Recently, I attended the Arts Midwest Conference for work. Arts Midwest takes place over a huge expanse of real estate, and this necessitates moving from event to event - watching showcases, talking to agents, and all the other busy work that comes from trying to plan next year's season. Finally, I was able to sit down and just enjoy the evening's showcases. This is the only time of year when I get to see tons of different acts and grow my knowledge in the field.
I had the wonderful opportunity to sit and enjoy the showcases with some colleagues from other Iowa venues, including a dear friend. Two other colleagues were sitting behind us who are relatively new acquaintances, and one of them asked: "What do you do with your Youth Theatre?".
I always find myself at a loss for words when describing my program. I feel like we cobble together a lot of things from a lot of places. As I struggled to say anything, my friend presented this description of the program:
"Andy does what he wants."
We all had a good chuckle, and I didn't know where really to go from there. Since then, I've pondered this moment and wondered if I should be worried that this is someone's perception of the program, or if I should be content I have the freedom to do exactly what I want (well, within reason).
The actor in me will always be a little too self-involved to not worry about creating a program too atypical to function or to allow collaboration with others, but the Education Director in me is incredibly proud to create a program that can be anything it wants or needs to be.
How do you let your cannon loose upon your program? Tell us in the comments!
Activity: Zip, Zap, Boing!
Generic Title: Not Zip Zap Zop
Players: 7+ ( the more players, the better).
Ages: All (but you'll see best results with 3rd grade and up)
Facilitation: Start by gathering your group in a circle and introducing each of the three different types of "energy" passes individually. Gradually put them all together.
Before I moved to Oskaloosa, every class I taught had a large majority of students I was working with for the first time. Every game or activity I introduced was new to them. If life was a video game, I was repeating the first level every time I taught a class.
Today, we have Youth Theatre campers who spend all 8 weeks of their summer at camp, side-by-side with first timers and those who fall somewhere in between. You can imagine that playing the same first level of theatre games for 280 hours over 40 days might incur a rebellion, and rightfully so! Instead, I really have had to change my outlook on games (i.e. the control panel, which you can read more about here).
Sometimes, though, it's not all about adapting to your group of students. I came to realize that games themselves can lean toward adaptation, and once that hit, it was like seeing the computer code of the matrix. I began to understand how games operate and what makes them successful (or not).
All games have a specific goal or objective.
All games have their own physics that players must abide by.
All games have a flow
All games have a stall line, meaning they can crash and burn.
Goal - Be the last one to cross the barricade, or as the barricade, stop everyone from crossing.
Physics - Players must stay in bounds, they must not make noise, they must not touch the barricade.
Flow - Players cross the barricade, then the facilitator allows the barricade to reorganize to best stop remaining players. Repeat until one of the goals is accomplished.
Stall line - Players refuse to accept the physics of the game, and you must stop. This happens with people can't listen, or follow directions, or both. (A common stall line in any game/activity.)
Goal - Get across the Chocolate River with your group
Physics - Players must stay in bounds, they may not touch the river, they must finish the goal together.
Flow - When the team works together, they move across the space.
Stall line- Failure in teamwork means a failure to complete the goal. This game can't be done alone.
Balance is essential. This isn't about always making it fair for everyone, but it is giving everyone the opportunity to be successful. Campers are always thrilled when they've overcome the odds, and that makes sense - who doesn't love an underdog story?
First and foremost, I believe the objective of a game should never be "to win." Competition certainly has its place, but I'm not certain that "winners" really learn anything by winning. We learn by failure - we learn how to be better next time so we can be in the winning team's shoes. Our society is not built around asking the winning Super Bowl team what they need to do better next time. (Though maybe that's exactly what we should be doing, both for ourselves and our students!)
If gaining experience is the "key," the challenge is the "lock." My dad always said once he hits a hole in one, he'll quit playing golf, because it would no longer be a challenge. I'd respond to that line of thought that the obvious answer is to make it harder. Can you hit a hole in one one-handed?
