Thursday, February 28, 2008

Getting Good Performances Out of Young Actors

Is That a Woodpecker on Your Shoulder?
Or How to Get Good Performances Out of Young Actors

Some kids are natural-born actors. They speak naturally. They display natural facial expressions. They communicate natural emotions, and they portray natural characters. Naturally, kids with that kind of talent are few and far between.
Many kids need help to move beyond robotic recitation of their lines to realistic portrayals of their characters. Some young actors will never be Oscar material. (Hey, that’s part of what makes kids’ performances so cute.) However, you can work with most kids and at least get them from wooden to something not-so-wooden. Here are some tips for how to do that:

Don’t give up the script too soon.
If you’re performing readers theatre, you never have to give up the script. (See “Readers Theatre – The Shortcut to Dramatic Success.”) But if you’re doing conventional theatre, allow students to keep their scripts a while. If you push kids to memorize everything early on, they focus on getting the lines down instead of getting the lines to express something. Letting kids rely on their scripts and concentrating your rehearsals on developing good performances pays off in the end.

Motivate actors to think about motivation.
Some young actors think that just saying their lines is “acting.” They need your help to understand that their characters have feelings – and “acting” means showing those feelings to the audience. Asking leading questions is one of the best ways to get kids to consider what’s behind their characters’ words. Try questions like: “How do you think he’s feeling?” “What does she mean?” “Is he telling the truth?” “What’s she hoping for?”
Once an actor can articulate what his character is feeling, encourage him to show those feelings. A simple, “play-like” direction is usually effective and less threatening than pressure to “Act! Act!” Just say something like, “Play like you’re mad, too.” Or “Play like you’re lying.”

Echo read…read…read….
If you still can’t get good expression out of an actor, try echo reading. Sit down with the kid and tell him he’s your echo. Then say one of his lines the way you’d like for him to perform it and ask him to copy you exactly. Likely, he will repeat the line in the same robotic way as usual, but don’t be discouraged. Remind him that he’s to do the line exactly as you do it, and try again – and again if necessary. Once he improves on that line, continue the process with his next lines. Once an actor gets the idea, he can usually carry on by himself with just an occasional echo read for difficult lines.

Prepare for interruptions.
One of the most awkward and unnatural parts in a play is the poor interruption. It goes something like this:

Francine: I can’t help it! I didn’t even know about.
Jacob: (after an embarrassing pause) Don’t make excuses, Francine! I was there when you.
Francine: (after another embarrassing pause) Shut up already! You’re always on my.

If your play includes an interruption, have the involved actor write out what she thinks the character intends to say. Then when she performs the line, she can continue on until the next actor actually interrupts her or until the end of the line if he doesn’t.

Hold off on the extras.
Kids love costumes, props, set pieces, and the like, but they love them too much. Once a young actor has a towel turban or a bejeweled throne or even one little magic rock, he’s likely to be distracted from creating a quality performance. Hey, who needs good expression when you’re wearing a pig snout? Let your actors mime the extras until their performances are in pretty good shape. Then you can work in the other stuff without detracting from the acting. Saving the extras also has the added benefit of pepping things up if repeated rehearsals are getting old.

Perform for a fake audience.
Arrange for somebody to “drop by” during a rehearsal. Or do a dress rehearsal with a non-threatening audience like a group of little kids. Getting a taste of performing before an audience can energize lackluster actors. It finally clicks with them that they’ll be doing their thing in front of “real” people. And audience reactions during a play bring things into focus for the actors, making it clear what’s funny or surprising or scary. Audience comments afterwards can clarify what’s working or not working in a production – especially if you forewarn your fake audience to watch out for something in particular.

Accentuate the positive.
Performing is fun and exciting, but it’s also scary for kids. Negative comments and demands for perfection only make things scarier, but it’s easy to forget that under the stress of putting together a show. Just remember: you’ll get a better performance from young actors in a positive atmosphere where they feel comfortable. So praise anything you can, point out every little bit of progress you see, and relax. Your young actors will charm the socks off their audience!

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Readers Theatre - Shortcut to Dramatic Success

Just think of what could go wrong if your students put on a public performance!
Go ahead. I’ll wait….
Did you imagine the awkward silence that hangs in the air when someone forgets his lines?
Maybe you visualized a catastrophic set collapse? Or a time-sensitive prop that breaks at the very second it’s needed?
Perhaps a long-buried memory of some costuming trauma broke into your consciousness? Ripped seams? Dropped pants? Disintegrating turbans?
Or did you envision the director’s worst nightmare – the absent actor! Oh, the horror!
Now take a deep breath and read on to find out about the cure for all these problems: readers theatre!

What is readers theatre?
In readers theatre, actors keep their scripts and read their lines instead of memorizing them. Costumes, sets, props, and even movement are not needed. Kids can just sit there and read!

What’s so great about readers theatre?
Since the actors always have their scripts right in front of them, there’s a lot less pressure in readers theatre. The constant worry that someone’s going to forget a line is gone! Kids can feel more confident about performing well – and they can handle “bigger” roles than they thought possible.
Needing less rehearsal to put together a production is another benefit of readers theatre. You don’t have to keep practicing until you’ve pounded the lines into everybody’s heads! And you don’t need to spend time blocking out movements and rehearsing them over and over. Usually, the actors just sit quietly on chairs or stools until it’s time to read their parts. If you want to get fancy, you can have the actors put their backs to the audience when they’re not reading and turn around when they are.
And let’s face it: the extras like costumes, sets, and props add a lot of hard work to a production. They can cause problems, too, when they malfunction, break, or disappear. Leaving them out of your readers theatre production means you’ll be ready for a public performance more quickly – and things are likely to run more smoothly.
And if your star is absent? No big deal! Somebody else can simply read the part. Having someone understudy big roles just in case is a good idea, but the show can still go on even if you don’t do that.

