At Play: Teaching Teenagers Theater

At Play: Teaching Teenagers Theater

by Elizabeth Swados

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780374706982
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Publication date: 06/13/2006
Sold by: Macmillan
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 312
File size: 315 KB

About the Author

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

Elizabeth Swados is an Obie Award-winning playwright and a novelist.  Her novels include Leah and Lazar and The Myth Man.  She is also the author of a memoir, entitled The Four of Us.  She lives in New York.

Read an Excerpt

At Play

Teaching Teenagers Theater

By Elizabeth Swados

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Copyright © 2006 Swados Enterprises, Inc.
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-374-70698-2



IT'S DIFFICULT to be a director and not be a director at the same time. On the one hand, you want to set up a structure that keeps the work organized and safe. But the goal, in this instance, is also to impart the specific mechanics of the theater process to your students, and let them pull apart and remake technique and tradition. You want to give a sense of how arduous it is to put together a show, and at the same time make the students hungry to rewrite the rules. You want to teach specific skills while simultaneously encouraging freedom of the imagination. You must impose strict discipline while bringing forth uninhibited energy.

You, as the director, are the one who teaches the exercises, leads the discussions, and sets forth the ideas of form, theme, and content. But I've discovered from years of leading adolescent groups that you have to become a teacher who denies being a teacher and a leader who never dictates or pontificates. You have to be able to change course in a second and, like a jazz improviser, alter the direction of the work according to the student's energy and mood. In this work there are no ultimatums. Students either choose on their own to take the risk or not (and some won't choose right away, so you have to be patient).

Even if you are a teacher in a school, teaching in a classroom, it's up to you to make your students' theater experiences different from their day-to-day classes. All directors of young people have to be highly aware and energized themselves, for the role of a director is to make the actors want to participate and dig deep inside for the best of themselves. A director doesn't "make" students perform. She creates a whole atmosphere that is conducive to humor, exploration, and taking risks. She is a benign gang leader. In fact, she has to be the most intense performer of all—and then be willing to disappear.

I go on about this because a large percentage of what makes good directing is letting go of expectations. If you come into a project already knowing what a show is, who's cast in what role, what the blocking is, and what the interpretation will be, then very few of the exercises I present will be helpful to you. That style of directing involves a different kind of method and ego. The theater I am writing about requires that you believe your students have inside them the potential to make a theater of their own. You have to truly want to listen to them. No matter how sullen or nervous or withdrawn they are at the start, you have to know that something powerful and interesting will come out. As a director, your investment is in creating great theater, and therefore you must stay absolutely dedicated to the health and vision of your students.

So don't try to dress like a homeboy, but perhaps dress down a little for the occasion. Create an atmosphere that is comfortable and personal so your students will feel more at ease than they do in the schoolroom every day. And announce the rules right from the start so that the boundaries are clear and the work doesn't become about enforcing them. These are the rules I set up for my actors before every workshop or rehearsal period:

1. I designate a spot in the room that is "holy." That's where we'll do exercises and improvs. I make a circle within that space and keep that circle sacred. Everywhere else should have the feel of freedom, where you can have pillows, popcorn, or posters, but that particular space and circle are not to be messed with.

2. No attitude. My message to the actors is: You mouth off to me or someone else in the group or disrespect the work and you're out.

3. I care very much about how your day-to-day lives affect you, but I won't allow moods and acting out during the workshop hours. Before and after hours, you can have all my attention and I'll do everything I can to listen to you and help you. But your job is not to bring your troubles into the circle or even the rehearsal room.

4. You will not criticize or make fun of one another's work. First of all, it's rude, and second, you don't know enough.

5. You have to trust I won't make a fool of you or myself.

6. No violence, drugs, or alcohol.

7. No romantic or sexual behavior in the room.

I think anyone who aspires to be a director or teacher must find objectivity within himself or herself that transcends habitual categorizations of young people. You can't have a personal agenda if you want to serve the show's best interests. Instead, you have to find a way to neutralize your likes and dislikes, and in that way strive to be as open and devoid of censorship as you hope your students will be. If you can achieve this level of objectivity, you'll be constantly surprised that individuals who make up your ensemble and the ensemble as a whole will grow stronger. This kind of energy creates shows and performances that work for audiences in two ways: they feel the depth of the stories and character and also unconsciously absorb the unified and committed spirit of the cast.

Think of times when you've been in a group or classroom led by an individual who was overbearing or who allowed chaos. Now think of who inspired you, and made you want the hours never to end.