What can you do to offer a greater challenge in your theatre games? This could be as simple as changing part of the code -- maybe everyone has to do it blindfolded, or they can't talk. Maybe it is mashing two game mechanics together so that you need to keep two different sets of game rules running at the same time!
Next, we will look at a game created with the George Daily Youth Theatre. I can't promise it doesn't exist anywhere else (nothing is truly original, am I right?), but we did work with campers to create this game.
Generic Brand Name: Turn based tag.
Goal: One or two players start as a shark(s), masters of the ocean. Everyone else is a swimmer. Swimmers need to survive, sharks need to tag swimmers.
Physics: Everything happens in turns. Sharks are trying to tag swimmers but they only can do so on their turns. Players must stay within the bounds of the game.
Flow: Sharks take two turns, and they go first. The first turn is walking while the facilitator counts down from 5. Then, the sharks get their second turn. In this turn, they can move as fast as they safely can with a faster count down (usually five, but it's dependent on space). Any swimmers they tag in their turn will become sharks. Next, it's the swimmers turn. They can move as fast as they safely can to reposition themselves away from sharks. They get a count down from 5 (usually equal to the sharks' first turn). Swimmers and sharks may not move unless it is their turn.
Stall line: This game fails if players continue to move when it isn't their turn, or when players are not mindful of their surroundings. Younger players can easily be trampled by older players if older players aren't careful.
Facilitation: Define your space, including where sharks and swimmers start. I often use a cue word, and if a group moves before their cue word, they lose their turn (I almost always use the cue word "GO" for this game).
Someone recently asked me, "How do you adapt and change games for so many repeat campers while still keeping games playable for new campers?"
I answered with the control board.
My background in theatre education started with theatre before education, and I have a passion for directing. I subscribe to two specific directing techniques:
Picturization - Everything needs to make a lasting picture. I'm a visual person, so this is how I operate on a regular basis.
Organic Directing - This is the idea that says we will discover the elements of the play as we practice it. We figure out the blocking (movement on stage) as the scene develops and then try to replicate it the next time we rehearse.
I am not the world's best type "A" personality. I have my moments, and I like organization and order as much as the next person, but I will always be more type "B". I prefer the process of exploration to put something together, and I tend to believe that if every detail is planned out, you won't get as good of an experience. I like to see what we will discover. This can lead to complete chaos, and that could be disastrous for some people and has even been disastrous for me... but not nearly disastrous enough, I guess.
The second game in our Standard Games Triangle focuses on one of our core mantras: "Support your Team." I am sure that many of you reading this are aware that collaboration is essential to life. That's also the case in theatre, where collaboration truly is the only necessary ingredient. Now, I don't want to drag you sports fans down, but I think that if we're comparing sports and fine arts as a method for teaching collaboration, the performing arts do a better job. This is partially due to the fact that the competitive part of theatre comes before the show begins. Once cast, everyone should be working toward one goal, not working toward a goal and competing against opponent(s).
I don't know a lot about the sociological or biological human need for competition, but it seems as though we are coded to compete. It is hard work to push back against that programming. I wholeheartedly believe that we could accomplish more as a collective species if we decided that achieving a goal together was more important than being better than other people. But then again, I'm not scientist, and maybe I'm missing out on a chunk of the equation.
There is also another illusive piece of the collaborative code and that is the actual chemical make up of teamwork...
In the previous issue, a story was recounted about the Middle School Enrichment class I work with. We are going to revisit the answer of "teamwork" briefly. That is an answer that young people know will satisfy a lot of teachers, but I challenge you to dig deeper. I don't usually take the time to tell them what my components are unless they are really floundering, but it doesn't hurt to have your own list. I just like students to set their own definitions for things. It is nice to see where they go when forced to think a little harder on the subject.
If you want a list to get started, here is what I've compiled as the basic necessities of teamwork. I don't keep this written down, I just put this list together for this issue.
