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.
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.
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.