For the past several years, I have been teaching literature to my high school students by separating what they read into the various genres: novel, short story, poetry, drama. I have realized that plays offer the widest range of teaching variations, but I found myself teaching a play just as I would prose: assign parts for oral reading, ask thematic questions, give vocabulary words, identify important quotations. More recently, however, I could no longer avoid two obvious problems with this method. First, drama is a visual art form which demands that I, as teacher-director, help to lead a diversity of students to openly participate in the development of individual and group interpretations of the works. Second, as individuals, students often react very personally to the material, carrying values and private issues into their involvement with the plays.
The objective of this unit is to create an atmosphere—through dramatic technique—where both student and teacher can learn something about those feelings that keep penetrating the classroom environment. In this way, I can help my students at the very least, to acknowledge what they are feeling and, hopefully, to realize through the characters they create (and recreate) that they are not alone when they experience these emotions. It isn’t enough that they know what a play is about or which character says what line. When actors work up a part, they search themselves for recollections of emotions that can make the character’s motivations “truer.” Our students can do the reverse: they can search the characters for valuable pieces of their own personal puzzles.
Certainly, this is a large nebulous endeavor that could easily take up every minute of class time. It is also true that, on many levels, the teacher becomes a lay-psychologist whenever any assignment involves an emotional commitment from kids. Beyond just shared responses, these structured self-explorations in the classroom involve great personal risks. The student is being asked to abandon the tough public facade in order to face himself, and, more dangerously, to face his peers as well. As a teacher, I must have extra-sharp ears and eyes; we all have to be alert to the easily bruised. The distance created by “characters” in role-playing, improvisation, and actual play-acting allows the students to wrangle with a problem while still maintaining control. Not unlike the professional actor’s “artistic detachment ,” the process of moving around inside someone else’s head and body gives the student and teacher ample room for discovery without any liability.
Hodgson and Richards point out in
Discovery and Creativity in Drama
, that acting is not really make believe, it is more a “revealing” of aspects of the human condition.
As adults, we should realize that every time we try to be someone else, we’re acting; every time we imagine an alternative response to a past situation, we’re acting; every time we move into a new conflict while attempting to respond in a predictable way, we’re acting. It is a question of coming to grips with ourselves and our physical environments while developing a set of rules and procedures for coping with myriad relationships. Our students are doing the same thing. They act and act out, i.e., aggressively assume new roles without explanation, all the time. And their personal scenes shift incredibly quickly. For example school roles may break down into the extremes of polite classroom behavior vs. “jive” hallway technique. Home might represent a combination of silent rebellion, sustained acquiescence, seething anger. Very highly stylized, these many postures are often perfected long before they are understood or controlled or even identified.
I refuse to let all that natural practice go to waste. Barnfield points out that improvisationis a “slicing” of life that happens only once in a particular way.
Life then is a grand series of improvisations.
of this material is too vast to be handled within the limits of my classroom. In order to make the relationship between their real-life personae and theatrical improvisational manageable one, I had to find an emotional “issue” that would have some common element for the larger group.
Although their responses are often unpredictably diverse and raw, students are usually willing to discuss family conflicts. Almost all of them live with parents or guardians and many face a world with only one (or only one significant) parental figure. The activities attached to this unit, as well as the suggested plays, will therefore touch upon some aspect of family concerns. An activity might be built around an improvisation where first, a student is arguing in favor of a parttime job. Next, he is forced to argue effectively as the parent who wants free time devoted to study. Becoming the parent involves more than giving the predictable verbal arguments. The student must step into the walk, the gestures, the facial expressions, in fact, as many physicalized characteristics as he can find in his memory or through observation. Perhaps it is more
the parent says something or
the student hears it that determined the outcome of the response. The rules of Stanislavski’s method acting, where motivation behind every action is investigated, may be of value here.
But it is easy to ramble on about motivations on paper; how do we get the kids to start searching for them?
The only way to describe the strategy behind this unit is to engage the reader in the process. The steps are somewhat parallel to the training procedure of a student-actor:
Step One: Warm-ups
Step Two: Theater Games
Step Three: Role-playing
Step Four: Individual Improvisations
Step Five: Group Improvisations
Step Six: Cuttings from Plays
My definition of each step clarifies the direction in which my activities are meant to proceed.
