To the students, Boal is interesting because he was making theatre with real people for a purpose, he was standing up for his beliefs, and he was addressing injustice and hypocrisy. Teenagers are very concerned with injustice and hypocrisy, and they should be. I tell them a story that Brent Blair told in a workshop I took with him at Camp Bravo about art projects Boal did like giving cameras to people living in the slums of Rio and having them take pictures of what the word “Home” meant. One boy brought back a picture of a nail on a wall. Boal asked him what the nail meant. The boy told Boal he was a shoeshine boy in a big hotel. To keep his kit safe, the hotel required that he rent a nail on their wall, eating up most of his profits from his work.

This resonates with the students. So now I tell them, we’re going to look at power, because that’s what Boal was looking at all the time, and it’s a major issue in theatre.

So then I ask them, if there’s a person in each of these four chairs, who has the power? And they give me various answers, the chair at the head of the table, all of them because they’re grouped around the table, excetera.

Then I ask for a volunteer to get up and “change the picture”- give the “power” to a new “person”. Someone gets up and they move the chairs, very simple. And I ask, who has the power now. And I get new answers. And I ask for a new volunteer.

The students can easily work on this for 20 minutes. I’ve had it go half an hour. I do it until there are no more volunteers.

What is this doing for students?

  • It’s getting them onstage, without “acting,” where they are creating a spectacle or having an effect, which is what you want them to do when they do act.
  • It’s providing an outlet for students who are unsure about the class or what they’re doing there to participate nonverbally.
  • It’s showing you your directors, your leaders, and your rebels. You need these kids in your corner.
  • It’s demonstrating that students have creative freedom and agency in your room.

You will see stuff on the stage. You will see Mean Girls, the Principal’s Office, the Family Dining Table, The Classroom.  You will see war, and you will see death. You will see what the kids see and what they want to see,  because they will show it to you.  Stay cool.

I had a young man put a chair behind another and another chair in front and tell me that what he had created was an “inappropriate” (the word my students use when they don’t want to say pornographic) film shoot. I didn’t send him out of class. I simply asked him who had the power. He said the person in back. Again, I didn’t freak out. I suggested to him that perhaps it was the person with the camera. He got it. So did the rest of the class.

Boal 1, “Inappropriate Film Shoot” 0.

THE STAGE PICTURE- LEVELS, RELATIONSHIPS, AND SHAPES

From Jeff Kramer at Comedy Sportz San Jose. Send up one student to do a pose. Send up another to connect to them somehow. And again, and again, and again, until you have 5-10 people up there. Point out the places where people chose to go in at a different level than the others. You might see relationship at this point. Look at places in the statue where people seem to know each other. Complement them if they didn’t stand in a line, if they used interesting shapes like triangles I usually tell my students that lines are generally good onstage if you are doing A CHORUS LINE or something military, but otherwise aim for more complex shapes.

Now repeat the exercise, but this time give them a title. Either you pick the title or solicit one from the audience. Notice how the picture is probably more interesting now that there’s a title.

You can also repeat it without a title and have the audience start titling them, which they enjoy.  But regardless, the last time you do it, pick a title, because it will help you with this next thing.

Pick a title like “Boredom” and tell them to do a “Boredom” sculpture. Complement them on their levels, relationships, and the shape the picture makes.

EMOTION SCULPTURES, CONCEPT OR ABSTRACT NOUN SCULPTURES

  • Divide them quickly into groups of 5-6. I like to use playing cards for this, with a student’s name written on the inside of each card, it makes it easy to randomly group them.
  • Hand out index cards that have emotional states like FEAR, ANGER, JOY, SUSPICION, GRIEF, LOVE written on them. I like to give groups a choice between two, like you give toddlers the choice of the red or blue cup. It gives them a feeling of confidence and leads to less “blaming the topic” in the critique.
  • Give them around 10 minutes to come up with a sculpture which embodies one of these emotions.
  • Watch them.  Talk about them. For how, see the post in Class Culture: This is Our Masterpiece: On Presenting, Rehearsing and Responding to Student Performance in Class.
  • You can repeat this again tomorrow with Abstract Nouns. They can be germaine to other things you want to teach during the year, to a particular play perhaps, or to universal human themes. Comedy, Friendship, War, Justice, Revenge, Celebration. It’s good to do two days of it, with different groups.

