Setting the stage in a new theatre classroom
By Gai Jones
In my forty years of teaching theatre, I’ve discovered that the first few weeks of any class really set the tone for what comes after. What you do in those weeks will help establish an environment in which students feel comfortable collaborating, learning, and experimenting. Haim Ginott, author of Teacher and Child, states, “I’ve come to a frightening conclusion that I am the decisive element in the classroom. It’s my personal approach that creates the climate. It’s my daily mood that makes the weather. As a teacher, I possess a tremendous power to make a child’s life miserable or joyous.” The mood I worked hard to set in my classroom made me happy, which in turn helped me create a festive environment for the students. I currently put many of following practices to use as a workshop leader, and I invite you to take what seems helpful to you and then make it your own.
There are principles of classroom management that help nurture the collaborative nature of theatre. From the very first day of class, you will want to teach your students to have respect not only for you as their teacher, but for their fellow students and the art form itself. Conveying a feeling of “deserve respect, expect respect” empowers the student and goes a long way toward boosting her confidence and willingness to experiment. Be sure also to embrace humor and communicate your expectations clearly. The population of any classroom or workshop often includes students from the eager to the hesitant; the scared to the brave; the neophyte to the experienced; and the technical student to the diva. To create an atmosphere conducive to learning, you should treat your students the way Mary Kay Ash, founder of the multi-million dollar cosmetics empire, treated her customers—as if everyone has a sign hanging around her neck that says, “Make me feel important.”
Setting the mood
I structure the earliest weeks of class so that students participate actively in a series of routines that illuminate expected skills and behaviors. The opening weeks are peppered with theatre quotations, music, contracts, terms and traditions, searches for supplies, the writing of résumés, ensemble-building activities, journal writing, spelling bees, and lessons in etiquette. My classroom is decorated with banner-sized theatre quotations and a wall-sized calendar of events and opportunities. Wall reading is the first nonverbal event. The student writes down a few of the posted quotations and events to remember and then a question he might have about the events and activities. We then address the questions and hold a discussion about the meaning of the selected quotations.
Some quotations that have graced my wall include:
“You need three things in the theatre—the play, the actors, and the audience, and each must give something.” Kenneth Haigh, actor
“Opening night is the night before the play is ready to open.” George Jean Nathan, playwright
“Give me four trestles, four boards, two actors, and a passion.” Lupe De Vega, playwright
“Drama is life with the dull bits cut out.” Alfred Hitchcock, director
“Don’t just do something. Stand there.” Sanford Meisner, acting teacher
In addition to including quotations and discussion of theatre events in those first few weeks, I play CDs and tapes of stage musicals as students enter the classroom. We engage in short conversations about the historical aspects of the musical. The musical usually sets the mood for the upcoming lesson.
That mood should be a democratic one. I always seat students in a circle, so each person has equal status in the classroom. This seating arrangement demonstrates that theatre is flexible, ever changing, and not conducive to cliques or exclusion. I change the order of the desks daily or weekly, varying it sometimes by hair color, birthday, or the last four digits of the students’ phone numbers. The possibilities are endless.
In the interest of fostering equality in the classroom, I open each class session with a cooperative game. In the words of Terry Orlick, author of Cooperative Games, “In cooperative games, I feel left in.” Ensemble experiences in which every player has equal status with an objective to make her group look good can be used as warm-ups, focus-building activities, restorative breaks, and ways to close out the class. Compliment each student on his unique contribution and have the class give him a standing ovation as he takes a bow. Making use of ensemble experiences early and often emphasizes the power and necessity of the ensemble in theatre.
Now is the time to introduce both the teacher and student contracts. First, the students lead me, the teacher and director, in the following pledge:
I will foster an atmosphere that builds self-confidence.
I will teach the craft of theatre and the use of the actor’s body, voice, imagination, and discipline.
I will teach the process of constructive assessment.
I will provide a safe environment in which each individual is valued.
I will foster an atmosphere that allows both student and teacher to get in touch with their creative and imaginative sides.
I will demonstrate how we can work through misunderstandings using effective communication.
I will establish guidelines and objectives for quality workshops, rehearsals, and productions.
Then the students follow suit with their pledge. Their contract covers the following concepts: respect for self, the art form, the theatre space, materials, and fellow students; regular attendance; fulfillment of responsibilities; adherence to punctuality; avoidance of distractions like gum, food, drink, makeup, cell phones, and hats; class and rehearsal requirements; for-credit assignments; and daily journal writing. Each student is required to sign his contract and take it home to his parent or guardian to sign it as well. There should be space for parents or guardians to ask questions or offer comments. Later in the first week I mail a copy of the contract back to the parents or guardians.
If the contracts help forge an atmosphere of mutual respect and responsibility, a supplies scavenger hunt, which I also make an early priority, guarantees a safe classroom and rehearsal environment. I guide students through the search of the classroom and rehearsal space, helping them locate materials such as paint, masking tape, hammers, nails, brushes, keys, and even bandages and fire extinguishers, so they will be able to find such items quickly when they need them.
