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Curtains Up!: Theatre Games and Storytelling

Curtains Up!: Theatre Games and Storytelling

by Robert Rubinstein


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Theatre games help to develop students' skills in storytelling, improvisation, and public speaking. They also build confidence, teamwork, and vocabulary. Here is a collection of theatre games that have been classroom tested. Try the collaborative and fun activity "The Monster with Three Heads." Three students form one monster where each participant can say just one word at a time in response to students' questions. In addition, they must answer in complete sentences. Imagine the lessons to be learned amidst the laughter!

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781555919849
Publisher: Chicago Review Press, Incorporated
Publication date: 10/01/2000
Pages: 160
Product dimensions: 7.00(w) x 10.00(h) x 0.42(d)
Age Range: 9 - 18 Years

About the Author

Robert Rubinstein wrote the internationally acclaimed book Hints for Teaching Success in Middle School, based on his teaching at Roosevelt Middle School in Eugene, Oregon. His stories have been published in The Ghost & I and Chosen Tales: Stories by Jewish Storytellers.

Read an Excerpt



Take a few minutes to loosen up and feel freer by doing some warm-ups before you begin the games.

The Cord Through the Body

1. Everybody stands. One person leads the group.

2. Pretend there is a cord running through the center of your body that comes out the top of your head.

3. With this cord through you, feel how it is to keep in balance.

4. Move your body, swaying, back and forth, bouncing up and down on this cord.

5. Think of yourself as a puppet with someone above you pulling on the cord, moving your body, head, arms, and feet.

6. Feel a wind come along and blow you. Then feel the hail coming down upon you.

7. Finally, the sun is warming you. Possibly move to some recorded music.


1. Everyone stands.

2. Stand on your toes, then on your heels.

3. Swing your arms side to side, keeping them level. Then swing your arms in arcs.

4. Stretch your arms up overhead.

5. Bend and let your body hang from the waist, arms dangling.

6. Stand and rotate your neck, ear to shoulder, side to side, and then stretching down and back.

7. Rotate your shoulders backward and forward.

8. Move your mouth and jaw side to side and up and down.

9. Scrunch your face and then relax it.

10. With both hands, massage your face and then your scalp.

It's the Face!

Let's focus on the face.

1. Repeat several phrases in a variety of different ways: fearfully, angrily, weakly, strongly, warmly, motherly, authoritatively, mysteriously, evilly, heroically. Each time, stress a different word in the phrase:

I LIKE you. I like YOU! Yeah, like I REALLY like you.

Some phrases follow, but don't forget to make up your own.

Time for dinner!
2. While saying these phrases, make appropriate facial expressions.

3. Show what you say in your face — with your eyes, nose, mouth, the way you hold your head.

4. You might do this exercise one person at a time, or in chorus as the leader calls out the phrase and the interpretation.


This provides a chance to work on observation and control.

1. In pairs, stand facing each other as if you were seeing your reflection in a mirror.

2. First, one person of the pair makes slow, distinct motions and facial movements, and the partner mirrors these movements as accurately as possible and at the same pace. Remember, the mirror image uses the opposite part of the body. So, if the first person moves the right hand, then the mirror image moves the left.

3. Then let the other person initiate the movements.

Water Walking

This may be done in pantomime first and then later with improvised sounds and exclamations.

1. Everyone stands and walks in a circle.

2. Imagine water flowing into the room, first covering your feet, thighs, and then your waist, neck, and finally over the top of your head — but you discover that you can breathe underwater.

3. Adjust your body movements and gestures according to the changing depth of the water.

4. Then each person becomes a sea creature.

5. After a few moments more, the water recedes slowly. Change your movements in reverse with the lowering of the water.

Some Twists of the Tongue

Not only are tongue twisters fun to say and good for loosening up the group, but they also emphasize concentration and articulation. Good practice! Try repeating these several times in a row:

• Many marbles made Marvin merry.

• Three gray geese in the green growing grass.

• The sixth sheik's sixth sheep's sick.

• Lavinia Lyman lost leaking lemon liniment.

• I never felt felt feel flat like that felt felt flat.

• An old scold sold a cold coal shovel.

• Percy Pig is plump and pink! I like a plump pink pig — I think.

• White Whitney whistled while he whitewashed the fence.

• Six long, slim, slick, slimy, slender saplings swaying in the spring sunshine.

• How much wood would a woodchuck chuck, if a woodchuck could chuck wood? A woodchuck would chuck all the wood he could if a woodchuck could chuck wood.

Walk Through Time

1. Have the group form a circle and begin walking.

2. As they walk, call out characters: toddler, drunk, elderly, person, cowboy, soldier, weakling, strongman, movie star, pregnant woman, and so on.

3. Each person then assumes a walk and a manner that would be typical of that character.

4. As a variation, call out the "character walks" in reverse.

Think Quickly!

This is an exercise that emphasizes listening to others and making responses that require quick thinking.