Andy's Teamwork List: 1. Common group goal - What needs to be accomplished? 2. Communication - Can be broken down into "Who is putting out info?" & "Who is receiving the info?" 3. At least one leader- But remember someone has to take the responsibility to clean up after the horses at the end of the parade. 4. Followers - These are not mindless sheep, but you need people willing to cooperate and follow the leader to accomplish what is best for the group. 5. Patience - I know it's #5 in the list, but I tend to think that the correct amount of patience is enough to conquer any goal. 6. Listening - This could be covered in communication, but listening is such an important skill that it gets its own place. Everyone needs to be on the same page, everyone needs to hear each other, and leaders NEED to listen to the rest of the group to be the best leader they can be. 7. Honest Feedback - It is important to know when something is not working. It's okay to regroup, and people have to be willing to speak up honestly and directly about a situation. (This is hard, I don't know if constructive criticism is as prevalent a thing in today's world)
Maybe I missed something critical here, maybe there are things that aren't necessary, and maybe you disagree entirely. That is why I suggest you know what your chemical equation for teamwork is.
...Once you have decided what teamwork means to you, you will be ahead in the Game of Life -- wait maybe we shouldn't use sports analogies -- you will be ahead in the Production of Life, or at least putting into place a significant cornerstone of your Theatre Camp.
Speaking of cornerstones, we will move into the game that we use to test enrichment classes and theatre camps alike in their collaborative abilities:
Generic Brand Name: That lava game you played growing up in your house that ended with "Andrew! Get off the furniture and play outside!"
Who doesn't love a good circle? King Arthur sat at one to avoid the narrative that the king was the head of the discussion and to symbolize that his knights' lives were valued as much as his. Flying saucers, the One Ring, doughnuts -- all brought to us by circles. They're the best shape for sitting as a group -- everyone can see everyone else, and there is just something comforting about a shape with no beginning or end. Circles have many outstanding qualities, but they sure can muddle a narrative.
This is where the triangle can really shine. They are the naturally occurring geometric shape of the theatrical world, both in its physical structure and philosophical nature. (And yes, math lovers, we've heard that circles can be broken down into triangles and triangles contain circles - the Reuleaux triangle, congruency, math words...P.S. We'd love to develop a geometry lesson plan using stage picturization to illustrate these concepts...but first we need an intrepid math educator to help us understand them!)
But back to triangles: they are an excellent way to organize blocking on stage to make the action visible to the audience, and a solid model for organizational structure. Andy often tells campers that a triangle is the strongest geometric shape, because all sides support each other, and there is little space for the sides to buckle. I'm not sure if that is a scientific fact, but it is at the very least a probable alternative fact.
The first symbolic triangle we'll tackle here at TCCG is the core of our theatre philosophy. From day one, we ask campers to:
Support Your Team Support Your Scene Support Your Story
Support Your Team - Collaboration is the key to success in theatre. There is no way to avoid it, and under-valuing it can be disastrous. It takes all sorts of skill sets to put up a show, so encouraging students to count lines and referring to them as "stars" will do nothing but create "me-focused" individuals. Your job as an educator or director is to create a TEAM.
Teamwork is a supposedly simple concept, but describing its chemical makeup is an elusive task for students (and most adults). Campers know adults like that word, so they will use it to vaguely answer questions about working successfully as a group.
Example: Teacher: How can you support your team? Student: Teamwork!
Most of the time, adults will accept "teamwork" as a valid answer to this question, but what concrete information does that really give students? Instead, when you get that word thrown at you, take the time to dig in with your students and create a definition for it. There probably is no "correct answer," but the lazy answer is "working together as a team," because that only restates the phrase "teamwork."
Example: Teacher: How can you support your team? Student: Teamwork! Teacher: (Restates question using student's answer) How will I be able to see that you're working as a team when I look over at your group? What will you be doing?
This will hopefully elicit answers like: "We're taking turns talking," "Everyone has a job to do," "We listen to everyone's ideas," and "We vote to make big decisions."
Support Your Scene - We use this phrase as a reminder that each performer should know the focus of the scene - where the audience's attention should be - at any given moment. That way, if the performer is part of that action, they can work to make it seen and heard. If they are not, then the goal should be to add to, not distract from, the moment. In some ways, "Support your scene" also ties in with "Support your team" - for example, if students are talking while a teacher is talking (but that probably never happens to you).