Once the activities have achieved a fair degree of acceptance from the students, a more relaxed atmosphere can be sustained during the course of the project. Ideally, trust and ease have developed from the realization that everyone, including the teacher is sharing and learning from what outsiders might view as “silly” or “weird.” Because of this intimacy, individuals should feel safe enough to allow personal conflicts to surface in their role-playing and improvisation. However, acting by itself does not necessarily lead to either understanding or accepting what has happened. Also, we, as teacher-directors, may not be able to interpret what we are watching. It is advisable to encourage your students to write out response sheets after those exercises where personal feelings come into play. For example, a student may explain what a certain physicalized moment (e.g. grabbing at an elbow) was supposed to represent about a mother character; further, the same paragraph can explain in what way and for what reasons the motion did or did not mimic the real parent. The motivation is explained, after the fact, in a confidential statement that both forces the student to search for a hidden rationale and allows you to share that moment with him.
In the beginning assume that our students, although flexible and easy-going in most situations, are just as nervous and tight as we are when we face an unfamiliar group or setting. Even in my drama seminar where, for most of us, the major concern was getting the kids actively involved in drama, it took a very long time to get us out of our seats and doing anything. We simply cannot teach what we won’t even attempt ourselves. What follows is a series of brief descriptions of the various methods that should lead to movement and to involvement.
Using the room and furniture with which you are forced to cope, create a relatively obstacle-free space where students, if only from the waist up, can stretch and flex without touching each other. Getting the kinks out is only half the battle. We have to change the working environment enough so that our students don’t assume their typical “literature lesson” stances. If desks are bolted down, get the kids on them, under them, lounging across them. Use the conditions; don’t be limited by them. Do this every day for the first few days, reducing the time as the students find it easier to move and to relax themselves.
A good initiation activity would be the “Half Gumby”. We all have seen that elastic little man who can stretch and pull in any direction. For this activity, no preparation is necessary; in fact, leave the room alone. Ask the students to pretend to bolt their feet to the floor. A symbolic “bolting” activity might make them laugh, but it forces them to “see” that they are all involved. Next, ask them to bend forward, to the right, backward, and to the left with their arms outstretched. With each side swing, they must stretch a little farther, reaching toward the fingertips of their neighbors. You can vary the tempo of the 90o rotations or the time and verbal pressure given to each s-t-r-e-t-c-h. A brief discussion of how they felt as they reached, touched, didn’t touch, can get the kids involved physically with each other without any threatening or complicated contact maneuvers. Also, for students, who feel awkward, out-of-shape, overweight, or even inappropriately dressed, an upper torso exercise removes the stigma of “looking funny” to his/her peers.
This technique is more specific than the generalized movements of the warm-ups. The class takes a first step toward the important concept of the “ensemble.” In an acting ensemble character “types,” leaders, observers, or critics, among others, are identified and their talents utilized. The same variations exist in the classroom. Most of these students are strangers in all but superficial ways. Through the games, they begin to realize the importance of shared space, time, attention, information, ideas. They also can grow to share their common experiences as teenagers in similar environments. Theater games are meant to spark spontaneity; they are designed also to minimize self-consciousness or fear while improving the ease of movement, speech, and characterization. As Viola Spolin points out:
The game is a natural group form providing the involvement and personal freedom necessary for experiencing. Games develop personal techniques and skills necessary for the game itself, through playing. Skills are developed at the very moment a person is having all the fun and excitement playing a game has to offer this is the exact time he is truly open to receive them.
Concentration and trust are only two examples of what can be learned while “playing the game.” In our seminar, an early game use to get us “involved” with each other physically was called, “The Machine Game.” The creation of the machine incorporated everyone in the room. We all, one by one, added what we felt was a vital part (made up of a repeated motion and sound) to the imaginary contraption our activity was creating. The group was finally working and moving together through play.
In a second game, “Sound and Motion,” a leader creates a movement that repeats a particular noise and motion. He/she moves toward a line of the other group members, eventually indicating (without words or gestures) the person with whom she/he wishes to share the activity. The receiver mirrors the action and then moves off to the original leader position. Using the old Movement as a launching point, the new leader transformsit into his or her own variation and sets out in search of a new receiver. The game inspires relaxation and fun. The teacher-director, sensing shyness, might well take on the role of the first leader to avoid any awkwardness. During all this fun, students are developing skills of coordination, imitation and most certainly, concentration. A series of such games that encourage imitation and re-creation of familiar activities will add to the flexibility of the group; it will also create a storehouse of physical expressions that the ensemble can utilize in later activities.
