A short time ago, a small group of eleven year olds entered my classroom for the very first time. I stood in the hallway and greeted them as they looked anxiously between their schedule and my name on the door. I walked them in, let them know where they could set their stuff down, and went out to collect the next newly minted middle schooler. This sixth grade class was eager, easily excitable, nervous and very anxious about drama class. I was too.
I still get stage fright. It’s silly, I know. I have been teaching theater and running workshops for thirteen years, but come that first day I am as nervous as I was when I stepped on the stage for the first time. I can’t explain it really.
In the beginning it was a matter of not wanting to make a mistake, but over the years it has become more about wanting the students to enjoy theater. They don’t even have to love it; they just have to enjoy their experience and be present in class.
“Don’t smile until Thanksgiving, and then only a little!”
“Hammer them with discipline on day one or they won’t respect you.”
“Candy. Give them candy and they’ll do anything.”
When I first started teaching, old timers were full of advice of how to start the new school year. But I found that teaching drama was different. I had greater flexibility in how I could command attention and engage students in the process, but there was also quite a bit more at stake. If drama didn’t capture their attention in the first few classes, it was going to be a long and difficult road ahead.
Through trial and error (a lot of trial and error) I have arrived at three key attitudes that I bring to theater education from the moment I meet the potential artists. It took me a while to get here, but I finally feel like I’ve figured out what it takes to hook kids on theater.
Sometimes in theatre there is no right or wrong answer. I used to use that phrase as a throw-away note in their journals, but I have come to realize that it is much more important than that. On the first day, after the first time someone asks, “Did I do that right?” we stop and I write it on the board: sometimes in theatre there is no right or wrong answer. We talk about what that phrase means. I want them to realize that one way to get your idea across may be more effective than another, but neither one is wrong.
“There is no way you can mess this up! There are 1,000 right answers.”
It is exciting to see the moment they adopt this attitude. Suddenly they open up and new ideas begin to flow. I no longer sit with them in silence as each one holds back their creativity for fear that they will say the wrong thing. It is freeing.
I’m going to join in and I am not going to be the best at every exercise. I play every drama game and participate in almost every exercise. I can’t help it. I participate because they need to see I am human. I am not perfect and sometimes I Zop when I should Zap. I can be called out, I can laugh about it, and I can get back in the game. When I am not afraid to look ridiculous during the improv game “What are you doing” they are suddenly less self-conscious.
I have observed drama teachers who spent the majority of their teaching time at the desk or in a chair surrounded by a semi-circle of students. They stepped on stage to explain the rubric for a new project, but I rarely saw them participate with the students in even the most basic of drama games or improvs. They rarely took risks in front of the students and consequently the students didn’t take risks either.
Embrace the chaos. Creating theater is loud, and noisy, talkative, collaborative, and full of laughter, with constant movement and energy, physical interaction, give and take, and focus.
A teacher stopped by my classroom to talk to me one day while the students were creating short nonsense dialogue scenes. The ideas were bouncing off the walls and the students were engaged and immersed in the activity. The laughter was infectious. The teacher was distracted the entire time we were talking and at one point told me that she would let me get back to my class so I could get the students under control. I let her know that they were fine, but still she persisted. To put her at ease I projected my voice to the class “Neutral position please.” Within seven seconds 14 students were standing with feet shoulder width apart, arms down at their sides, back straight and looking directly ahead.
I asked them how they were coming along and told them they would have just 3 more minutes.
“Can we get back to work?” someone asked.
“Sure. Do you mind if another teacher sticks around to watch your scenes?” I responded.
More than one group eagerly spoke up, “Yeah! Can we go first?”
They got back to work at the same pace and volume they were before and I had a soft three minutes to wrap up the conversation. If my colleague was impressed she didn’t show it. If I had to guess by her non-verbal communication I would say skeptical was more accurate. In the end, she couldn’t stay. In my mind I was sure she was headed to find out if there was a rubric that I was using to score that chaos.
Discipline takes many forms; the type of discipline needed to execute a complex chemistry experiment is not the same type needed to create a theatrical piece. Dramatic creation can be messy, but that doesn’t mean that it is out of control. To me the process of creating drama is noisy and frenetic, because it mirrors life. There are a hundred different ways to arrive at a theatrical piece because there are a hundred different stimuli issues affecting the teenagers in my classes.
Each time a student walks into drama for the first time I have an amazing opportunity to set the stage as a teaching artist. I have an opportunity to engage them in the process of making theater. Not as a student, but as an artist; a creative member of an ensemble. Engaging students in the process of making theater is classroom management.