THE MORAL OF THE STORY

You can do this as a larger, graded assignment. Have ready quotes or statements (a great into for teaching a play as well) such as

  • Blood is Thicker Than Water
  • It Takes A Village To Raise A Child
  • You Can Lead a Horse to Water, but You Can’t Make Him Drink

And so forth. Feel free to customize these however you like, but they should be universalish, and capable of being “the moral of a story.” Make sure students understand their proverbs or quotes before you let them make a scene about them.

Have the students (groups of 4-6)  create 3 pictures to illustrate a story which ends with this statement as its moral, linked together by narration from either an outside narrator or characters in the story. Plan for maybe 20 minutes of rehearsal to make a thorough job of it, and a quick 5-10 minute check in the next day if the project runs over.

Example:

As my Grandma Grace used to say, “You Show Me Your Friends, I’ll Show You Who You Are.”

Picture One: A student, Jack, sits chastened with a teacher frozen over him in a “yelling at him” position.

Teacher: Jack was always in trouble.

Picture Two:  Three other actors surround “Jack” and act like “bad kids”

One of Them: That was because Jack had dangerous friends.

Picture Three: The three actors change to “good kids.”

Another of Them: So Jack got new friends who liked doing nice things. And he never got in trouble again.

All of Them: The moral of the story is, “You show me your friends, I’ll show you who you are.”

Comment on dynamic pictures that look like they’re moving, on the use of levels, shapes, and distinct characters. Ask, what did you notice?

The picture might be a little clearer now.

 

 

 

 

 

Building Trust in the Room

I hear from many theatre teachers who do not fundamentally trust their students, and whose students do not trust each other. Teaching drama is a tough job because the rules of a typical classroom often don’t quite fit.  Trust in the theatre classroom cannot be a state without boundaries, but it is entirely fundamental to the process of teaching a good class and allowing students to truly thrive and grow.  No amount of contracts, posted rules, or forced participation through points can create this for you. Restricting your students access to the bathroom, tallying their tardies, and punishing them with the gradebook will not make them trust you, unless you are also creating a curriculum where they don’t want to miss a minute. Fostering an atmosphere of intense competition constructed from unfair comparisons and favoritism will also not help your room. If you’re strict, that’s cool. If you believe you are creating discipline in your students by controlling these little personal behaviors, maybe you are.  But if they don’t feel right, and you can, try making it a bit easier on yourself and on them.  If you are just, they will trust.

Being just is different than than being fair. Being  just means differentiating learning, and juggling multiple interactions with your students.  It means giving students opportunities to monitor their own behavior,  to self soothe, to take care of each other, and to promote from within. It means you don’t allow your room to be taken over or students to be systemically ostracized. It means creating a physically and psychologically safe space, and confronting it when you or students make it unsafe, and restoring it to that place of safety.

You create trust in your room through establishing an atmosphere of trust through the practice of trust exercises,  being trustworthy and expecting trustworthiness in return. Trust exercises are only one part of that.

TRUST EXERCISES

First of all, if you’re playing whole group games with your students, trust is already building, as long as you’re working with them on inclusion and cooperation. If you feel sheepish or uncomfortable about working with your students on the concept of trust, it will shine through. If you don’t trust them to trust each other, well, that’s something to think about.  They’ve seen a lot of Youtube videos where people have fallen down. So start small and build, using the WHOLE GROUP to connect into raising, rather than falling, trust.

I used to give  blindfolds to students and let them lead each other around the campus in pairs.  I used to fill rooms full of obstacles and let them coach each other across. Both of those activities were overly time consuming, sloppy, and there was always some kid who ran into something, and that’s obviously not what we want.

So I suggest the following sequence.

RUN IN

Stand in a circle. Invite students to remain quiet and sense when it’s time to “run in”, towards the center of the circle. Tell them don’t signal, don’t make eye contact, just try to feel when. They will quickly try to go before they feel anything. Pull them back. Tell them to take a deep breath, wait, and….they’ll try it again. Do this a few times. Praise them for going all at the same time.