Finally, I see no advantage to forcing a young actor to reach deep down into his gut, to share the unrecognized agonizing terrors and abuses of his life. I know this might seem odd, considering I often work in areas of child abuse, violence, and loss. Even so, I think unlimited personal confessions are extremely dangerous in the younger years. As theater artists and teachers, none of us are qualified to deal with the consequences of provoking a troubled child or teenager—or any child or teenager, for that matter—as he plunges into a nightmarish reliving of moments of terror or pain. It's especially tempting to turn issue-oriented theater work into bad therapy, but bad therapy makes bad theater. I believe that if you work for the good of the artist—for the quality of the show—you are actually getting deeper truths from each individual. In my rehearsals I always say, "Tell me a story about a time when something happened, it doesn't matter if it's true, just make it a good story." Or "Let me see a character who ..." and then I advise them to create the character through the body and the voice—even if the character is the student herself.

In those rare moments when you can't help scaring or upsetting the actors, stay in control of the time you take. For instance, if I'm staging a disturbing scene with violence or death, I do it during one day and then I don't repeat the scene until some time later. Once the kids know it as a part of a whole, that's fine, but the initial staging of a dark moment, if it's good, may feel too real. When we were making my show called The Violence Project, we spent several hours making horrific images that required buckets of fake blood, but we also did slapstick and improvs about the fact that it was indeed fake. I balanced the horrible images with horrible humor. If we are telling upsetting stories, I allow for five or six stories and then move on to something more physical. And after we experience what might be a heartbreaking and scary day, at the end of the rehearsal I always put on loud music so everyone can dance.

After I establish the rules, I then have to get the young actors used to "being directed," which is very different from being taught. They have to hear me with not just their ears but also their bodies. They have to understand quickly and expect rapid changes.


In the beginning, you should be the first person to demonstrate any exercise. This humanizes you and explains what the exercise is about in a precise, active way. Also, if the students see that you are willing to let loose, so will they. No exercise should ever go beyond three minutes and it usually should be completed in one and a half to two minutes. You can cut off exercises very quickly if you feel the students are losing concentration or energy. One of your jobs is to make sure time is used fully and well: long pauses will allow doubt and fear and adolescent embarrassment to get too strong a hold. After one or two sessions you can slow down the pace a tiny bit.

Don't get too serious or too oriented toward end results. Each day is an event in itself and has its ups and downs and laughter. The work can't be focused solely on putting up a show: both you and the students must enjoy the process itself. That joy and curiosity will be reflected in anything you make. Ninety percent of the time, even when working on serious material, the work should be, at its core, really fun.

First, let's start with some basic exercises. A sense of playfulness and gamesmanship, as well as openness and daring, should be present in rehearsals.

Movement Commands

Aim: To sharpen reflexes; loosen up to relieve tension; create laughter.

Exercise 1.1: The students stand in an informal group facing you. Make an opening speech, but stick in "commands" through the whole speech that the group must follow. This is a great game.

Example: "So we are at rehearsal on the first day (sit) and I want you (stand) to know how excited I (sit) am to have you (stand) here with me (jump) and I hope (sit) you can (stand jump turn) work with me on (sit) on (spin) your dreams (stand jump spin sit) because (sit) your (stand) dreams (sit) are (stand) (sit stand sit stand sit stand) are important to (lie down) me.

Exercise 1.2: Let several other students, one at a time, improvise a speech sneaking in their own commands.

Note: This is not about power. It's about waking and speeding up the students' reaction time.

Wrong Names

Aim: To work on timing; humor.

Exercise 1.3: Stand in a group spread out like guests at a cocktail party. Introduce yourselves informally by first names. Begin to slip in the names of famous people. Every time a famous person is named rather than one of you, the group has to say or make a sound that signifies "Wrong."


PERSON 1: Hi, I'm Jack.

PERSON 2: I'm Sarah.

PERSON 3: My name's David.

PERSON 4: I'm Susan.

PERSON 5: I'm Derek.

PERSON 1: I'm Leonardo DiCaprio.


PERSON 1: I'm Jack.

PERSON 2: I'm Bono.


PERSON 3: I'm Mickey Mouse.


PERSON 4: My name's Susan.

PERSON 5: I'm the Hulk.


Conducting Tatay

Aim: To heighten hearing skills and open up the imagination to sound.

Exercise 1.4: The students gather before you in an informal group. You give them the sound Tatay. (I choose this short rhythmic sound because it is simple and resonant and because ta is the first beat in East Indian music.) You act as a conductor and they repeat "Tatay" to the rhythm, speed, and dynamic with which you conduct with your hands and your own speech. At first you keep your conducting even, and then begin to change the pace more frequently.

After you have conducted, several students should try to do it.


Ta Tay Ta Tay Ta Tay Ta Tay Ta Tay Ta Tay Ta Tay

Ta Tay Ta Tay Ta Tay

TaaaaaaaaTaaaaaayTaaaaaaaaaTaaaaaaay loud and
fast________to_______moderate and held out long

TaTayTaTayTaTayTaTay ta tay ta tay ta tay whispered______to______moderate with spaces
in between


As a result of this exercise, students will lose self-consciousness and begin to get a taste of the voice as instrument and the joy of making sounds.