1. Invite five volunteers to form a line or a semicircle.

2. Whomever you point to must begin talking, without pause, on any topic.

3. When you point to a different person, that person must immediately pick up the topic of the first speaker and continue on, changing the topic when he or she can.

4. Then point to the third person, and so on.

5. If one of the five becomes confused, pauses more than five seconds, or doesn't continue the topic, then that person must sit down.

6. This process continues until one person remains.

7. From the winners of each group, have a play-off to decide the champion.

Do Something Musical

1. Find out who has talent singing, playing an instrument, or dancing. If some don't feel they have these talents, they can improvise or pantomime as if they did: sing, create strange dances, or play real or made-up instruments (wooden spoons, glasses of water, etc.)

2. Now organize the performers into some type of setting (a circus, spaceship, haunted house) or theme (entertainment, family, war and peace, laughter), and have them rehearse for a short time.

3. Stage the musical extravaganza. This is not an award-winning talent show. This is musical expression bordering on chaos!

4. Consider having a more general show with mimes, people doing impersonations or accents, comedy routines, juggling, and so on.

Music Images

1. Play an audiocassette of different instrumental pieces, rhythms, beats, and moods.

2. Have the group close their eyes and see the scene created by the music.

3. In pairs, the group shares with each other what they experienced and "saw" listening to the music. After this, they might volunteer to share their visions with the group.

4. Each pair might merge their visions into an improvised dance piece or series of movements.

Create a World

1. Pretend that it's the beginning of the world.

2. Ask for imaginative suggestions about how the world began.

3. As the person describes the world's creation, have one or two others come up and become that part of the creation.

4. Ask for more suggestions.

5. As each succeeding item or stage of creation is suggested, have others come up to perform. (For example, air, water, the earth, clouds, wind, birds, mammals, insects, sea creatures, humans, houses, fire.)

6. Finally, the entire group is participating in this newly created world.

7. Afterward, a different speaker may begin creating another world.

Folklore Version

Research or read some creation tales from different peoples and incorporate them into the scene. Virginia Hamilton's In the Beginning: Creation Stories from Around the World (Orlando, Fla.: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1988) is an excellent resource.


The Activities

Chain Stories

1. Have the group sit in a circle or in concentric circles.

2. One person says a word, then the next person adds a word, until there's a complete sentence. Continue until some type of story emerges.

3. Perhaps stop for a moment to ask what has happened so far, or what some think may happen next. Then continue adding words and sentences together.

4. The next step could be the one-sentence chain story. Each person adds a sentence to whatever came before in the circle.

Advanced Version

The chain story becomes a timed tale. Each person in the circle speaks for one or two minutes. Even if someone pauses or doesn't know what to say next, everyone waits until that person's time is up. (It's amazing just how long one minute can seem!)

If you happen to be seated in concentric circles, the inner circle of people might tell the tale. After the story is done, the outer circle of people might summarize what they heard as well as what hindered the story from being better and how the telling might improve. (Often, those who are telling begin to repeat the same incidents over and over; actions are just strung together with little embellishment; there's little character, background, or scene detail; and very little dialogue has been included.)

Now that the group knows some ways to improve a storytelling, start another chain story focusing on these ingredients. The outer group becomes the inner one and does the telling this time.

Afterward, evaluate the story again. See how the telling has improved and what still could be developed. After all, a story — especially an oral one — is always in the process of developing, evolving, in need of revision — a good thing for young people to understand and learn.

How Do You Train Your Pet?

Pet owners are responsible for training and caring for their pets. Have the group choose a pet — the more unusual, the more challenging. Ask the owner(s) to think of specific actions or activities they want their pet to do or not do: eat or not eat certain things, fetch, sleep, guard, play, special tricks.

Here are some pets to consider:

Elephant Eel Dinosaur Eagle Termite Crocodile Penguin Hippo Mosquito Goose Panther Opossum


This is a good exercise for creativity, group organization, and agreement.

1. Form into groups of three to five people.

2. Each person is responsible for creating a statue. The group, in turn, forms a group statue composed of all members (statues) of that group in some type of formation.

3. The group assigns a number to each statue, from 1 to however many statues the group has created. The group rehearses changing from one statue to another as quickly as possible when that statue's number is called.

4. The groups stand, each in their own area. When you call out "Number 1!" each group forms into statue number 1. When you call out "Number 2!" the groups form their statues numbered 2 — and so on.

5. Once you have called out all the statues in order and the groups have simultaneously formed their statues, it's fun to call the numbers out of order: perhaps number 5, then number 2, then number 4. The groups must then change to whatever number statue is called.

6. Each group might perform its set of statues for the class.

Body Alphabet

1. Form into groups of three to five people.

2. Each group creates its own body alphabet, using a position of the body to form each letter.

3. Once the group has created the alphabet body positions from A to Z, then each member should rehearse those positions. A member of the group might call out a letter and each person in the group takes the body position representing that letter.

4. Now, have a spelling contest. Write a five- to seven-letter word on paper and show it to one member of each group. That person returns to the group but does not reveal the word. Upon your signal, he or she spells out the word, using that group's body alphabet. The first group to guess the word wins.