CROSS THE CIRCLE

Stand in a circle. Students cross the circle one at a time, again without signalling. Just feeling the room.  This does two things. It helps the students pay attention to their own impulse, to the impulse of the group, and it mixes up the group, which breaks up cliques who like to stand next to each other and distract each other.

BLIND CIRCLE

Stand in a circle. You go first. Yes, you. You close your eyes, and say, “Hey, kids, notice that I am crossing the circle, and that my eyes are closed. When I reach the edge of the circle, please reach out and gently redirect me by quickly touching my shoulder.”

You will reach the edge. You will feel a tentative little shove on your shoulder. It will send you walking to the other side, where you will feel it again. Do this a couple more times and then open your eyes and ask who wants to go . Let everyone go who wants to. Do not talk while the student’s eyes are closed and they are being redirected. It feels scary.  Be vigilant about sharp corners or breaks in the circle. Make it clear that we are keeping people safe.

I have never been hurt or humiliated during this exercise, and I’ve done it many times with many groups of students. I have never had a student hurt during it either. If the unthinkable should happen and a kid should shove too hard, which sometimes students do to their friends, meaning to be playful.  stop the exercise, ask the overly zealous shover to step out of the room and settle down, and keep going with at least one more student so that they get that this is important and worthwhile.  If that’s impossible, shelve it and repeat it the next day. Move on to Brags and Accomplishments below.

But if this went well,  move on to:

RAISING TRUST

This exercise is from the teacher’s manual to an old textbook called THEATRE, ART IN ACTION published by Glencoe McGraw Hill. You may be able to get a used copy online by poking around. It contains numerous interesting exercises and projects.  I always start this exercise by bringing up unpleasant Youtube trust fall videos. So that I can assure them that that’s not what we’re going to do.

Go to four circles, or groups of at least ten and not more than twelve. Ask for a volunteer, a young woman if possible, because young women have more trouble with this exercise.  Ask them to lie down on the floor, feet together, arms crossed across their chest.

Station one person at their head, hands underneath it.  Another person goes to their feet, hands pressing down on the tops of their shoes. At least three people go to each side, hands flat under their back, upper and lower legs.

The control of this exercise begins with the person being lifted. They  say “One, Two Three”, and then the group lifts them TO STANDING by holding down their feet and raising them to a vertical position.

In their circles, ask for 2/3 of the group to participate. When they are done, tell them to sit on the floor.

Ask them what it was like if they went, or if they didn’t.

The next day, you can try

RAISING TRUST TOO

Same exact exercise and setup, only this time, after the student is raised to standing, the other students keep their hands where they are and guide the student back down to the floor.

PROBLEMS WITH RAISING TRUST AND HOW TO COMBAT THEM

The person being lifted bend their knees and try to help while coming up, resulting in a botched lift. Monitor and encourage them to take a deep breath and repeat.

Larger students don’t feel they can be easily lifted or experience a botched lift.  in my experience, most students can be lifted if they allow themselves to be. Encourage everyone to pitch in to help. Big kids need body confidence as much as we all do.  Deep breath, repeat.

Female students feel uncomfortable. Address this before you repeat this exercise.  Call it like you see it. Make sure groups are as equal as possible with regards to gender. Ask the students if they want to be in a classroom where half of the people can’t do one of the exercises because of fear. They will say no. Stress to students that even casual comments about someone’s body while they are in a lift can cause the person to feel like they are unsafe.

3 GOALS, 3 BRAGS

If all went well, your students are now sitting in nice little discussion circles. Hand out index cards or half sheets and pencils. Have students write down three things they could brag about and  three goals they have for themselves this year. THEY DO NOT HAVE TO BE RELATED TO SCHOOL.   Let students share something from the card, either a brag or a share, with each other. Float around and don’t really listen too hard.

Drama students need to know they can trust the room, a small group, or another individual with information, emotions, and their working body. These exercises can bring them closer to getting to that place. You can help bring them the rest of the way.

