Critical Links Theatre Journal

This is my online diary that describes my participation in the Critical Links Theatre project, supported by the Educational Theatre Association and the Arts Education Partnership.

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Endings Bring New Beginnings

Two years of Critical Links in Theatre Education ended this weekend. No more long drives down to Cincinnati for weekends of intensive collaborative professional development in theatre education. These two years have brought about individual growth as well as an ongoing network of creative theatrical thinkers. We resolved to continue connecting and pursuing our inquiries and our professional goals.

Perhaps we can use this blog as a means to further the work.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Assessment -- electronic portfolios

My third area for research and development this year is in the area of assessment. Letter grades are meaningless when it comes to holistic evaluation of all the skills and concepts involved developing the young theatre artist.

For years I've read about electronic portfolios, but was overwhelmed by the idea of creating and maintaining 95 of them. I think I've come up with a way to handle it that won't be too taxing.

This year, I'm implementing student showcases of their work at the end of each semester. Each grade level will have a performance piece that will be recorded and placed in the portfolio. It might be a monologue, a duet, a pantomime, a directing project, depending upon the grade level.

I've had a difficult time keeping up with the electronic portfolio. The idea is good, but very labor intensive. I've been thinking it might be better to keep one tape for each students and add performances onto each tape.
Having reached the end of the first semester, we began recording the first projects in December. I decided it would be easiest to keep each class on a separate digital tape. I'm also taping them in alphabetical order. This will help me notice upon uploading to the computer if any students were absent or missed a taping day.

My 6th grade film class is helping me with the portfolio creation. Using iMovie, they are creating individual "movie" files for each student, with full name in the title and year they will graduate from my school. The students are uploading the segments, student by student, then saving the files to folders marked by year. We are saving the files onto an external drive with mega memory. Each time we tape work to go into the folders, they will be easily accessed and maintained in date order.

I plan to let students in 6 - 8 help with the maintenance of the portfolios and eventually give them more responsibility in selecting material to be taped and saved. The portfolios should give a very clear view of progress over time.

Monday, January 5, 2009

Reality Theatre in the Exploratory Classroom

I took a workshop at the EdTA conference in Chicago last fall on implementing "reality theatre" into the classroom. This form of theatre is basically process drama most famously utilized by Augusto Boal as a means to liberate the oppressed workers and peasants in South America.

The concept is that true life situations are acted out for an audience. The situations are problems faced by the participants. It could be discrimination in the workplace, sexism or racism in daily life and so on. Once the situation is played out, the audience can suggest ways to change the scenario. The scene is then replayed based upon audience suggestions.

Thus different actions lead to other outcomes. This can have an empowering effect upon both players and audience. Instead of feeling helpless in the face of a sexist boss or a racist landlord, tactics to deal with such people are developed through the use of theatre.

The latest hot topic in education these days is how to deal with bullying. There is a new state law in Ohio that mandates all incidents of bullying are reported by the teachers and administrators and specific steps are then taken in dealing with the situation.

I have implemented a Reality Theatre project for all my 5th grade exploratory classes this year. The students in a 9 week class that meets four days per week. The basics of drama are "explored" during class time, generally culminating in some kind of class project.

After four weeks of various theatre exercises and explorations in collaborative improvisation, I ask the student to write individual accounts of bullying they actually witnessed either as participants or observers. They must change the names of the characters so that no actual person's name appears in their stories. After everyone has turned in a real life story, I divide the class into groups and give each group a story to work into a performance.

When they present their stories, the audience discusses what they witnessed and offer suggestions for changes. The group immediately goes back onto the stage and tries out the suggested changes and a final discussion allows all to come to some conclusions.

I have been videotaping the group work and the audience responses. I will need to do a great deal of follow up work on this project to attempt to see if the work has any effect on decreasing bullying among these students.

I am almost finished with the second exploratory group. Each time I do the project, I learn more and gain more insight into the process and the effect it is having upon the students. I will report more as the year goes on.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

How Critical Links changed my approach to teaching theatre

This fall, I began my 16th year of teaching theatre in a public magnet school. Before that, I had been teaching acting in studios and workshops for many years. There are days when I still long for the "purity" of the studio approach. In a private studio, I didn't have to worry about such things as formal assessments, state standards, school uniforms and other such intrusions on the "art" of it all. Studio teaching was pure process with focus on individual needs.

