Thursday, March 19, 2009

Easier Theatre

Easier Theatre
When you consider using theatre with your students, don’t think of it as THE-AH-TAH! You don’t have to stage huge productions of Shakespearean dramas with hand-made costumes, award-winning sets, and Oscar-worthy performances. You can keep things simple and your kids will still get the benefits of theatre. (See “Ten Reasons Why Using Theatre in Your Classroom Isn't as Nuts as You Think” on my website Here are some suggestions for making the use of theatre easier:

Keep it to yourself.
There’s no rule that says you must perform in front of an audience – you can use theatre just as a classroom experience. You’ll find that simple theatre activities can be fun, rewarding, and educational!
A little bit of theatre makes a good filler at the end of a period, in the few minutes before lunch, or just before going home. You can have kids play charades – either what I call “Big Idea” charades or the traditional game. In “Big Idea” charades, kids act out a whole concept at once. For example, a kid could pretend to paint on an easel for “artist” or act out hitting a ball and running the bases to get across “Babe Ruth.” In traditional charades, kids act out individual words or even syllables and the audience must put all the pieces together. A student could do something like hold up fingers for “three” and pretend to be a beast for “Three Bears.” Both activities make kids think, build their confidence, and help them become more comfortable standing up in front of people.
You can also work theatre into your subject areas. In Social Studies, kids could act out famous events like the Boston Tea Party, the discovery of King Tut’s tomb, etc. In Science, ask a student to pretend to be Louis Pasteur, Marie Curie, or another scientist and explain his or her discoveries. In English, have students ad lib new endings to stories or write short skits based on something they’ve read. These are valuable activities even if nobody in the outside world ever sees your kids perform.

Use readers theatre.
See “Readers Theatre -- The Shortcut to Dramatic Success” also on this blog.

Make it up as you go.
Maybe you want to have your students perform plays (in your classroom or for the outside world), but it just seems too complicated, time-consuming, etc. Readers theatre can help. (See above.) Or you might find it helpful to use the make-it-up-as-you-go method.
Choose a story familiar to your students. A folk tale or fairy tale works well, but you can use any story. Quickly assign parts, and then ask the kids to tell you how the story starts. Send the appropriate actors to the front of the room and have them act out the first scene. Then ask the kids about what happens next, add or remove actors as needed, and move on to the next scene. Continue on until the whole story has been acted out. You may need to ask leading questions or even model roles until kids get the idea.
After they’ve experienced this process a number of times over weeks or months (same story with different casts or different stories), your students will be able to put together some surprisingly well-developed scenes. And you might feel like you want to try performing something for an audience. If so, finalize your cast and let them rehearse enough that they’ve pretty well established what they’re going to say and do.
Maybe you’re thinking that a putting on a performance without a script is like doing a trapeze act without a net. There is a certain level of anxiety with the make-it-up-as-you-go method, but it has a lot of pluses, too. For one thing, kids have a real understanding of plot, motivation, and other aspects of the story, so they often give better performances than they would with a memorized play. And since they made the play up themselves, they’re not as likely to forget something important. Even if something does go amiss, it’s easy for other actors to adjust and fix the problem since they understand what should be happening, what the characters are feeling, etc.

Put together a Poetry Extravaganza!
A Poetry Extravaganza makes a great public performance, but it’s really easy to do -- especially if you use poetry throughout the year anyway! It also has the benefit of practically eliminating your worries about performance day absences. Here’s how to do it:
Expose your students to poetry regularly – even for just a few minutes here and there. Read poems to them, put poems on your bulletin board, pass out poems, and have students read and reread the poems in your reading or literature book. Whenever my students came to a poem, we read it several times and went back to previous poems in the book, too. Sometimes we took turns on verses or did choral reading. And now and then I tried to fit in poems in the last few minutes of class. Eventually, the kids began to become familiar with particular poems and we’d play around at reciting a few lines by heart. Some would even attempt to memorize whole poems.
Eventually, I’d suggest we put some poems together in a program. Kids would select poems they liked, either ones we’d already had in class or completely new poems. (I steered the students who had difficulties to the familiar poems and more capable students to something new.) We’d practice standing up in front of the room and reciting the poems. If a student wanted to do his poem by memory, he could. If not, then we put the poem on a cool-looking scroll, inside an appropriate book, or on a prop. Sometimes kids would come up with costumes that fit their poems, and sometimes other kids would appear on stage, too, acting out the poem. When everybody was pretty comfortable, we invited an audience to see our Poetry Extravaganza. If someone was absent…oh, well! We just skipped their poem! Missing background performers were easily replaced or eliminated.

Relax – right now!
Theater with kids can be nerve-wracking if you try to control things too much. Sure, you don’t want them running wild, but you need to accept that theater just isn’t as organized, calm, and rigid as some other activities. You can gently guide kids to be better performers (See “Is That a Woodpecker on Your Shoulder? Or How to Get Good Performances Out of Young Actors” also on this blog), but don’t squelch all their creativity trying to achieve perfection. Take a deep breath, relax, and enjoy!