Here, students attempt to physicalize how they perceive types of characters. Because they must use personal observations, they can work on anyone in any situation:. a preachy mother, a moody sister, an infirmed complaining grandparent, an overly protective father. The recreation becomes truer if the student is led to question how and why the physical signals of these characters make their own clear statements.
A short writing assignment in which an activity is divided into stages from initial motion through its completion, can be a helpful tool to both student and teacher. This written outline becomes a blueprint for what the student will do. It also helps to clarify the why. The motivation (although it may not be announced until after the performance) must be described and linked to what specifically is being done. The final “acted” version, including changes, can then be discussed by the group to see if what was presented did or did not show what it was designed to reveal. Suggestions for deletions, additions, and variations will help clarify both the motivation and its expression.
A student might, for example, opt to hang a curtain rod. All props are imaginary. In writing, the student presents a list of materials: ladder, hammer, nails, rod, hooks. He describes how he will climb up, how he will measure, hammer, hang. He must also be aware of the feelings behind the act (agitation? romance?) and any changes during the performance of the task (a banged thumb, perhaps).
Steps Four and Five
At the heart of this unit is improvisation, the deliberate flexing of emotional as well as mental and physical muscles in a controlled setting. Although exposing frustration, anger, and even hate may disturb the established sense of fun, growing to face and understand conflicts may avoid future disaster. At first, students can construct and flesh out scenes by varying or “improvising” characters and situations. A student “becomes” a person carrying a suitcase in a train station. How old is this person? How heavy is the suitcase? Is he going toward or coming from the train? Does his face reveal sorrow? anticipation? fear? What does his walk reveal? The group must discover what the actor is trying to convey without words. Discussion following such an improvisation must be directed to include questions concerning what material the student chose to shape his character. It should also include constructive suggestions and variations. Then, leaving the story skeleton in tact, a different motivation must be revealed through a new improvisation by the same person.
Here, too, a student reaction paper (or two, including a brief description before and a personal statement after) can lead student and teacher to a new level of understanding. Another layer has been peeled away.
Once the group is assigned a skeleton situation, many of the “theatrical” elements of dramatic presentation can be improved through repeated attempts at improvistation. A group improvisation moves more smoothly when the pace of responses is quickened. So often, reading plays aloud in class fails because cues and reactions are missed. Improved timing is therefore an important consequence of repeated improvisation.
During the early stages of improvised adventure, the group should be divided into pairs. Of course, pairs should change in order to maintain the fluidity of the group as a whole. Ask students to improvise athletic activities without using words. They do not merely, for example, serve a tennis ball and return it. (Note: You may want them to role play a lone tennis player to get into character.) One must serve; the other must watch the ball and return it (or miss) with the total meshing of body movement, facial expression, and follow up in preparation for the next stroke. They must determine together the space, setting up imaginary or real court boundaries. Then, the questions begin. What moods are the players in? What weather conditions exist? Are the linesman impartial? Is the crowd hostile? All this is determined before the exercise in a prepared worksheet (an extension of what would be expected in role-playing) on which the pair has collaborated.
The next step might be to add the linesman. Now the three must plan and react as a group. Maybe spectators, or double partners or a human net can be gradually added to the scene. At each juncture, timing helps establish the “realness” of the tennis game. A missed cue must be a missed shot: a point for the other side. An over anxious response would also be a missed shot: another point. Bad placement or loss of balance?? Another point. The teacher-director, now in a neutral role, should probably become the silent and official scorekeeper. The tennis game is a fair metaphor for building complexities in improvisation. With each complication (My thanks to Dr. Whitaker for “Now let me complicate your life.”), the student is forced to make the adjustment quickly by thinking and reacting ALL THE TIME. Since there are no words at this stage, it is the physicalization alone that must be the embodiment of the message.
The physical continuity will hopefully add to a heightened awareness of the need for a spoken continuity as well. Games in which sentences are built word by word around a circle of people to a leader’s beat can be quite helpful. Here, they must each recall what was said and be ready to react quickly when a new word triggers their turn.
Improvisation, then, is an organic experience where skills are constantly being refined. In particular, students develop an increasing facility to meet changing or unknown stimuli with immediate responses. Ideally, improvisation leads to a blending; the student creates as he/she simultaneously identifies with the character as it evolves. Obviously, the teacher-director should never lose sight of the metamorphic and highly personal nature of improvisation; therefore, there must never be the question of success or failure.