 

 

 

This is Our Masterpiece: On Presenting, Rehearsing, and Responding to Student Performance in Class

Were your students born knowing how to rehearse and give helpful feedback after class performances? Mine sure weren’t. Luckily, it’s a teachable skill.

We tell our students to “rehearse” because we know it’s the key to good classroom presentations and of course to good theatre. But do we break down the process for them into manageable chunks? If our students are not rehearsing independently as well as they should,  are there strategies we can implement to make their time more productive?

THIS IS OUR MASTERPIECE- TEACHING STUDENTS TO SLATE

The first “performance” my students ever give is an extremely brief one. It’s called “This is Our Masterpiece” and I’m pretty sure I made it up.

I stand in front of the class and explain to students how to introduce themselves in a line, starting at stage right (audience left) and proceeding down the line ending at stage left (audience right).If I have TA’s who are more advanced, I let them model this. If my class is tentative but there are students who are beginning to show themselves as potential class leaders, I use them as models.  Then I sit down, I take out my roll sheet, and I call them up in groups of about 5 to try it.

It goes like this. They line up. Then, from their right, and our left, they introduce:

Person 1: Hi, I’m Amy.

Person 2: I’m Juan.

Person 3: I’m CJ.

Person 4: I’m Priya.

Person 5: I’m David. And this is our Masterpiece.

That’s it. It’s a very short performance, we clap loudly, then move onto the next group. I tell my students that this is called a slate, which is what it’s called when students introduce themselves in a competition or an audition. I tell them to do this before every class performance, that they can use “Masterpiece” as default titles for scenes that don’t have titles.  This helps with our class culture and procedure in several ways:

  • In the beginning of the year, it helps you learn names and identify cliques so that you can decide whether to let students choose their own groups for projects. I advocate for a mixed approach. They choose their groups for some projects, I choose for others. Letting students repeatedly choose their partners results in an unfocused class where rivalries and power struggles outstrip the work of the ensemble.  Just because it’s drama class doesn’t mean it has to be anarchy.
  • It gives students practice in introducing themselves, which means that over time, they stop fidgeting, mumbling, and shuffling their feet, as well as looking less awkward and ironic, which translates into better work.
  • When students reach more advanced levels of theatre and start competing, as my Advanced Honors students do, and auditioning in other places,  as my preprofessional students begin to do, introductions are second nature. “Masterpiece” becomes “A Selection from Death of a Salesman, where I will be playing Biff”, or whatever.
  • It teaches students about “the first 15 seconds” onstage. A lackluster introduction generally breeds a low-energy performance. Introducing means they need to learn to fake it till they make it, which is valuable.

REHEARSAL PROCEDURES

Now that they know how to present a performance, it’s time to get down to the details of how to rehearse. You probably love theatre and love to rehearse, and so when you get a new script or devised assignment, you work on it with your group members until it’s good or good enough.

Why don’t our students do the same thing?  Because they don’t know how.

I start out by telling my students that they need to get it fixed in their head that any scene for class that does not include text needs to be run three times on its feet. On its feet means up and running, not “sitting around and talking about what they’re going to do while sneaking  glances at their phones.”

To enforce this, I break the rehearsal process up for them by acting as an activity leader for it. I assign the task, explain it, provide a model if appropriate or feasible, and then give them 5-10 minutes to talk about it. This talk should include the who what where when why of the scene and then of course difficulties (big moments such as violence, affection, or emotion) as well as the stage pictures the audience will see.

I then call “On Your Feet”, which means get up, find furniture/props, and start running it.

ON YOUR FEET

  • Identify and REHEARSE difficult moments. (violence, affection, emotional outpourings)
  • Up on your feet. Get furniture you need. Create the space- entrances and exits.
  • Walk it through, identifying stage pictures.
  • Run it with a rough idea of who’s going where.
  • Run it again.
  • Run it again until you can do the entire thing with no script or if there is no script, no stops.  Run it and have someone watch.*
  • Run it until it’s ready or you run out of time, whichever comes first. And then every time you’re going to perform it, run it again.

If grading a project takes longer than one day ( four groups perform one day, but you don’t get to everyone) give 5 minutes for a quick run the next day.

*For a longer project, they then should get some other students to Watch It before it performs for the class.