In the first year of Critical Links, I looked at the problem of voice training for the young actor. I wanted to find methods that improved both projection and diction without stressing those who are shy about their voices. I used my four exploratory drama classes to experiment with techniques and refine the process. By learning how to collect the data, I was able to see and hear the improvement in my students. By refining the methods I had developed over the years and focusing on combining sound and movement in all the exercises, I found that students were less stressed and enjoyed the work more, and were able to eventually present a performance of poetry with actions in confident full voices. I have continued to work on vocal training this year utilizing what I learned in those exploratory classes in all my drama classes.

Last year's immersion in the Critical Links process has opened my eyes to what is possible within the drama classroom -- despite all the bureaucratic limitations. I began the fall of 2008 with greater purpose and definite goals in mind that would reshape the way I'd been teaching. Year 16 begins the second half of a projected 30 year public school teaching career (as long as good health is maintained, I hope to achieve that longevity goal). Over the summer, I thought long and hard about what I had accomplished during the first 15 years, and what things I might to do improve.

It would be easy to just drift along on what had been accomplished before, using the same old format and the same materials year after year. Haven't we all had teachers who haul out the same old dusty notes and hand out the same assignments year after year? The Critical Links experience shakes up the old habits by creating a new and valuable one -- the habit of taking stock of what you are doing and asking many questions about the process and the results.

I have always had a keen interest in the sciences, and for many years have looked at acting classes as experimental laboratories where actors explore physiology and the physics of motion, the chemistry of interactions and the biology of emotions. Critical Links provided a way of viewing my teaching process within in a scientific structure that involves selecting a problem, analyzing it and coming up with a hypothesis, then testing it and collecting data along the way.

So I began this year with a critical eye focused on all my classes. What were the problems hiding beneath the surface? What wasn't working so well and what could be improved? What new ideas could I bring to the classroom?

I found some answers at the annual Educational Theatre Association's conference in Chicago this past September. I only recently began attending these conferences and have found them to be invaluable resources. The workshops alone are worth the price of admission, and add in the round table discussions, the marquee addresses by leaders in the field and the impressive array of vendors displaying scripts, technical goods and services and field trip opportunities -- this conference is a must for theatre teachers.

I took a workshop on reality theatre, and immediately knew that this was a format I could utilize in teaching. I have been experimenting with it on the topic of bullying and will be blogging more about this in the second semester.

I also attended an all day session on drama and autism, which gave me very helpful insights into the problems and possible solutions in working with students who have Asperger Syndrome. I also attended a conference at Kent State University over the summer on autism spectrum disorders. The number of students who enter our program who are high level autistic or are identified as AS have increased over the years. Drama is an art form that can give these students a grounding in learning how to read emotions in other people and can help them learn how to communicate and collaborate.

Another areas of concern for this school year is developing more valid means of assessment beyond the obligatory letter grade. I am working on creating electronic portfolios for each student by collecting a video sample pantomime, monologue, duet or scene for each student at the end of each semester.

My final goal is to reconnect with this blog and record my ups and downs as a theatre teacher within the context of the Critical Links Process. All of our original first year group are now preparing to lead new participants through the Critical Links process and we are all encouraged to continue working on our own projects and problems as well. Over this winter break, my intent is to summarize the work I began in the first semester and set out plans of action for the second.

Sunday, November 30, 2008

Voice and Movement training -- results!

I was really thrilled with the results of my voice and movement training project. View the video footage and see for yourself!

Part one (features training in class, rehearsals and final performance): go here.

Part two (with amazing before and after footage!) go here.

You can read all Critical Links in Theatre Education here, including mine (second from the bottom of the list.)

Here's the summary of the results:

Some students are terrified of the sound of their own voices. Others can be nervous about references to any voice “problems” such as fluency, tone, projection or articulation. Such students have a difficult time with training that centers upon each individual voice. To stand in front of a group and speak can be excruciating torture! Voice training doled out, as a unit of focused learning, can be a time of great discomfort for such students.

On the other hand, some students are very shy abut their bodies and have a difficult time letting go physically, which is what has to happen if you want to transform yourself into a character.
I wanted to find out if combining actions and sounds would be a more effective means of improving students’ voices and actions rather than focusing on each aspect individually.

The set up for my experiment was this:

A 5th grade drama exploratory class consists of a 9-week course meeting four days per week, 42 minutes per session. The student population consisted of a mix of arts students in the following areas: dance, drama, vocal music, instrumental music and visual art. Student academic achievement is represented across a spectrum from special needs/special ed to gifted and talented.

My broad outline for the 9-week class:

Students would use Shel Silverstein poetry as both process and performance material. Initially, each student would have his/her own poem to memorize and physicalize. Additionally, I selected two poems that would be large group pieces, dividing the class in half and assigning each group one of the poems along with a student “director.” The goal was to use the material for voice and movement training, adapting and/or combining my usual exercises in a way that both body and voice were involved for most of the training. Another goal was to create a class performance of the material that would presented to the school at the end of the 9 week course.