But props are fun! And costumes are cute! And isn’t all that sitting around kind of boring?
Remember – we’re talking about a shortcut here. Readers theatre can get you to a successful performance quickly. Without all the extras, your rehearsals can focus on good expression, authentic emotion, and realistic portrayals. So a readers theatre production is anything but boring!
However, the extras are fun so you may want to use traditional readers theatre to get started and change things up later. After a few productions, you and your students might be ready to add some movements, costumes, props, or sets to their performances. You may even work into doing “regular” theatre, dropping scripts and memorizing lines. But don’t feel you have to make a big production out of your theatre program. Keep things as simple as you like – and as fun as you can!

For more about theatre in the classroom visit

Getting Motivated to Write

Maybe you’ve heard the story about Michelangelo and the block of marble that would one day be his statue of David. Some important guy – a prince or something – heard that Michelangelo hadn’t done anything with the marble even though he’d had it for months. The man went to see about this himself and found the artist just standing there, staring at the huge block of stone. “What are you doing?” asked the visitor. Michelangelo replied, “I’m working.”
I imagine Michelangelo was thinking, planning, visualizing, dreaming up and rejecting ideas, preparing himself to create. He really was working!
A lot of a writer’s work is invisible, too, because it goes on inside the mind. But too many times we tell ourselves we’re doing the Michelangelo thing when we’re really just stalling around. Writing is tough. (See Gene Fowler’s quote in the sidebar.) It’s hard to start writing. It’s hard to keep writing. It’s hard to rewrite as much as you should.
Here are some ideas for getting and staying motivated. You’ll have to figure out what works for you, but hopefully one or more of these suggestions will help!

Set a reasonable goal.
Okay, everybody tries setting goals. The problem is that most writers set pie-in the-sky goals that are just too hard to meet. (Like you’re going to get up a four in the morning every day and work on your novel!) You need to set a goal you can actually achieve. And if you really have trouble getting yourself to write, make your goal so easy that you’d feel ashamed to miss it. That way you’ll get somewhere with your writing even if it is just a little at a time – and you can feel proud when you overachieve!

Lose the not-worth-it attitude.
It’s wonderful to have a whole hour, a whole afternoon, a whole day to write. (I was so happy when I was able to quit teaching and write!) But usually real life doesn’t allow that. It’s easy to feel there’s no point in even trying to write when you have tight time limits. Why, you’ll barely get started! And you certainly won’t get very far! And the end is nowhere in sight! Why bother? But even though it’s slow and inefficient, writing in little pieces can really work. Eventually you’ll write a whole something. Keep waiting until you have plenty of time, and you’ll eventually write…nothing whatsoever.

Work on several projects at a time.
It seems counterintuitive, but working on several pieces of writing at once can be easier than concentrating on just one. When you have a single writing project, hitting a snag can stop you cold. You sit there for ages, unable to decide what to write next, getting more and more discouraged until you finally quit, never to return to the computer until you’ve worked through the problem, which, face it, could take months. But if you keep several projects in the works, you can set aside a piece that’s not working and move on to something else. And something else if you have problems with that piece. Having several projects also makes it easier to start writing because you have a choice of possible projects.

Make the job fit.
To keep yourself working for all of your valuable writing period, match your writing tasks to your personality and energy level. If you’re someone who works best when you’re fresh then start writing as soon as you hit your desk. Don’t squander your most productive time on checking your email, printing address labels, doing research, and the like. You can turn to those tasks later when you’re getting tired. Having some easier jobs at that time can keep you from quitting early. If you’re someone who needs to settle in a bit first, then go ahead and do some of those jobs. Just be sure to watch the clock so you don’t piddle away your time.

When you’re wrestling with a story, taking a moment away can really help. You can do that by setting the story aside and working on another writing project. (See #3.) Doing something unrelated to writing can help, too, so you might just step away from your desk for a few minutes, get a cup of coffee, sit on your deck awhile, or walk the dog. But be careful – and honest with yourself. If a certain activity tends to lead you into the temptation of just quitting for the day, don’t even start it. Substitute a less tempting activity and set a time limit for it.
You can keep your writing energy up over time by refreshing yourself with somenonverbal activities. Art classes, hobbies, and sports give you a break from all those words, words, words so you can come back to writing feeling renewed and open to new ideas.

Join a critique group.
Getting together regularly with other writers is one of the most motivating things you can do. Reading other people’s work inspires you to write yourself. The support you get from writing friends keeps you going. Other writers’ suggestions help you improve your work which makes you want to write more. And needing material for your meetings encourages you to write on a routine schedule.

End with a jumpstart.
When you reach the end of one writing session, set things up so it’ll be easier to get started next time. Some writers stop in the middle of something – an exciting scene, an interesting dialogue, or even a sentence! I sometimes jot a few notes about where I’m planning to go next: a few words about plot, a snippet of possible dialogue, a question. If you’re using some kind of outline, check off what you’ve finished. Even just straightening up your desk and setting out what you need next time can help you get a good start.

Be nice to yourself.
You’re trying to do something really hard so cut yourself some slack. Gag that critical inner voice, and take joy in what you’ve written. Write as much as you can but don’t hate yourself if that darn stupid real life gets in the way. When you can’t write, let your mind imagine, dream, plan, and prepare what you’ll write next. Who knows? You might be working on your masterpiece!

For more about writing, visit