WATCH IT

Although basically unnecessary for a short scene,  a “Watch It” period can provide structure and enhance rehearsal of a longer project. Have students pair up with another group, run their piece,  and give feedback (positive and improvement).  If you’d like students to be accountable for this piece or want to practice Aesthetic Valuing skills, you can have students record their progress on a half sheet or in a journal.

THE MEMORIZATION TEST

Memorization, crucial to the actor who performs in a mainstage show, is often extremely difficult for beginning performers and often stands in their way of effective scenework of pieces that involve text.  If your students are having trouble with memorization, try the simple “first 10 lines”  memorization test.  Have students get in their groups and work rapidly to try to memorize the “first 10 lines” of their scenes.  Give them no more than 10 minutes. Then give them a 1/4 sheet and have them “test” each other on lines. A perfect score would be no line calls, a B would be one to two line calls, a C would be two or more, under that redo.

AUDIENCE RESPONSE

If you allow your students to be critical of each other’s work, it will inhibit everyone’s natural creativity and create a caste system in your class. If you never allow them to respond to each other’s work, it will create a disingenuous, unchallenging environment where you have far too much power.  You’re between a rock and a hard place. Therefore, I advocate for the following strategies to build a healthy, curious, inquiry based environment.

ASK THE ACTORS

It’s done all the time in college classes and on Reality TV competitions. Do it gently. You teach high school.  Let’s say that Daniel and Kadisha have just performed a duo scene. Ask them to stay up there. They are now experiencing  self evaluation.

Ask Daniel to say what he liked about the scene.

Ask Kadisha to add what she felt they may have improved upon.

ASK THE AUDIENCE WHAT THEY NOTICED

Ask the audience what, as the great teacher Kevin Costa says, they noticed.
Ask two members, one of whom is raising his or her hand, one of whom is not. Keeps them on their toes. If you don’t get an answer from somebody, come back to them next time. Keep track. Make them participate.

CREATE THE RUBRIC AS YOU GO

You probably write a lot of the same comments on rubrics, and you probably find that they don’t contain the scope of what’s happening in a performance. Here are comments I write constantly in Beginning and Advanced Theatre Classes.

Energy in Intro. Set Stage before Slate. Share the Stage Picture. Share Your Voice. Find Truth in Dialogue. Cheat Out. Don’t let Set Upstage You. Make Gestures Specific. Use the Space to Tell the Story.

I learned the following technique from the English Department at my school, who created targeted feedback responses for students aimed at helping them understand how to improve on essays, and modified it for Drama class. I was already giving notes to the casts of mainstage shows, and I am noticing that this is an excellent way to begin training for students to learn to pay attention to notes.

I suggest doing an ungraded “free trial” of this technique before you start using in in assessment, but after trying it you may become a believer.

1.Set up the points for a particular assignment.  (10, 5, 6, whatever you do).  Let me model this for a 5 point assignment.

2. When the first group performs, they are group 1. Make sure you have their names on an index card (they can just fill these out and give them to you) or a little grade sheet, or whatever. It’s important for students to remember what group number they are because they will be looking at the feedback and identifying the feedback as a group.

3. Watch group 1’s performance and write down the comments in the areas where they seem to fit.

  • Positive comments are in the 5 zone. Great Characters. Creative Intro. Nice Energy. Good Use of Stage Picture.
  • Maintenance/what if comments are in the 4 zone. Share your voice. Cheat Out.Share the Stage Picture. Raise the Stakes.
  • Improvement comments are perhaps in the 3 zone. Raise energy on intro. Find Focus. Use Space to Tell the Story. Keep Hair Out of Face.
  • Redo/Not Yet- Is the scene incomprehensible? Poorly planned? Stop ’em. Send ’em out to rehearse for five more minutes.

4. When group 2 goes, add to the comments, and so on, until all the groups have performed. You now have a custom sheet of notes for your group, and they see both their positive and improvement areas. Pop it up on the projector or print out six  or however many copies and have the groups look at it.

5. Go around the room. Have each group share out. Have them summarize in one sentence,  what they learned, what they need to work on. Total assessment. Nice wrap-up. The focus is on the ethic of improvement.  And they know they need each other to make them all better.

