Tag Archives: Theatre of The Oppressed

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.

 

Getting the Picture- Boal, Spolin, and Tableaus

Viola Spolin uses the term “sharing the stage picture” as a way to begin to teach young performers to break out of their awkwardness onstage and learn to use interesting stage movement in performance. Her suggestion to the teacher is to “sidecoach” while students are engaged in whole group play to increase students’ awareness of others onstage.

I find the best way to begin this discussion is through the use of sculptures and tableaus. I began using tableaus as my into to being onstage a few years ago, when I noticed that students weren’t telling stories onstage in ways that translated theatrically.I do these exercises very early in the year, but you can incorporate them at any point necessary. These can take up to a week of class time.

WARMUP POSSIBILITIES

  • Fruit Basket.  From the good folks at Young Actors Theatre Camp. Tell students to get a partner and become an apple. Then have them find another partner and become a pear with that new person. Now go to a new partner. Become a banana. A new partner. Become an orange. Your fifth and final partner. Become a strawberry. Now find your apple. Your orange. Your banana. Your apple. Your orange. Your strawberry. Your pear. Your apple. Your pear.  Now they are laughing.
  • Make Something….Groups of 4-6. Quickly. Make something round, make something sharp, make something beautiful.  Go around, ask What did you make, what did you make, what did you make, good job. Do it again. Make something edible, make something important, make something ridiculous.
  • Sneaky Statues. They loved it in elementary school, they love it now. Everyone freezes. One student is the “guard” who has to walk around and catch people moving. When he or she does, they have to become the person who was moving. You can do variations by giving them exhibit titles. “Trouble at the Old Mill”, “Selfie”, whatever.
  • James Bailey’s excellent “Artist, Model, Clay” from Teaching Improvisation: A Practical Guide for Classroom Educators, Bedlam Press, played in groups of 3. One person faces the other two, who stand one behind the other. He or she is the artist, the middle is the clay, and the person in the back is the model. The model strikes a pose, and the artist tries to sculpt the air around the person who is “clay” to get them into the position. The groups can then switch and switch again until everyone has done all three roles.

Before I start any onstage work with students, I do an exercise from Augusto Boal.  I don’t know where I got this, whether from one of Boal’s texts or a workshop I took with USC professor Brent Blair at the Camp Bravo Teacher’s Weekend,  which you totally need to do sometime if you’re a Drama teacher near California.  I just call it “Chairs.”

CHAIRS

Put 4 chairs, identical if possible, and a table in your “stage” area. Have the students sit in the audience.

Tell the students a little bit about the founder of the Theatre of the Oppressed, Augusto Boal, if you think they will dig that.  I like to tell them some basic facts, that he was a theatre practitioner in Brazil who was educated in the United States, that he went back to Brazil and tried to remake classical theatrical texts to educate people about oppressive structures in the society, but that approach didn’t reach the people he wanted, so he developed Legislative Theatre.

To the students, Boal is interesting because he was making theatre with real people for a purpose, he was standing up for his beliefs, and he was addressing injustice and hypocrisy. Teenagers are very concerned with injustice and hypocrisy, and they should be. I tell them a story that Brent Blair told in a workshop I took with him at Camp Bravo about art projects Boal did like giving cameras to people living in the slums of Rio and having them take pictures of what the word “Home” meant. One boy brought back a picture of a nail on a wall. Boal asked him what the nail meant. The boy told Boal he was a shoeshine boy in a big hotel. To keep his kit safe, the hotel required that he rent a nail on their wall, eating up most of his profits from his work.

This resonates with the students. So now I tell them, we’re going to look at power, because that’s what Boal was looking at all the time, and it’s a major issue in theatre.

So then I ask them, if there’s a person in each of these four chairs, who has the power? And they give me various answers, the chair at the head of the table, all of them because they’re grouped around the table, excetera.

Then I ask for a volunteer to get up and “change the picture”- give the “power” to a new “person”. Someone gets up and they move the chairs, very simple. And I ask, who has the power now. And I get new answers. And I ask for a new volunteer.

The students can easily work on this for 20 minutes. I’ve had it go half an hour. I do it until there are no more volunteers.

What is this doing for students?

  • It’s getting them onstage, without “acting,” where they are creating a spectacle or having an effect, which is what you want them to do when they do act.
  • It’s providing an outlet for students who are unsure about the class or what they’re doing there to participate nonverbally.
  • It’s showing you your directors, your leaders, and your rebels. You need these kids in your corner.
  • It’s demonstrating that students have creative freedom and agency in your room.