Next comes an introduction to theatre as a discipline. Students of any age love theatre history, terms, and traditions. I usher my students into the ancient art of theatre with trivia and a glossary of terms they should know before getting on stage. Some names and terms I suggest you cover include Thespis, George Spelvin, Gypsy, the method, the fourth wall, the road, blockbuster, break a leg, curtain call, center stage, standing ovation, standing room only, that Scottish play, improvisation, pantomime, director, actor, objective, motivation, tactics, obstacles, Broadway, Off Broadway, head shots, portfolio, road show, unions, Annie Oakley, Brody, schtick, limelight, twofer, laying an egg, and whistling in the green room, just to name a few.
Hand-in-hand with this history lesson is a short unit on spelling. Students need to be aware that they will be judged by how well or poorly they write. When they can’t spell commonly used theatre words on an audition sheet, judges, teachers, and casting directors take note. Any beginning list of words actors will need to be able to spell should include: performance, audition, actor, Shakespearean, soliloquy, audition, genre, theatre, playwright, actress, monologue, resume, audience, rehearsal, director, dialogue, critique, improvisation, scene, critic, and thespian.
Armed with a glossary of theatre terms and their own mental dictionary, students will often welcome my next assignment recommendation—journal writing. Journaling is an activity open to students of all ages and abilities, and for our purposes in theatre class might include researching new aspects of theatre, reviewing a performance, assessing improvement, expressing emotions, and reflecting on important lessons. The journal might also challenge students to make observations and problem-solve, all the while using their imaginations.
Another writing project I assign at the start of a course is a “conflated” résumé. Students often forget their past accomplishments until they are required to list them. This résumé should include every theatre performance, monologue, scene, original work, dance recital, and vocal performance they have completed in their lifetime in order from the most distant to the most current. They should also list every bit of theatre training they have undergone, every festival they have attended, and every honor and award bestowed upon them, no matter how mundane. This includes best smile, most improved, best runner, speller of the week, and so on. Encourage the students to type up a special skills section, specifying whether they are at the beginning, intermediate, or advanced level, and tell them to round out the résumé with accents, novelty talents, and athletic skills. Now they have a résumé that they can add to or hone down depending on their needs.
Comedy of manners
Because they sometimes walk in and out of movies and talk while they’re watching television, many students are unfamiliar with the etiquette of theatre attendance. Stephen Sondheim addresses this subject in his adaptation of Aristophanes’ The Frogs with a humorous song about unacceptable theatre behavior. The song includes this stanza:
Have some respect for Aristophanes.
Don’t say “What?
To every line you think you haven’t got.
I often acquaint my students with the entire song. And then we move on to the following exercise to teach audience members and actors how to handle bad behavior at a theatre performance. You will need short scripts for the actors to use in a staged reading (“contentless scenes” work well) and an audience of classmates.
Begin by dividing the class into three groups: challengers, quiet audience members, and performers. Then distribute audience challenge slips to the challengers. These slips might say something like:
- Begin clapping loudly at an inappropriate place in the performance.
- Play with the hair of the person sitting in front of you for a short time.
- Wait for a dramatic moment in the performance, and get up quickly, disturbing others as you leave the room.
- Remain outside the audience area until the performance begins, and then walk in late, tripping over people and dropping things as you enter.
- Text message and hold your cell phone up so others are distracted.
- Ask the person next to you a question in a loud whisper during the performance.
- Cough loudly and often during a quiet or dramatic moment of the performance.
- Set up your cell phone so that it rings. Pretend to have trouble finding it; answer the call and talk loudly.
Now advise the students with challenge slips that they are to follow the direction on the slips. They should perform their tasks in sequential order, starting with number one. Tell the students to stagger the challenges, so they happen at various times. Audience members who do not have challenge slips should take notes during the performance, keeping track of the number of times certain words are spoken on stage.
The objective of these audience members is to listen intently and to ignore the disturbances. Meanwhile, the performers are to deliver their lines in such a way that the audience members can hear and understand every word. They are not to let the challengers’ activities get in the way of their objective of performing the scene.
After the performance, invite all of your students to share their feelings about how the challenges were executed and handled by performers and audience members. Discuss how to handle these challenges as a member of any audience if they occur in a live theatre performance.
Setting the stage is just as important in the classroom as it is in a production. I have found that working to create an environment of collaboration and community increases your chances of success in future projects and performances. Students who know what is expected of them and understand the importance of respect and taking responsibility for their behavior are the ones who will shine on opening night, whether their place is in front of or behind the curtain.
Gai Jones is a retired theatre educator and the author of Raising the Curtain. When she retired from El Dorado High School in Placentia, California, the faculty and staff named the school’s theatre in her honor.