Tag Archives: adolescents and creativity

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.

 

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.

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.