Day One: “A get to know you exercise” in talk show format. Drama students acted the role of talk show host, with “guests” from all the other arts areas. This initial assessment gave me an idea of who looked comfortable on stage and who looked and sounded shy.

Day Two: Students were each given a unique Shel Silverstein poem to read out loud as a “before” sample of a cold reading. These were all videotaped and saved.

Then began weeks of work with the poems. The humorous Shel Silverstein poetry was challenging yet fun for the students to tackle. The words, rhymes and rhythms, the silly images all helped to inspire movement. At first I had the students work in pairs, finding actions for each other’s poems. As one would speak the words, the other would try out actions to go with the words. Some pairs found that their poem required both to contribute actions. The actors were encouraged to explore all the possibilities together.

Class would begin with warm-ups that focused on sound and movement, building from breathing and resonance to articulation games. I used some basic Kristen Linklater exercises in breathing and resonating, but rather than do them on the floor in a relaxed mode, I had the actors moving in the space, so always the body was engaged while the voice was producing sound. For articulation, the actors conversed with consonant sounds such as Buh and Duh (the uh representing the exhalation of breath behind the consonant sound. Then we reversed the sounds so that articulators were worked on the end sounds: uB and uD. Actors were encouraged to express meaning with gesture and actions as they “conversed.”

Other vocal games included moving in the space and working on one particular word (from their individual poems) exploring all the possibilities of communicating the word with vocal and physical choices. Word Tennis is a game that allows actors to play with word sounds and qualities as one word is “tossed” or “delivered” back and forth between players across a distance.
One thing I observed is that all the actions helped to strengthen voices with a kind of aerobic effect. Additionally, when students are all working on voice in one space, they will get louder without prompting.

Many of the moving in the space games come from my studies with Jairo Cuesta and Jim Sloviak of the New World Performance Lab. “Taking care of the space” is an important task that actors must return to again and again. By taking care of the space, I mean being aware of oneself in relation to the other actors and to the space itself.

A favorite spatial awareness game is having actors move according to various qualities and concepts as expressed with adjectives like “crooked, “straight,” “tense,” “loose,” and so on. I enhanced this game by having actors select one word from their poems to use as they moved within the space and applying the given concept or quality to the way they voiced the word while they also made up movements. For example, the word selected might be “twistable” while the concept given was “crooked.” The actor might explore inflecting “twistable” in a way that bent the separate syllables using pitch changes – all the while the actor’s body is also working out a crooked walk and actions.

The second half of class was given to the actors to work on their poems as performance pieces. The actors made artistic choices throughout the creative process. Time was given to the large group poems as well, so that everybody was performing in something large and small. For most of our rehearsal time, we worked in the Little Theatre. Two weeks before we were to have our final performance, I scheduled some rehearsal time in the large 956-seat auditorium. We played some vocal/physical games in that space to explore the difference in projecting, resonating and articulating in such a large area. The students had no problems adjusting.

The students performed their poems before the school at the end of March. They were very pleased with the reception from the audience. After the class was over, I did a survey of the students and the teacher to gauge their response to the work. Many stated that they felt more confident about speaking in public and some wrote that they were now mindful of articulation and projection.

A month after the class had ended, I asked the actors to do another cold reading in front of the camera. They came in at lunch time in groups of two and three over several days. I gave them a Lewis Carroll poem that is fun to read but has a few challenging words in it. The before and after footage for each student can be seen at the end of the video documentary. The results are visually and audibly clear. The student improvement can be seen in improved eye contact and posture. Confidence is markedly improved along with projection and articulation.

I will continue to combine voice and movement training in my exploratory classes and also in warm-up work for play rehearsals. Rather than put young actors on the spot for not being loud enough or for not taking any risks with movement explorations, this work allows them to develop within the safety of a group and yet stretch their vocal muscles as well as their arms, legs and spines. The student actors are given many opportunities to hear and see others growing more confident and articulate at the same time, which has a positive effect upon their own work.

Ample opportunities to present student work in front of the class gives everybody confidence. Students develop analytical eyes and ears as they practice giving feedback to each other.

Also in the future, I would like to test the work on actors in high school and also within populations of students who are not in a performing arts school. I would also like to develop a course of training for academic teachers interested in incorporating these techniques into an academic class.

Sunday, October 5, 2008

Critical Links Projects online

The Critical Links in Theatre Education first year projects are online. Go here to read the complete story.