Because this is their masterpiece. And yours.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Link

WHOLE GROUP MOVEMENT AND THE WORK

We hear a great deal about “class participation” when we are teachers. We encourage it, we grade students for it, we expect that a student who is fully engaged will be a go-getter. The squeaky wheel gets the grease, so as teachers, we enjoy our interactions with our outgoing students, and dread our interactions with the distracted class clowns who seem to be out to get us.

And then there are the rest of the students, those who give us nothing. And we’re not quite sure what we’ve done wrong, or how to make it work for them.

One starting point is to take the pressure off the individual through whole group involvement.

Last week we left off with a Viola Spolin classic game, Dog and Bone, which allows the entire group to participate by allowing the students to switch between what Augusto Boal called “a spect-actor” (Boal, Legislative Theatre 67)  and the audience. The game depends on volunteers switching roles to quickly make something happen, and then regaining their position in the circle. The game does not require that all students “participate”, in fact it values the spectator/audience member for both their spectatorship and their reflection  of the process.

Games like Dog and Bone are vital to play at the beginning of work with students. They are also extremely vital to practice throughout the year because they get the group together, keep the group together, and create opportunities for individuals to grow in a safe space. They do this by allowing students  to observe themselves and others to create awareness without self-consciousness, create without the burden of talent, and perform without acting.

SELF OBSERVATION

Acting teachers and actors alike will tell you that self-observation is key to beginning to create a character, as well as surviving in rehearsal, onstage, and as part of any creative project.

Teenagers  are both intensely self-conscious and narcissistic, and the times we are living in make them ever more so as often every element of their lives, triumphant and awkward, is systematically documented on film and subsequently broadcast to the world by themselves, their parents, and even the educational system in the service of school activities, teaching and learning.  Therefore, asking them to observe themselves or others becomes an exercise in discomfort, often yielding superficial results as they strive to be unoffensive, or unpleasant results as they attempt to deflect the spectacle off themselves. Whole group games eliminate both these extremes and allow them, if they wish, to experience without reporting.

THE WORK

Excited audience members often come up to me at the stage door after shows at Cupertino Actors Theatre and tell me my students are “talented.” These people are supportive, well-meaning and love the students in this community. But this is not a word I use with my students if I can avoid it. The word is overused, and unhelpful when teaching young artists, and it reduces the complex experience of creativity to its dog and pony show result. The best explanation of what folks eventually recognize as talent is that it is an impulse in a young artist that becomes a practice, which becomes an obsession, which reveals itself as what I was raised to call “the divine madness” of being able to produce a performance that captivates. Madness, of course, puts people off, so I use another term from my parents.

The Work.

When you are working with beginning students, they don’t need to worry about talent. Experiment. Let them become concerned with it later. In the beginning, get them instead to do the work. To engage, focus, participate and create.

THE MYTH OF “ACTING”

If watching ourselves and others is difficult, being in the spotlight, even figuratively,  can be excruciating. A lot of  beginning drama students share the same fear. They don’t want to “get up on stage and act”.  And since we, as drama teachers, don’t share this fear, it can be perplexing. So we sometimes tend to gravitate gratefully to the students who are bold, who are funny, who volunteer, and who are not afraid.  We want to make things happen, so we allow these students to perform, and others to “watch”, or we create early, complicated, mandatory performances to encourage them to “get their feet wet”, rather than growing the desire to “dive in” more slowly and organically. Then we wonder why some kids “never want to participate”, or “ruin it for everyone else with their attitude.” It’s the same reason we don’t want to participate in stuff that makes us uncomfortable. It is fear, and it is overcome by the positive peer pressure of simultaneous performance.

GAMES FOR THE GROUP

There are several excellent resources for finding simultaneous whole group games for your students to play.  As I previously mentioned, the work of Augusto Boal, which is rooted in doing theatre with people for people, is an excellent resource for games you can adapt for use with your students. His book, Games for Actors and Non Actors,  is particularly accessible.  Another excellent resource is Viola Spolin’s Theatre Games for The Classroom. A third, more recent and not widely available book is ComedySportz LA’s James Bailey’s great improvisation manual for the classroom, which can be procured through emailing the folks at ComedySportz LA.