A great way to illustrate "Support your scene" is to ask 2-3 students to perform or improvise a scene. Join in as supporting character. As the students begin to speak, begin to model different ways in which an actor could be distracting from the scene. These will depend on your students' age and experience: you could whisper to other supporting characters, stand fidgeting and staring off into space, wave to the audience, or even perform an exquisite pantomime in which your character experiences a profound realization about the meaning of life while buying a loaf of bread. Still, none of these actions support the scene.
Then, go back to the beginning of the scene, and this time, model a character reacting to the characters who are the focus of the scene. After the scene is finished, ask the students who were watching what was most memorable about the first version of the scene. The second? Ask questions that require students to verbalize the difference between the two, and discuss and model how you can support a scene in which you do not have any lines.
Often, the issue of being seen and heard is addressed with rules like "never turn your back to the audience." In our book, these rules are pretty flimsy. While they offer a great starting place, sooner or later these rules will need to be broken. Sometimes, it could be a much greater advantage to hide part of your action in order to build mystery. Or you could be directing in an arena-style theatre, so actors always will have their backs to different portions of the audience. A more effective method is to start by identifying the focus of the scene and simply block the rest of the action around it.
Support Your Story - The meaning of "Support your story" can vary depending on the focus of the group. In a Building camp, where campers write their own material, "Support your story" can be a reminder to inject their scripts with conflict and action, or in a more traditional sense, it can mean that actors must accept the "givens" that make their character's world tick. They can ask all sorts of questions and decide it's utter nonsense, but while they're acting, they must accept these givens as truth.
The Flatline: The flatline illustrates both a theatre philosophy and the physical structure of a scene. A flatline beautifully represents the need for ups and downs in a story arc andlevels and depth in your physical blocking. If either of these are flat, it means whatever you're doing is dead. This is just as true on stage as it is in a hospital.
In writing, the more story points you have (within reason), the more "alive" the story is. Think of aroller coaster or the 5-point story diagram we all learned in school. When it comes to blocking actors' physical movements, you can use the same principle. Putting your performers in a simple straight line is boring, and it kills your action on stage. Everyone is equal, so no characters are important (Earlier, we said a circle can really muddle a narrative. So can a line.). Thus, the audience doesn't know where to look, and you can't progress the story. Arranging your performers in triangles will add depth and keep your scenes "alive."
Show and Don't Tell: Theatre is a visual art form -- it should be approached from a visual point-of-view. Always find a way to show what the audience needs to know -- don't depend on dialogue to communicate it. We start teaching this important concept in an activity called "The Magic Ball."
One of the best things about incorporating theatre games and activities into your teaching is that there are not many requirements for the space in which they are played. No hoops, nets, floor lines, or trampoline floors necessary (though if you've got it, flaunt it!). Theatre games and activities can be played almost anywhere there's flat, open ground: a stage, a classroom (with desks pushed aside to form the playing space boundaries), an outdoor playground, a cafegymnaudiquarium... and believe me, we've played in all these locations and more.
Still, we feel very lucky in our current base of operations, The George Daily Auditorium. The George Daily is a 20-year-old theatre venue located in Oskaloosa, IA. In 1999, the George Daily began its theatre education program, which took various forms until 2013, when Andy was hired as the venue's first full-time Education Director, and the Auditorium began to offer a year-round theatre education program.
**Roughly illustrated "how-to" guides for playing our adapted and original theatre games/activities. **Stories of our experiences developing and play-testing the featured games/activities, meant to encourage you to DYOG (Design Your Own Games) and also remind you that this process is not an exact science (sometimes I Survived...-style EPIC fails are involved). **Insight and conclusions based on our triumphs, failures, and "mehs," which will hopefully help you and your students benefit from the awesomeness of theatre games, while avoiding some of our more boring fails (Leaving more room for your own, interesting, fails!).