The other day, I led a class for the MFA actors in the Drama Department at Catholic University. These are highly skilled, talented, experienced graduate students in their third and final year of study. They will receive the terminal degree in their field in May of 2012. The focus of the class was on the teaching of drama. Because many of the students expressed an interest in working with young students, I demonstrated some portions of beginning drama sessions with students. For the MFA actors, I think it was like a trip back in time. I shared with them the thinking that goes into preparing to work with students who have little to no experience in drama.
Over the years, I have found that many drama activities with young people go unsuccessfully because the drama leaders assume that the kids have certain understandings and skills. But often—they do not. Therefore, it is worth the time to build a foundation of basic skills and shared understandings with students before trying to get them to do scripts, scenes, improvisations, or any kind of dramatizations. Here’s what’s worked for me:
Make sure that students are willing to “agree to pretend.” I could paraphrase the text below from the book my colleague Lenore Blank Kelner and I wrote, but I think these three paragraphs from Chapter 3 of A Dramatic Approach to Reading Comprehension are worth including here as written:
A fundamental element necessary for any theatre experience is “the willing suspension of disbelief.” Audiences must willingly accept the illusions and conventions of a theatre performance in order for the experience to be of any value. Audiences agree to accept an artistic reality.
“Agreeing to pretend” simply states this implicit understanding between audiences and actors in a positive way. In the theatre, actors agree to pretend that they are characters in a different setting speaking their own words and moving in their own ways for the first time. In truth, the actors have rehearsed and memorized lines and blocking (movement on stage) that they repeatedly perform during the run of a play. To complete the theatrical experience, the audience must agree to pretend that the action on stage is real and is happening for the first time. To do otherwise diminishes the overall effect.
Emphasizing this concept to students prior to classroom drama work reinforces the connection of the learning activities to the art form of theatre and establishes “agreeing to pretend” as a necessary element of drama. Younger students overwhelmingly approach drama with enthusiasm, so you do not need to spend much time and effort securing their agreement to pretend. With older students, however, acknowledging the element of pretense and connecting it to the work of stage and movie actors can help students invest in the drama. Classroom drama succeeds only when the participants—both actors and audience—agree to work together, pretend, and commit to the experience.
Make sure that students understand the importance of the acting skill “Cooperation.” No drama or theatre experience can happen if the participants do not work together. Without cooperation—or ensemble playing—there can be no worthwhile dramatizing. To emphasize this idea simply, I do an activity called “Group Mirror” with the students. I ask them to agree to pretend to be my reflections as I look into one of those mirrors where I see “lots of me.” Once they agree, I slowly perform some simple hand and arm movements which they imitate. When I stop, I ask them, “Were we really a mirror? No. We were just agreeing to pretend. But we were able to look like a mirror because we used the actor’s skill of “Cooperation.” Without Cooperation, the mirror activity and all other drama activities just plain do not work. This is worth pointing out and emphasizing right from the start.
Give students practice with the acting skill “Concentration.” Most teachers have had the following experience: You plan a drama activity and in your mind, it works beautifully and it is a valuable and meaningful experience for the students. In reality, there is so much silliness and giggling during the activity, that it all ends up feeling worthless.
The reason for the students’ laughter is—well, first of all, they’re usually having a good time—but underneath it all, they have just never practiced the actor’s skill of Concentration. It’s natural for them to laugh when they enjoy an activity, but when given practice, young students can maintain their concentration. We spend a little time discussing what concentration is (the ability to focus so well that nothing distracts you) and why it is an important skill for actors. (If an actor is doing something hilarious onstage, is it okay for the audience to laugh? Yes. Should the actor be laughing at himself/herself? No.)
There are hundreds of concentration activities, but I choose to make my concentration challenge an extension of the Group Mirror activity we just did. The first time I “looked in the mirror,” I kept my face blank and expressionless. For the Concentration Challenge, I tell students that I will again look in the mirror, but this time I will make faces. Their job as actors? Be my reflections, do what I do with my hands and arms, copy the faces I make, and keep their concentration. Don’t crack up. “Are you up to the challenge?” (I have yet to have a group of students say no.)
We do the Concentration Challenge for a short amount of time. Most students are surprisingly good at keeping their concentration, but if there is a lot of laughter and giggling, I repeat the activity. The second time through usually results in a higher rate of success.
All of the above is an abbreviated description of how I lay the foundation for productive drama work with young people. I believe that you have to give them a foundation for the work; they need practice in the skills that will make subsequent dramatizing worthwhile. What I have described can take 30 to 40 minutes of time, but it is time well spent (and often the activities—or others that offer practice in Cooperation and Concentration—bear repeating at the start of future drama sessions.) Think about the basic skills that your students will need for drama work to be successful and valuable. Then lead them through activities that will strengthen those skills so that they can use them when they act out a scene or present any kind of drama.