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.
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.
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.
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.