Learning Through Drama

by Thomas R. Whitaker

A few years ago I proposed to a seminar on "Contemporary American Drama" in the Yale-New Haven Teachers Institute that we proceed as a theater workshop or amateur repertory group. Only if we "inhabit" the scripts in that way, I said, could we discover their full theatrical meanings. To our group of common readings we would add theater games, improvisations, and several stages of rehearsal. The teachers agreed, hoping with me that our adult work, with exercises developed by Viola Spolin and Joseph Chaikin, and with plays by David Mamet, Sam Shepard, Ntozake Shange, Wallace Shawn, Christopher Durang, and Jules Feiffer, could prove applicable to their classes ranging from kindergarten to 9th grade.

So we played "Passing and Receiving," "Molding the Object," "Part of a Whole," "Mirror Exercise," and Open Theatre games in which behaviors are passed from one to another, transformed, and then passed on. We tried "open" scripts to which the actors must bring their own definitions of character, situation, and subtext. And we did lots of scene analysis. As we went along, we explored with the help of James Luse from Long Wharf Theatre some scenes from Shange's For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow is Enuf. One of our final projects was part of Feiffer's Grown Ups, which I directed with two different casts. I was particularly struck by the ways in which an Asian-American and an African-American teacher allowed themselves to enter into attitudes and body-language appropriate to Feiffer's Jewish family. "Non-traditional casting" seemed a way to discover community amid diversity. The teachers' curriculum units ranged from "Recipes for Playmaking," "Improvisational Drama," and "'Come Alive' Social Studies" to "The Amistad Affair: Problem Solving through Theater" and "Acting Up in Contemporary Law." One of them, Bill Derry's "Melting Pot Theater: Teaching for Cultural Understanding," offered a plan for several classrooms to create a play about alien explorers who encounter the cultures of Puerto Rico, Russia, and Ghana.

As seminar leader I learned a good deal from that experience. In 1993, therefore, I proposed that another group focus directly on "Twentieth Century Multicultural Theater." Now I had an additional objective that I chose not to make explicit: Could these teachers from different racial backgrounds (six African-American, four European-American, one Latino), some of whom seemed committed to their own traditions, become a coherent theatrical group? Could their role-playing of cultural diversity lead to a realization of their own deeper unity? And could our theater exercises and games help us to move toward the necessary trust, reciprocity, and openness to change?

It was worth a try. Along with our theater games and improvisations with "open" scripts, we started walking through scenes from David Henry Hwang's As the Crow Flies and other scripts from Misha Berson's anthology, Between Worlds: Contemporary Asian-American Plays. We then turned to problems of character and action in August Wilson's Ma Rainey's Black Bottom, and to the thematic and stylistic variety in George C. Wolfe's The Colored Museum. Then, supplementing our scene-work with written comments on characters and pages from a director's notebook, we entered international waters: Eduardo Machado's The Floating Island Plays, Derek Walcott's Dream on Monkey Mountain, Wole Soyinka's The Road, and Percy Mtwa, Mbongeni Ngema, and Barny Simon's Woza Albert! The high point of this stretch came with Woza Albert! ­a satirical/apocalyptic play, composed through improvisation, about Johannesburg life under Apartheid. I led two people in a reading and a walk-through of Scene 1, and then asked them to improvise the scene. Then I divided the group into pairs, asking each to select a scene, find an analogous action or situation in their New Haven experience, and develop an improvisation based on that local material. We performed the "improvs" in sequence, with often hilarious and sometimes poignant results. Our Woza Martin! included an interracial team engaged in a drive-by shooting and a collective visit to Grove Cemetery to invoke the resurrection of African American heroes.

As the teachers completed their curriculum units on such topics as "Multicultural Theater in Music," "Drama and African-American Folktales," and "The Role of the African Playwright as a Griot," we rehearsed four longer projects. Two teachers directed scenes from Lorraine Hansberry's A Raisin in the Sun and Wolfe's The Colored Museum, while I directed scenes from Machado's Broken Eggs and Walcott's Dream on Monkey Mountain. The cast for A Raisin in the Sun was African-American; that for Dream on Monkey Mountain, by a reverse twist, was European-American (a theatrically trained teacher and I); and the casts for The Colored Museum and Broken Eggs were racially mixed. In our final (and celebratory) performance it was the long concluding scene from Broken Eggs that most fully realized my tacit objective for the seminar. Machado's rather Chekhovian play about an alienated, nostalgic, and dysfunctional family of Cuban exiles in California is much concerned with the failure of community, the need to meet each other across the social and psychological distances we have created. The play ends ambiguously, with recognitions of chronic escapism and addiction, a weary acceptance of the past, and a very tenuous hope for the future. But it requires of its actors a group-work that had enabled us to complete our own movement toward a multi-racial community. For us Broken Eggs had indeed made a theatrical omelette.

I am sometimes asked why university professors would want to lead a seminar for teachers. For me the answers have emerged from seminars over the years on such various topics as "The Process of Writing," "American Fiction," "The American Musical," and "Contemporary American Poetry: Expanding the Canon." We hope, no doubt, to be of service to the teachers and students in our inner-cities. We may see a chance to experiment with fresh subjects or pedagogical approaches. And we welcome the opportunity to discuss our subject and our craft with other adults. But very soon we also discover that these teachers need a kind of professional development that acknowledges their ability to plan their own courses of learning and teaching­and that challenges them to carry such plans to completion. In the end we find such a seminar to be exciting and invigorating for all of us. We learn from each other in often surprising ways­about our subjects, our approaches to teaching, and the opportunities for community in what is often an alienating environment. For me that seminar on multicultural theater, which required us all to risk ourselves in creating a community of role-players, brought to those answers a new clarity and a palpable force.

Back to Table of Contents of the Fall 1995 Issue of On Common Ground

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