Follow the Leader

Aim: To acquire awareness of the body without thinking; to learn to be instinctive.

Exercise 1.5: Lead the students around the entire space, and, if possible, out the door. Explain that each person needs to watch the person directly in front to know what style of stepping, walking, or running is coming from you.

Then let other students be the leader.

Move to Music

Aim: To learn to physically respond to different rhythms and melodies.

Exercise 1.6: Play a mix of music on a CD in vastly different styles and tell everyone in the group to move with their eyes closed.

1. Polka

2. Techno

3. Spaghetti Western music

4. Funk

5. A symphonic overture

6. Sound effects

7. Big Band

8. A poet reciting his or her verse

9. Choose your own

Everyday Activities

Aim: To learn to give up inhibitions and make dreams a physical reality. (This will help the student connect to his or her imagination, which is good for improvisation and character work. When making or acting in a piece, the student will be more in touch with what the body can do.)

Exercise 1.7: Ask each student to think about an activity he or she would do in his or her room. Have the students spread out and act out what they would do.

Example: I might say, "One of the things I like to do in my room when no one can see me is to play air guitar like a rock and roll star." I demonstrate by strumming an invisible guitar and jump with all the machismo and power I can.

MANY STUDENTS I work with have never seen a play; their idea of acting is formed by film and television. Perhaps they've studied Shakespeare, but none of his characters are as real to them as those on TV. Therefore, when students act, they consciously go straight for clichés. For them, characters are defined by stereotypes, and contemporary history is taught mostly in news programs or action adventure movies. This is not a diatribe against TV and movies; I'm as big an addict as anyone. But when directing or teaching theater, it's important to break down stereotypes and clichés so the student can recognize what's his or hers and not an easy imitation. When you do a cliché, it means you're doing a move, gesture, or characterization that's been done so much that it's almost mocking itself. A cliché and stereotype can be used to define wrongly the characteristics of a race or ethnic group. In short, it's the easy way to portray a character or emotion. Here are some examples:

1. A cowboy chewing tobacco and spitting it out

2. A blond-haired babe acting stupid and cutesy

3. A hippie being high 4. A thug being a thug

5. A Hispanic or African American being a drug dealer

6. A Jewish woman who's money hungry

7. A little child being overly sweet and excited by cereal

8. A nerdy guy with big glasses

Unfortunately, there are so many clichés that whole shows can be made of them.

Exploring Stereotypes

Aim: To identify habits learned from TV and movies. To strengthen the ability to perform in front of one another. To identify, imitate, and break down stereotypes while working on finding character and laughter.

Exercise 1.8: Ask the students to imitate the following situations and characters using clichés:

1. A detective thinking about his murder case. He suffers as he tries to figure out clues

2. A bride who discovers her new husband is a serial murderer

3. A pimp threatening his girls

4. A computer analyst with no emotions

5. A drug dealer denying he's a drug dealer

6. A teenage hooker trying to pick up a trick

7. A scientific nerd trying to discuss a new discovery

8. A soldier who's been driven mad by war

9. A tough, shrewish wife

10. A rock star singing his greatest hit

11. A softhearted Mafia lieutenant

12. A female CIA agent

Exercise 1.9: Discuss the phoniness of these characters. Though they are fun to play, they're not real. The mannerisms and voices the students display are often copies of what they've picked up from the media. Try to figure out the source of their characterizations.

Exercise 1.10: Now try national, religious, racial, sexual, and age stereotypes:

1. Arabic/African/Pakistani/Indian/ex-hippie taxi drivers

2. A hip-hop artist

3. A dumb farmer

4. A hillbilly

5. An overly sexy woman

6. Puerto Rican/Asian/Italian/African American/skinhead/Goth gang members

7. A "retard"

8. A jock

9. A biker

10. A Jewish mother/father/grandfather

11. A Hasidic Jew

12. A black kid being tough

13. White/Jewish/African American/Puerto Rican teenage girls

14. An Asian deli owner

15. An Asian honor student


Excerpted from At Play by Elizabeth Swados. Copyright © 2006 Swados Enterprises, Inc.. Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents


Gain of Courage,
How to Use This Book,
Introduction: My Story,
ONE Being the Director,
TWO Voice,
THREE Movement,
FOUR Characters,
FIVE Improvisation,
SIX Discussion,
SEVEN Writing,
EIGHT Space,
NINE Time,
TEN Music and Choreography,
ELEVEN Putting a Show Together,
TWELVE Mentoring,
For Further Reading,

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At Play: Teaching Teenagers Theater 4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 1 reviews.
Anjanette More than 1 year ago
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!