At Play: Teaching Teenagers Theater

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Young people and improvisational theater should be a natural combination--so why do we so rarely find this combo in today's classrooms? According to Elizabeth Swados--playwright, director, composer, poet, author of children's books and of an acclaimed family memoir--improvisational theater is the perfect creative outlet for junior-high and high-school students . . . if only they can be given the tools and the guidance to make the most of this natural yet rigorous art form.


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At Play: Teaching Teenagers Theater

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Young people and improvisational theater should be a natural combination--so why do we so rarely find this combo in today's classrooms? According to Elizabeth Swados--playwright, director, composer, poet, author of children's books and of an acclaimed family memoir--improvisational theater is the perfect creative outlet for junior-high and high-school students . . . if only they can be given the tools and the guidance to make the most of this natural yet rigorous art form.

Drawing on her own experience teaching inner-city children in the groundbreaking musical Runaways and in teaching the techniques of improv theater in schools around the country, as well as on her own background in experimental theater, Swados provides a step-by-step guide to bringing out the natural creativity and enthusiasm key to young people creating--and enjoying--improvisational theater. Covering the basics--from freeing the imagination to learning about how to work with an ensemble, from how to master different forms of movement and sound to how to create different kinds of characters--this is the book for teachers and students eager to learn how to express fully the creative talent that all children are born with.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"Liz Swados has changed the lives of countless young people, and has changed the way all of us in the field think about making theater. Liz makes theater that matters; her fierce optimism that the world can be changed, by kids and by art, infuses this book as it does all her work. We are lucky to have her among us."

—Oskar Eustis, Artistic Director, The Public Theater

"Liz Swados is clear about the kind of theater she wants to create with young people. Theater has to connect to the heart, to what's authentic, but often buried and covered over by cliché and stereotypical thinking. To accomplish her kind of theater, Swados has created a comprehensive pedagogical system, which she describes in clear, often poetic yet immensely practical terms in her book, At Play: Teaching Teenagers Theater. She presents sets of teaching exercises, each of which is prefaced by deeply principled views on both theater and the world within which teenagers struggle. She is explicit about what each set is meant to accomplish for teacher and student alike. The end result is an extraordinarily valuable teaching manual for anyone who aspires to be an effective theater arts teacher. Liz's consistently brilliant work is the best evidence of the success of her approach."

—Mary Schmidt Campbell, Dean, Tisch School of the Arts and Associate Provost of the Arts, NYU

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780571211203
  • Publisher: Faber and Faber
  • Publication date: 6/13/2006
  • Edition description: First Edition
  • Pages: 312
  • Sales rank: 790,950
  • Product dimensions: 5.50 (w) x 8.20 (h) x 0.90 (d)

Meet the Author

Elizabeth Swados is a playwright, director, composer, poet, children's book author, and memoirist. She lives in New York City.

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Read an Excerpt

Excerpted from At Play: Teaching Teenagers Theater by Elizabeth Swados. Copyright © 2006 by Elizabeth Swados. Published in June 2006 by Faber and Faber, Inc., an affiliate of Farrar, Straus and Giroux. All rights reserved.


I've written this book to share some of the techniques and exercises I've used for more than twenty-five years with young actors. The typical age range for my work spans from twelve to the early twenties, and I usually put all the ages together so that everyone learns from one another. Most often, I concentrate on young people in middle and high school. While I create shows independently of schools, I wrote this book with the intention of assisting teachers in creating theater with their students. After a year of workshops, my company of young people creates a custom-made piece for our ensemble. In the same way, a teacher and class may create an original piece after working together for all or part of the school year. And just as my young company performs in front of peers at public and private schools and community centers as well as juvenile and psychiatric facilities, groups of students could perform before fellow students. Therefore you will note that I often write about a series of exercises that have been put together to help create a show. But please be aware that the exercises I've chosen can and do serve several other categories of theatrical experience as well:

1. To make a show outside of school

2. To make a show in school

3. To train young actors in a community or drama school environment

4. To train young actors in a classroom or after-school environment

5. To use one or two exercises in a limited class time

The exercises themselves have been grouped in several categories. You should find your own way of using these categories. If you have students working with you over a long period of time and intend to create something with them, you can use the order suggested by this book. Or you can improvise from it. If you want to make a show but have only three weeks, you can decide what you need from this book and extract it accordingly. If you simply want to teach in the classroom, you can use the exercises randomly as they suit the class. Each exercise is aimed toward a specific part of the theater student's development and works very well in tandem with other exercises and theater games. I advise you to adhere strictly to only one rule: make the time that you work separate, individual, and sacred. If there is one resounding note in my work, it is that young people should know that the theater can be theirs and that they can find a new language that can define the future of the art and its audience, and provide a personal, exciting way to express themselves. An unusual mode of expression for theater is like nothing else.

A final note: I tend to mention musical theater more than plays because my inclination is toward work with music. You don't have to be a musician or singer to do theater. On the other hand don't rule out any art or area of research when dreaming about your participation. Let your talents roam free. There are too many specialists in the world of theater, too many categories and methods and rules. You will find your place and your own voice. But for now try everything.

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Table of Contents

Introduction : my story
1 Being the director 3
2 Voice 37
3 Movement 52
4 Characters 75
5 Improvisation 96
6 Discussion 129
7 Writing 173
8 Space 192
9 Time 207
10 Music and choreography 218
11 Putting a show together 239
12 Mentoring 265
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Customer Reviews

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  • Posted November 21, 2012

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    Life saver!

    I have been a teacher for nearly five years and this is the first school year I am teaching high school speech and drama. We have no text books and I have no experience in teaching this course. However, this book is one of the few resources I rely on to make the class enjoyable and to teach the students what they need to know about drama!

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