5. Try another word with a second person from each group performing, and so on.

Those -ly Ending Words

1. Choose three people: two to be actors and one to be recorder-director.

2. The two actors leave the room.

3. The recorder-director then asks the rest of the group for suggestions of -ly ending words: lovingly, hatefully, spitefully, proudly, ferociously, vacantly, nosily, bossily, cowardly, and so on.

4. The recorder-director writes down seven of the suggested words.

5. The two actors return to the room.

6. The recorder-director then chooses any of the words at random and calls out the -ly ending word. The actors must immediately improvise a situation based on that word as the main emotion.

7. The recorder-director calls out "Freeze!" and gives the next word. The actors switch into a different situation that demonstrates the second ly ending word.

Can You Explain This?

Ask the group to be creative in explaining why and how these things actually happened:

• At one time, the Netherlands was known as the United States.

• Spiders, flies, and termites have more protein pound for pound than does beef.

• The only two places in the world where men manage to outlive women are southern Asia and Iran.

• If you live in Cleveland, you cannot catch mice without a hunting license.

• On one occasion, the yellow pages listed a funeral parlor under "Frozen Foods."

• Of all the nations in the world, Icelanders drink the most Coca-Cola.

• In their first year of life, puppies grow ten times faster than human babies.

• If you get married at Disney World, you can have Goofy or Mickey as a guest at your wedding.

• In Oklahoma, it's illegal to get a fish drunk.

The Robots

Choose two or three people to act out a scene. They must speak and move as robots would. Consider adding one crazy inventor to the group and having them act out a scene.

The Monster with Three Heads

1. Choose three people to come to the front of the group: one of one gender, and two of the other. Also select a moderator.

2. The single girl or boy should stand between the other two. They should be close together, perhaps with arms about each other's waists, because they are one monster, equal to one body with three heads.

3. Each head can speak only one word at a time in rotation with the other two heads.

4. Each statement made by the monster must be a complete sentence. It should not be a yes/no type of answer.

5. The moderator asks questions and/or solicits questions from the audience to ask the monster about its life, behavior, and thoughts. The questions should require an answer that is an explanation or a description, not a one- or two-word reply. If the question needs to be rephrased, then the moderator should ask the person to do so. If the monster does not answer or avoids answering the question, the moderator directs the monster to answer the question. If the monster's answer is not a complete sentence or sentences, or one head says more than one word in turn, then the moderator has the monster correct itself.

6. The moderator may also probe more deeply by asking questions related to the one already asked.

7. Each monster's round or time might be five minutes or five questions. Then choose three more people and a different moderator.

To Start

The moderator announces, "Right here with us today, folks, we have a monster with three heads! Each head can speak only one word at a time. At our request, the monster has been gracious enough to permit members of the audience to ask it questions — and it will answer each question as best it can. Who would like to be the first to ask a question of the monster with three heads?" (If no one raises a hand, then the moderator may start by asking the monster a question. Questions might be: How do you dress? What do you like to eat? How do you go out on a date? What do they call you, and why did they select that name for you?)

Advanced Version

If you choose to do this activity later when people are more at ease and sophisticated in theatre games, you can — especially with a class or church group — question the monster at a deeper level.

• What names do people call you?

• How do you feel when people call you these names?

• How do people react to you? How do you feel about this?

• Now that you have normal parents and siblings, what is your family life like?

• How do your parents treat you and feel about you?

• Do your siblings make fun of you? How does this make you feel?

• Do you feel others are prejudiced against you because of your appearance? In what ways are they prejudiced?

• Why do you think people act this way toward you?

• What activities or life experiences have you missed out on or not participated in because of your appearance? How does this make you feel?

• If you could change anything about yourself, what would you change and why?

• What are your hopes and dreams for the future?

After these questions and responses, the group might discuss the monster's replies, feelings, and reactions, and what the statements reveal about the monster and prejudice, as well as about so-called normal people. How do these responses and feelings relate to people from different racial groups, members of minorities, and people with special needs in our society?

Comic Strip

1. Have each person in the group bring in one or two favorite comic strips from the newspaper.

2. Taking turns, each person who brought in the strip chooses others to act out the characters and situation in the comic.

3. They rehearse and perform for the class using character voices, approximate dialogue, gestures, and movements.

4. If the comic strip situation needs a beginning and a conclusion for better audience understanding, the group should improvise these.

Another approach is to have everyone put all the comic strips into a pile, and each person draws one out at random. Then a comic strip is acted out. Or, after acting out the comic strip situation with dialogue, act it out immediately once or twice in pantomime only.


Excerpted from "Curtains Up!"
by .
Copyright © 2000 Robert Rubinstein.
Excerpted by permission of Fulcrum Publishing.
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

1. Acknowledgments,
2. Introduction,
3. Warm-Ups,
4. The Activities,
5. The Twin Arts of Storytelling and Performing,
6. Appendix of Linked Activities,
1. Cover,

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