You will see stuff on the stage. You will see Mean Girls, the Principal’s Office, the Family Dining Table, The Classroom.  You will see war, and you will see death. You will see what the kids see and what they want to see,  because they will show it to you.  Stay cool.

I had a young man put a chair behind another and another chair in front and tell me that what he had created was an “inappropriate” (the word my students use when they don’t want to say pornographic) film shoot. I didn’t send him out of class. I simply asked him who had the power. He said the person in back. Again, I didn’t freak out. I suggested to him that perhaps it was the person with the camera. He got it. So did the rest of the class.

Boal 1, “Inappropriate Film Shoot” 0.

THE STAGE PICTURE- LEVELS, RELATIONSHIPS, AND SHAPES

From Jeff Kramer at Comedy Sportz San Jose. Send up one student to do a pose. Send up another to connect to them somehow. And again, and again, and again, until you have 5-10 people up there. Point out the places where people chose to go in at a different level than the others. You might see relationship at this point. Look at places in the statue where people seem to know each other. Complement them if they didn’t stand in a line, if they used interesting shapes like triangles I usually tell my students that lines are generally good onstage if you are doing A CHORUS LINE or something military, but otherwise aim for more complex shapes.

Now repeat the exercise, but this time give them a title. Either you pick the title or solicit one from the audience. Notice how the picture is probably more interesting now that there’s a title.

You can also repeat it without a title and have the audience start titling them, which they enjoy.  But regardless, the last time you do it, pick a title, because it will help you with this next thing.

Pick a title like “Boredom” and tell them to do a “Boredom” sculpture. Complement them on their levels, relationships, and the shape the picture makes.

EMOTION SCULPTURES, CONCEPT OR ABSTRACT NOUN SCULPTURES

  • Divide them quickly into groups of 5-6. I like to use playing cards for this, with a student’s name written on the inside of each card, it makes it easy to randomly group them.
  • Hand out index cards that have emotional states like FEAR, ANGER, JOY, SUSPICION, GRIEF, LOVE written on them. I like to give groups a choice between two, like you give toddlers the choice of the red or blue cup. It gives them a feeling of confidence and leads to less “blaming the topic” in the critique.
  • Give them around 10 minutes to come up with a sculpture which embodies one of these emotions.
  • Watch them.  Talk about them. For how, see the post in Class Culture: This is Our Masterpiece: On Presenting, Rehearsing and Responding to Student Performance in Class.
  • You can repeat this again tomorrow with Abstract Nouns. They can be germaine to other things you want to teach during the year, to a particular play perhaps, or to universal human themes. Comedy, Friendship, War, Justice, Revenge, Celebration. It’s good to do two days of it, with different groups.

THE MORAL OF THE STORY

You can do this as a larger, graded assignment. Have ready quotes or statements (a great into for teaching a play as well) such as

  • Blood is Thicker Than Water
  • It Takes A Village To Raise A Child
  • You Can Lead a Horse to Water, but You Can’t Make Him Drink

And so forth. Feel free to customize these however you like, but they should be universalish, and capable of being “the moral of a story.” Make sure students understand their proverbs or quotes before you let them make a scene about them.

Have the students (groups of 4-6)  create 3 pictures to illustrate a story which ends with this statement as its moral, linked together by narration from either an outside narrator or characters in the story. Plan for maybe 20 minutes of rehearsal to make a thorough job of it, and a quick 5-10 minute check in the next day if the project runs over.

Example:

As my Grandma Grace used to say, “You Show Me Your Friends, I’ll Show You Who You Are.”

Picture One: A student, Jack, sits chastened with a teacher frozen over him in a “yelling at him” position.

Teacher: Jack was always in trouble.

Picture Two:  Three other actors surround “Jack” and act like “bad kids”

One of Them: That was because Jack had dangerous friends.

Picture Three: The three actors change to “good kids.”

Another of Them: So Jack got new friends who liked doing nice things. And he never got in trouble again.

All of Them: The moral of the story is, “You show me your friends, I’ll show you who you are.”

Comment on dynamic pictures that look like they’re moving, on the use of levels, shapes, and distinct characters. Ask, what did you notice?

The picture might be a little clearer now.