Every improvisation, then, constitutes a play: there is a sequence of scenes; a fair length of time is devoted to the performance of the activity; and some resolution (or the decision that there is no resolution) is finally reached.
Step Six: Cuttings from Plays
As teachers of drama, we must be very familiar with the material we use. This is especially true of the plays we select. Cuttings—specific scenes or distillations of scenes from larger works—can be effective by themselves or as introductions to their parent works.
In this unit, I have selected material from readily available American contemporary drama. All three plays set up variations on the theme of parent vs. child. The skeleton plot is the same: one parent faces his or her own life through a psychological and/or emotional struggle with two very different children. Williams’
The Glass Menagerie
Death of a Salesman
, and Zindel’s
The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds
all have volatile rocky scenes our students can prepare that reveal, through physical as well as verbal interaction, the fears, the hopes, the pride of a variety of characters.
The Glass Menagerie
is a memory play. The mother, Amanda, mourns the loss of a past that has not always been kind. Made perfect and safe by the distance time creates, these bittersweet images of her youth make Amanda’s ability to deal with the present tenuous at best. She faces life as the abandoned wife-martyr; all she has is an unsuccessful career, a terribly shy and definitely crippled daughter, Laura, and a trapped son, Tom, who waits for his chance to escape the strangling role of family provider. Each lives for some unfullfilled dream. The tensions between the characters increase as they bump up against one another during brushes with reality.
Death of a Salesman
also explores the question of broken dreams. Here, Willy Loman has lost his limited past success as a road salesman. Of his two sons, Biff, his favorite, has allowed himself to be crippled by the discovery that his father was less than perfect. His own life, much like Laura’s, is becoming vestigial. He simply does not function in the presence of his father. Both Laura and Biff seem to exist and decline as a result of their parents’ overwhelming devotion.
In this play, Willy and Biff suffer because time is confusing. The past is always rushing into the present, choking off any possibility for peace. As in
, the question of the degree to which the children must be responsible for the parent is examined, if not answered.
, in many ways, is a contemporary
. The past plays a subtler role in dialogue and setting, but Beatrice is nonetheless the product of her own embellished dreams of the past and her get-rich-quick schemes (a la Willy) for the future. She is essentially housebound. Her two daughters represent both her burden and her last fleeting chance for something glorious. They are her marigolds. Their love/hate relationship is the most visually delineated of the three plays. Here, the mother has at least one tender and one extremely destructive scene with each child. Ruth, it should be noted, is damaged emotionally; she is the parallel to Laura.
In all three, then, the humanness and vulnerability of each parent is pitted against each one’s mixture of stubborn pride and closely-held worn-out memories. These characters are then placed in a world of emotional and financial hardship; they are useless to all but their children. But the children feel the weight of being life-preservers and they fight back. Certainly there are parallels to be discovered in the lives of the youngsters who will work through these plays.
We shouldn’t be afraid to take on some of the major acting roles when we begin. Very often, for a first reading, the authority roles we already have established in our classrooms can help the students find the responses they need to become involved with the characters they play. Take, for example, the scene in
The Glass Menagerie
where Amanda returns home to face Laura after she discovers that Laura has been lying for weeks about attending business school.
The teacher can make Amanda’s winded entrance and irregular breathing cry out with her despair, her shame, her anger, her fear of what will come next. The student tries to recall a moment that represents his or her own shame, or despair, or fear of not “measuring up” to what most assuredly becomes Amanda’s broken dream. Improvisations designed by students can help them prepare for this particular cutting; it should not be a long leap for students into the role of Laura and, hopefully, into a sympathetic portrayal of Amanda.
It is no easy task to envision and work through this process by merely reading about it. It will take even longer to see any results in the classroom. The sequential activities build on each other, becoming more complex, but also, more significant. These steps can certainly be used independently, to spur interest or to provide alternatives in your classroom. There is so much material available on any particular facet of this unit. It should be stressed, however, that its major purpose is to give our students several avenues to self-awareness and to afford the teacher some new and useful insights into the emotional climates our students inhabit.
Drama is the closest literary form to life itself. Therefore, the teachers and students of dramatic art must engage in a dynamic process that reveals and examines interior aspects of the complicated lives we lead.