It's a nice solid core of research studies centered on theatre ed in middle and high school. We are looking to expand the research this year, in our local communities and online as well.

Saturday, October 4, 2008

Critical Links Year 2

We're back in Cincinnati for the first of three meetings in year two of our Critical Links in Theatre Education project. The original 12 teachers are now ten. It is amazing, really, that ten theatre teachers could find the time to commit to this process. As one after the other of us noted today, our school years are packed full of shows and all the rehearsal time leading up to all those opening nights.

It isn't uncommon for a high school theatre teacher to be responsible for 8 or 9 productions per school year. And at the same time, we have lessons to plan for all the classes we teach. As a middle school teacher, I don't direct as many shows -- however, I always find ways to cast many students in my shows and I can testify to the exhaustibility factor in working with 50 - 80+ 4th through 8th graders per production!

Nevertheless, the ten of us found the time and the motivation to investigate a critical teaching question last year. Our projects are almost ready to be revealed online. We had a sneak preview today and we were all suitably impressed with not only the individual work, but with seeing a collection of research studies in educational theatre. Once the work is officially released to the public, I will post a link here for sure.

Looking at the work today was a powerful stimulus for beginning this "critical" second year of the project. Each of us have been asked to become facilitators of the project in our home districts. We will be leading other teachers through the process of rigorous inquiry into individual teaching questions. We are also being encouraged to work on a question along with our team members. It could be continuing the question from the first year or a new one entirely. I have a good idea what mine will be and I do intend to report on it in this blog as I did with the voice and movement training from last year.

On a personal level, I am so grateful for this opportunity to meet with my peers to investigate problems in theatre ed. Going through the process has already made permanent changes in the way I approach my teaching. I am much more interested in collecting evidence on student improvement. This year, I've begun a monologue project in every grade level, for example -- one per semester. I plan on video-recording the monologues and keeping them in electronic portfolios for each student so that we can observe growth over the years the students are in the program.

So thank you Educational Theatre Association, Critical Links, Arts Education Partnership and the Ohio Arts Council. Not just thank you for my own personal growth and benefit from participating in this project, but thank you for the support that benefits our students in the theatre classroom, and ultimately for helping us all to show how theatre education makes essential contributions to every child's learning process.

Friday, May 2, 2008


We are gathering tomorrow to present our research at the end of year one with Critical Links.

I put together a 13 minute dvd with footage taken throughout the 9 week exploratory drama course. At the end, the class performed their poetry for the entire school and I videotaped that as well. I'm very happy with the results, as I was able to track the progress of individual students as well as documenting the process.

A month after the class was over, I gave the students a survey about their experience. Most of them felt their voices had improved, along with their confidence in front of an audience. I also queried the home room teacher who pointed to some specific student improvements she has witnessed in her academic classroom in terms of student vocal expressiveness.

As a final test, I asked five students from the class to come to the Little Theatre at lunch time this week to try a cold reading in front of the camcorder. I gave them another poem, verses from The Walrus and the Carpenter, to read out loud. When I paired these samples with their initial cold readings from the beginning of the course almost 4 months ago, the improvement is undeniable. They project, speak with greater articulation and confidence. Four out of five make contact with the camera throughout their readings.

The obvious reason that adding actions to the vocal exercises worked so well is that it helped them build up lung power. I never really had to prompt to improve projection. The more work we did in the space, moving and making sounds, the stronger their voices grew. Articulation became a very physical process for them.l A powerful moment can be seen on the video -- when I asked them to try putting their hands over their mouths and articulatory muscles and jaw while speaking. You can see them feeling where the sounds are shaped and realizing that muscles are involved in speech.

The actions also worked to release creativity. All the poems were staged by the students themselves. This gave them even more ownership of the process and also enhanced their collaboration skills.

Some areas I would like to learn more about would be finding ways to help students who have difficulty finding the flow in reading material out loud. One student who is in drama has great difficulty reading text outloud. She stumbles and stutters when confronted with written text, but once memorized, she delivers her lines with ease, projecting and articulating.

Another problem I'd never encountered was a student who clipped vowel sounds very short in all cases. Stretching vowels was something she had never considered. Her habitual mode is rapid delivery with very short clipped vowel sounds. The vowel stretching exercise helped somewhat. The biggest change is that she is more inclined now to slow down her rate of speech but still hasn't mastered the flexibility and emotional content inherent in lengthened vowel sounds.

Monday, April 14, 2008

Words and Actions and Warmups

Recently I've had occasion to observe some other folks warming up before rehearsals near and far. One thing I've noticed is a form of working in a circle that seems to be popular in college theatre. Student teachers have been using the game Zip Zap Zop for a number of years. It's the kind of game that requires strict attention and focus in order to keep the flow running smoothly. According to Wikipedia, it is folkloric in origin. If you know the original source for this game, I'd love to hear it.