These games require the ability to work in a large, open space. If you don’t have a large, open space, consider doing one of the following:

1.Reorganize your desks or tables to create a playing space in the middle of your room.

2.Teach students a system to stack the desks in your classroom and put them back quickly. They enjoy activities like this more than you might imagine.

3. In nice weather, take them outside to the field, a quad or a hallway.

4. In inclement weather, try to use a gym, cafeteria, multipurpose room or other open space. If you get pushback from the powers that be, INVITE THEM TO YOUR CLASS. Not to watch. To play.

CAMERA ABOVE

From Spolin. This is a nice game to start with in the first few weeks because it involves the entire group. Tell them to imagine that there is a “camera above” them, and ask them to form various things, the letter A for example, the number 23, symbols such as the @ sign. Count to 10 on the first one and then give them less and less time to work together to form the thing with each subsequent challenge. If they’re really off, give them a short grace period to “fix it” or “make it extreme.” End each shape with whole group applause.  This game can be used again, and the possibilities are endless. Use it to introduce concepts. Have two large groups race to form the shape. Introduce twists…a busy B, a crazy 8.

The game reinforces cooperation, owning an idea, and improvisation. It does not require students to form levels or relationships, which is why it’s a great opening game for the awkward. They just have to agree to stand somewhere, next to someone else, in a shape they decided on. Progress.

PEOPLE, CABIN, STORM

From Boal. Initial groups of 3, two standing and facing each other, one sitting between them. One person, maybe you, left out. The two who are facing each other raise their hands and press them against each other to form a triangular shelter over the sitting one. They are the cabin. The person below them is the person. If the person left out calls “people”, all the sitting students must switch places. If the person calls “cabin”, all the cabins must disassemble and find someone new with whom to make a cabin. If the person calls storm, EVERYONE must reconfigure. Only one person is left out at a time, because when they call people, cabin or storm, they switch into the game, leaving someone out.

The game is great because it invites the 30 second leader. This person controls the room for a short moment, must make a decision, share their voice, and stick by the decision. The others must creatively make quick choices and stick with them for the duration. Acting.

ATTACKER/DEFENDER

I was introduced to this game at a workshop at Southern Oregon University  during a class hosted by their summer theatre MA program for drama teachers.  It was, I believe, called something like “cure and disease.” The visionary improvisation teacher James Bailey calls it Attacker/Defender. If one of these names bothers you, feel free to make up your own name.

Students walk randomly, a basic tenet of whole group work also known as “milling and seething”, a termed coined by Kevin Coleman of Shakespeare and Company.  He used it during his excellent workshop at the Shakespeare Works When Shakespeare Plays Conference hosted by UC Davis, a conference I thoroughly recommend for anyone interested in play-based instruction for Drama and English classes.   “Milling and Seething”  means they walk without touching each other, without talking to each other, and of course at first without making eye contact inasmuch as they need to to avoid slamming into each other. Tell them to keep walking until you ask them to stop, that you will give further guidance while they are walking.

You’ll find that at first students do one of two things. They all try to go through the middle of the room, creating a logjam, or they all walk in a circle, like a school of fish. Try encouraging them to “fill the space”, that tends to break it up a bit.

Then encourage them to silently identify another performer who he or she is trying to get away from. His or her “attacker” or “disease.” Have them, keeping that person in their periphery, try to walk so they are far away from that person.

Next, have them identify their “defender” or “cure.” Have them keep walking, trying to keep that person in between them and the other person.

They may go nuts with this at first. Running, screaming, whatever. Stop and ask them why. Ask them to try it again, as Bailey says without panicking. It will usually  go more smoothly the second time.

What are students doing in this game? They’re learning to walk around by themselves in the space in order to tell themselves a story, a very important actor skill. They’re creating imaginary relationships, and letting them play out in a physical arena, without violating the personal space or boundaries of others. They’re experiencing adversity and adjusting themselves in order to cope. They are playing, and becoming an ensemble, while beginning to learn to share the stage picture.

Play on.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The First Few Days

 

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.

 THE BALL

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.