Tag Archives: teaching drama

This is Our Masterpiece: On Presenting, Rehearsing, and Responding to Student Performance in Class

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.

REHEARSAL PROCEDURES

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.

WATCH IT

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.

AUDIENCE RESPONSE

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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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.