Other similar games include passing words and/or actions along the circle in two different directions so that at certain points words and actions cross each other and give one person a very difficult task to handle them at the same time. My current student teacher has been working with our advanced acting class on this one and they are finding it quite the challenge.

Observing a rehearsal in NYC last week, I saw another form of this circle work in which one person ducks while the people on either side clap hands over the top of the ducking person's head. Then the clapper to the right must duck and the clapping is repeated from the person's on either side -- around and around it goes. The goal is to be precise enough to achieve unity in the actions and sounds.

The group I watched playing this game was comprised of high school students and they were very attentive. The focus was intense. It was quite clear that the few fluffs were not amusing or acceptable to the participants. In so many of these games, a miss is cause for merriment rather than renewed focus. I mus say, this group of teenagers were right on the mark with their warm-up.

They also did a neat sound and action vocal warm-up. They tossed invisible baseballs using a "huh" sound to power their actions. After a number of baseball tosses, they moved on to tossing shot-puts which required a stepped up physical action and deeper in the belly "huh" sound. Definitely an exercise worthy of incorporating into a warm-up.

For articulation, a group leader gave them ever-increasing-in-length tongue twisters. As they were about to run through a Shakespeare play, they definitely needed to wake up the articulators. I think they might try adding some actions to the tongue twisters as well. Perhaps walking their character and using the rhythms of the tongue twisters to propel themselves through the space.

What was missing from this warm up was just that -- actors moving in the space. Lots of the circle stuff which is very good for building focus and ensemble energy, yet most plays are not acted around the perimeter of a circle.

"Working the space" is an exercise that can be adapted endlessly for any particular needs. The first task of the actors is to keep the space balanced at all times. That means there are no gaps and no crowds, always bodies moving at approximate equidistant to each other. "Balance the space" is the coaching term that should always prompt actors to be mindful of their actions within the context of the group and the space itself.

Once the group is achieving balance, then coaching can take on the "how" of the bodies moving within the space. Oppositions of qualities are very useful: Thick/Thin; Tall/Short; Sharp/Smooth; Rigid/Loose; Angular/Curved; Heavy/Light and so on. One can spend an entire lesson on taking qualities and working them using a numeric scale. For example 1 being Most Heavy , 5 being Neither Heavy or Light, and 10 being Lightest. It is in this exercise that actors begin to work on nuances brought about by different levels of energy. One can point out the forms of theatre that practically demand extreme actions (commedia, circus) and those that work at more subtle levels (film acting).

There are many other qualities one can explore in the balancing of the space exercise. Younger actors quite enjoy animal qualities. You don't want them to literally act out an elephant, let's say, but rather find the qualities of elephant movement within their actions: heavy, majestic, trunk to tail follow the leader, swaying torso and head etc.

For more work like this, check out this recent book on Grotowski by Akron-based theatre artists James Slowiak and Jairo Cuesta of The New World Performance Lab. The Routledge series of great acting teachers and their theories features a biographical/ theory analysis in the first half and instructional techniques in the second half. Great stuff!

Sunday, March 30, 2008

Voice and action catch up

I haven't had time to keep up with the blogging on my voice and action project, but the project itself kept moving along, despite fits and starts due to weather and unscheduled days off from school.

The class brought their work to performance level and presented it to the entire school this past Wednesday. I videotaped it from way in the back of the auditorium. It will be interesting to hear the results when I download the footage into iMovie.

Everybody in the class originally had a poem to perform. We couldn't perform all of them for the school due to time constraints, so I had the students combine their groups of 2 or 3 with another group of 2 or three. They could choose two poems, one from each group to work on as a performance.

The final presentation would also include the large group poems. The class had been divided in half for these poems, with two 5th grade drama students as directors. We started the show with Nobody and ended it with Twistable Turnable Man.

My initial reaction to the end result is that while my goal was to improve vocal quality and skills, my eyes were drawn to the originality and expressiveness of the student-created actions that sprang out of the text. I expect to report more as I put together a video time-line of the project. I also will be giving the students a survey to gain their insights as participants in the project. To gauge possible long-term improvements, I am working with the home room teacher to arrange a video taping in the classroom in which students read/recite out loud text connected to an academic subject.

I have one more section of 5th grade exploratory that just began this past week. We haven't begun training yet as their starting coincided with tech/opening of our spring musical. I am planning on using the same techniques I have refined in this past experiment.