Primarily, I instruct freshmen, which take Acting I, Voice for Stage Speaking, and Theatre Foundations, a literature course which explores world mythology. I also teach Acting III to Juniors, and an Acting Shakespeare workshop to Seniors. This curriculum unit will be useful for all high school grades, and will at least in part supplement the curriculum for each of the above mentioned courses next year.
I have chosen the Freshmen Acting I class as its primary audience, and the end of the first semester as the best time to teach it. This allows a couple of months for the students to settle into their new school, and in theater class, specifically to develop skills of focus and concentration. This unit will be taught as an approach to creating a character, specifically in terms of "Motivation and Justification," in determining a character's gestures and dramatic actions.
It has been said that music is a universal language. Regardless of the listener's native language, the meaning or tone of a musical piece can be inferred. A similar property of universality encompasses the performance of theater. I once saw Shakespeare's MacBeth performed in Paris, in French. At that time, I was familiar with the story, but had never read the whole play. My proficiency in understanding French extended to say, "I'm hungry," and, "I'm tired." Luckily, a performance relies on a collaboration of elements, techniques and spectacle, and not just the written word. Because the production was a successful collaboration of elements, I understood every scene. The settings, costumes, lights, sound effects and music, and physicality of the actors told the story. The actors' vocal intonations helped to communicate the playwright's intent. The performance of theater is universally comprehended insofar as the audience receives the piece's overall tone. A unified concept is the result of effective collaboration.
Theater closely resembles a team sport. All of the children have played team sports in school physical education class, so this analogy helps the newcomer to theater to allay their fears of studying something new and seemingly foreign. There are try-outs (or a lottery,) and a team is selected. The team agrees on a unified code of conduct, and sets of rules and regulations. Everyone meets in one place at a designated time for practice. Practice starts with warm-up exercises. Practice reveals and improves each player's strengths and weaknesses. Everyone pulls together for the big game, or performance, when the audience is there. Equipment (stage props,) and uniforms (costumes,) need to be in the right place at the right time, functionally ready and useful. Every player is a necessary part of the team; the pitcher can not be the catcher, and the leading lady can not run the lights, too. Wins and losses, (or strong and weak creative choices) permeate the team as a whole. The team, or ensemble, is only as strong as its weakest link. Interestingly, the weak link in the theater ensemble comes from a lack of participation and cooperation, more than it stems from actual ability or aptitude.
The young student actor, and student of any subject, readily enjoys playing games. Some like high energy, physical games. Others prefer intellectual challenges. The carefully evaluated strategies of theater games combine the physical and the intellectual. Most games are set up like a team sport. There are players, sometimes on opposing teams, who have a focus, or problem, that the players can solve. For example, playing Tug of War, then repeating the game, and playing with only an imaginary rope. Another good example is one of Spolin's games, Difficulty with Small Objects. 3 The player must engage their complete attention on a small object of their clothing, or an accessory. They must keep coming up with new ways to handle the object, always striving toward creating believability. Theater games are easily modified to suit the particular needs of a lesson plan, or group dynamic. Because they are based on the paradigm of organized sports, including the teacher as coach, anyone can play and reap the benefits of theater games. The games are generally about exploring creative options in a familiar environment of healthy competition and fun.
Another form of theater game focuses on improvisation. The player must constantly create new scenarios. This form can be more difficult, and often results in comedic material, as it is funny to jump from one situation to another, while maintaining some common thread linking each impromptu scene.
A note is added here for the teacher new to coaching theater games: discuss with the students why real or feigned violence is not a creative option in theater games, and should be avoided.
Theater exercises specifically concern themselves with approaches with distinct methodological parameters to create portrayals of characters who exhibit believable emotions and behaviors. Any piece of literature can become a theater exercise, as students dramatize the material. An example would be asking the students to create and demonstrate a "road-map" of their actions as they (pretend to) cross a brook to rescue an injured animal. The student must be able to repeat the series of actions.
This unit starts with a metaphor, and takes the students through a step by step progression to evaluating the development of morality. The students will first examine common physical ailments and their remedies. The discussion that follows the first exercise will modify the metaphorical example to replace physical ailments and remedies with emotional or moral dilemmas. Throughout all the lessons, the students will be presented with opportunities to view behavioral responses as appropriate or inappropriate remedies.
Students generally respond well to metaphors, and also to improvisational exercises. This unit features three different improvisation exercises that the students develop in small work groups. Both the scenario topics and the challenge of working in groups increase in difficulty as the unit progresses.