Tag Archives: Viola Spolin

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.

 

 

 

 

 

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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.