monday mess: theater!

Theater is either the most constructivist thing I know, or the least. Last year, directing a student-written play based on the curriculum, I shocked every kid in my class because “Chiara got taken over.” I went into director mode, exhorting them to project their voices or EE-NUN-CI-ATE! I’ll admit this freely: I also stopped kids who, two days before the play, wanted to make a new suggestion about the blocking. Nope. I shut that right down.

Why? Shouldn’t we be allowing exploration, creativity, experimentation with the words and acting and blocking? In a drama class, absolutely. But the longer I do theater with young people, the more I realize that this particular creative art, for this particular age, is more about structure and what can be done within it.

Acting uses the body as its instrument. Playing a character means exercising an exceptional amount of discipline, control, executive function – call it what you will – over your movements and voice, at a level we don’t practice in everyday life, particularly not at the age of eight or nine.

A director’s work, for kids or adults, is often to play “traffic cop” for the actors onstage. Who stands where at what time, when do they move, and in what paths? Take that a step further, and the director might also take responsibility for what individual bodies are doing on stage. “When you say that line, put your arm around his neck like you’re buddies.” “When you reply, turn away to show you’re not having it.” In dance, this is what we’d call choreography. In theater, this kind of physical score has an important role to play.

As a once and present Disney geek, I’ve thought back on my early memories of childhood favorites like Beauty and the Beast or The Little Mermaid. The scripts of these films are complex, with cultural references that older viewers and perhaps only adults pick up on. Gaston and Lefou are a great example, or Ursula the sea witch saying she’ll take matters “into her own tentacles.” Yet as a three year old I had no trouble understanding whose side we were on or what the nefarious characters were up to. It was all in their body language.

The kids I work with on Shakespeare can struggle with it and be frustrated by it. The verbs and syntax are arcane, the lines are long. A physical score of hard-and-fast directions of how to move on individual phrases and lines actually helps the actors learn their own meanings. The clearer they are to the actor, the clearer they are to the audience: once we know “gaskins” are trousers, we can enjoy a hilarious pantsing joke in Twelfth Night. And of course the rest of the vital storytelling… but try and tell me the nine year olds aren’t in it for the slapstick humor.

I believe student actors should have input in bringing their characters to life, but I also can’t expect them, within our rehearsal time, to construct (in the Deweyan sense) an understanding of physicality equal to an adult’s, nor to apply that toward the blocking of a scene or a physical interaction. Giving them a physical score to play with, on the other hand, provides a platform to communicate the meaning of their lines and springboards their creativity with the story we are trying to tell.

Last year, after all the structure and hard work of the play, I shouldn’t be surprised with the ending the class wrote: all twenty two characters let loose for an epic onstage dance party.

P.S. As much as possible, I’d like to devote “Monday Mess” posts to examples of teaching that embrace process, unpredictability, and student choice. Drop a line here if you have one we can showcase!

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