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Ten Reasons Why Using Theatre in Your Classroom Isn't as Nuts as You Think
Is That a Woodpecker on Your Shoulder? Or How to Get Good Performances Out of Young Actors
Readers Theatre -- The Shortcut to Dramatic Success (Sidebar)
Ten Reasons Why Using Theatre in Your Classroom Isn’t as Nuts as You Think
Yes, theatre with kids can be challenging. Sure, keeping a lid on things is harder during a relatively unstructured activity like theatre. And, no kidding, it’s a lot of work to put a performance together. But the benefits of using theatre in your classroom far outweigh the difficulties.
What’s so great about theatre? Well, how much time do you have? Not enough, I’m guessing, so here’s the short list:
- Theatre brings the language arts to life.
Your brilliant lessons and well-constructed worksheets can teach students a lot about decoding, comprehension, story structure, character traits, literature analysis, and the like. But theatre makes all these skills – and many more – relevant and real, easier to comprehend and harder to ignore, and, goshdarnit, just more interesting. (Theatre can also breathe life into other subjects like history, current events, and science.)
- Theatre builds self-esteem.
We all like to be applauded, but theatre starts building self-esteem long before the actual performance. There’s something incredibly rewarding about getting up in front of people – even just your classmates – and saying your lines well or giving a character personality or making everyone laugh. Putting together a full production is a big job, and each step along the way is a chance for kids to feel proud of their progress. And nothing beats the sense of accomplishment kids get from a real live performance.
- Theatre is multi-sensory.
It’s visual. Reading a script is a visual
process, of course, but so is recognizing the
structure and appearance of scripts. Costuming and
make-up use visual skills, and so do the construction
of sets and the creation of posters and programs.
It’s auditory. Kids must listen not only to
their director but also to the other actors. They
even have to listen to themselves as they speak to
ensure they are communicating character and
It’s kinesthetic and tactile. Kids get up, move
around, gesture, enter and exit, change expression,
and manipulate props.
Theatre can even be olfactory and gustatory
if snacks are provided! (Always a big hit with
audience members and performers alike!)
- Theatre encourages reluctant students.
Because theatre breaks away from the
ordinary school routine, reluctant students take to
it like yours truly attacking the buffet table. Face
it: unmotivated kids crave something different,
meaning something not-too-you. Theatre can really
pep them up! And reluctant students with actual
academic problems enjoy theatre because
rehearsal gives them enough practice to achieve
- Theatre teaches social skills.
A theatre production is all about teamwork,
and it doesn’t take many rehearsals for kids to see
that! Actors depend on each other to say what
they’re supposed to say and be where they’re
supposed to be. Prop placements, set arrangement,
and costume changes go smoothly only when kids
work together. Theatre provides the perfect, real-
life lesson in trust, encouragement, and
- Theatre impresses the heck out of people.
Kids are impressed with themselves. Why,
they’re practically professionals! And parents and
grandparents are impressed with the kids, too – and
with you. You’re so much nicer than they were led
to believe. Administrators and other teachers
marvel that your kids could perform so well. Who
knew that you of all people could pull off something
- Theatre develops character.
Putting together a theatre production
requires patience, perseverance, organization,
conscientiousness, hard work, devotion, strength,
and overall good character. From the kids, too.
- Theatre makes a good bribe.
Just joking! What I really mean is: theatre
provides an excellent incentive for encouraging kids
to complete less favored activities so they can
participate in the more favored activity of theatre.
That’s sound educational principle, you know, not
bribery. Heh. Heh.
- Theatre helps kids appreciate the performing arts.
We usually experience only polished
performances in the media. Kids really have no idea
how much work goes into a show, a concert, an
album, a dance, or any kind of performance.
Performing themselves gives them a different
perspective on the arts – and a real appreciation
- Theatre is fun!
Kids learn tons from theatre (see above), and they have fun, too. Isn't that a great deal? And if you give theatre a try, you'll find that it's fun for you, too. Yes, people may look at you like you're crazy when you say you're putting on a play. And, sure, you might run into a problem or two, a headache now and then. But, no kidding, using theatre in your classroom can be more rewarding than you imagine!
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!