Tag Archives: ensemble

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.

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.