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.
- 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.