30 September 2013

Creative Dramatics

by Kirk Woodward

[My friend and frequent contributor to ROT, Kirk Woodward, is chiming again with a new consideration on an aspect of theater.  Drawing on his long experience as a teacher of theater and acting, both with children and adults, Kirk’s thinking about the popular field of “creative dramatics.”  You’ll read that he (and especially his late wife, Pat) had reservations about the name for the activity, but that doesn’t remove its value as an actor-training program, a resource for directors and actors in rehearsal, and people who aren’t necessarily performers who want a boost to their creative imaginations and self-confidence. 

[I, too, have had some experience with creative dramatics and theater games (and you’ll see that Kirk differentiates between these related fields that some people lump together), as a student, teacher, and director.  Kirk mentions, for instance, the Cultural Enrichment Program in Lexington, Virginia, which is also where I first tried to teach creative dramatics.  (Kirk and I were classmates at Washington and Lee University, which helped sponsor the program.)  My contact with the field isn’t nearly as extensive as Kirk’s has been, but I recognize most of the lessons he learned because I learned them, too.] 

One of the most interesting and rewarding aspects of theater, in my experience, is the field known as “creative dramatics.” There’s a related term, “theater games,” and the two are often used interchangeably, for good reason – both creative dramatics and theater games are performance games, more like charades than they are like, say, Trivial Pursuit. Both involve performance-related exercises – basically, games of physical (and vocal) expression that encourage creativity. (I’ll give some examples as we go on).

Still, I haven’t yet found a definition I like for “creative dramatics,” because it would have to also include a good definition of “drama.”  But I see “creative dramatics” as the wider term, and “theater games” as a subset of it. In this piece I will use the terms as though they are two separate things, although obviously they are closely related.

“Theater games,” in the way I’m using the terms, then, as the name suggests, have some sort of performance in mind. The performance may come directly out of the games themselves – this is how the 1970 Broadway show Paul Sills’ Story Theatre was developed. Or the games may help in the production of some more formal play.

A director, for example, may use “theater games” to get particular results out of the actors in a play, or an acting class may use the same or different games to help develop more general acting skills. I have used theater games in productions, but much of my experience in creative dramatics has aimed at encouraging personal growth, not particularly at building actors.

On the other hand, creative dramatics work need never lead to a production at all; it may be devoted entirely to building the confidence and encouraging the creativity of the participants, and it may more specifically be used as psychological therapy. So we have, really, three strains running alongside each other, sometimes crossing, sometimes merging:

  • Creative dramatics for therapy
  • Creative dramatics for personal enrichment
  • Theater games for theatrical production

These are not hard and fast distinctions, and people use the terms differently. At the end of this piece, in fact, I’ll give an example of what I’d call creative dramatics that nevertheless morphs into a kind of performance. And is “personal enrichment” so different from therapy? “Therapy is growth,” a therapist once told me, and many beneficial activities can say the same – but are they all therapy? It’s easy but pointless to get too caught up in definitions, and if something is defined too broadly, it’s probably not defined at all. So I’ll continue to use the three terms as though they stand for different things.

Of the three, I’ve had the least to do – nothing, really – with creative dramatics for therapy, at least in the medical sense, and I’ll have the least to say about it here. Sally Baily, a drama therapist and a professor at Kansas State University, summarizes what is known of the history of the field, and along the way demonstrates the difficulty of fully documenting history, in an article called “Ancient and Modern Roots of Drama Therapy” (31 December 2009):


She may – or may not – stretch Aristotle’s point a bit in claiming that his theory of catharsis is a form of drama therapy. I was thrilled to read about “Soranus, a second century Roman, [who] believed that the way to cure mentally ill patients was to put them into peaceful surroundings and have them read, discuss, and participate in the production of plays in order to create order in their thinking and offset their depression.” I wonder if by any chance those plays she refers to were improvised. However, I haven’t been able to learn any more about him except that he was apparently from Ephesus, and a gynecologist.

I am convinced of at least one fact about creative dramatics as therapy: it’s no field for amateurs. This point may seem self-evident, but it not only isn’t, it may not even be the usual approach. I have been a member of many creative dramatics classes where the instructor seemed to feel that the participants had to be “broken apart and put back together.” One quoted the famous Polish director and theater leader Jerzy Grotowski to the effect that “Americans’ bodies are like haunted houses.”

Who is qualified to make that judgment? And who is qualified to do something about it? Perhaps in, say, the 1960s, some might have accepted the idea of a guru wise enough to be able to mold human beings into new creatures. It was always a bad idea; now it seems a dangerous one. The guy leading the acting class down the street is unlikely to be a good source of advice, much less a person one could trust with the control of one’s deepest nature.

On the other hand, the drama critic Eric Bentley, in his essay “Theatre and Therapy” in Thinking About The Playwright (1987), describes in detail the techniques of Dr. Jacob Levy Moreno, known as the founder of the field of psychodrama, and gives an idea of the possibilities of therapy in that area when applied by a properly trained and credentialed practitioner.

My own experience with creative dramatics is a little less, well, dramatic, but may provide some lessons. I got a rocky start. I began working with it at Washington and Lee University, where the teacher, Lee Kahn, used some “theater games” as part of the acting class. I enjoyed them, but found them difficult – I felt they were too abrupt somehow: they demanded results without making it clear how to get to them.

This feeling seems to have been shared by my wife Pat, who hated all theater work that wasn’t scripted anyway. She told me years after college that she’d taken a creative dramatics class, found to her horror “that it involved games,” and was disappointed that it didn’t seem to mean making your acting more creative.  “I thought all drama is supposed to be creative,” she said, and it’s hard to argue with that.

The first time I tried to teach creative dramatics was for the Cultural Enrichment Program of Rockbridge County, Virginia, in 1969. Lee’s wife, Betty, recruited me to do it, heaven knows why. I certainly had no idea what I was doing. Betty and her team wrote out the lesson plans, and I still have them. They begin with stretching and loosening up, move on to physical improvisations using the imagination (standing on sand that becomes hot, running through water, running through mud), sensory awareness (what do you hear? what do you smell?), toss an imaginary balloon . . . . These exercises are augmented by standards like the Mirror Exercise (one person “mirrors” the movements of another – a classic), the Freeze Game (sudden “freezes” of movement lead to new situations for improvisations). Eventually the classes move on to staging simple stories. These are perfectly sensible exercises; my problem with them, I think, was that their order seemed arbitrary – I didn’t see the principle behind it.

Then as part of the work of a children’s theater on the Army post at Fort Lee, Virginia, I taught some sessions with an Army wife named Jeanne Pollard, who was a first-rate theater person and really knew her stuff. I must have taught half a dozen or so classes. However, I was aware that I didn’t have the “first principles” of the approach in hand. My approach, as far as I can tell from the extant lesson plans, was scattershot – no framework or structure to it, just one exercise after another, whatever came to mind.

The same was true when I taught a creative dramatics session for the Recreation Activities class at Teachers College (Columbia University) in October 1975. I gave a sleepy Saturday-morning class a tour through how to use exercises for teaching, and I guess I got some points across, but I didn’t feel that I’d mastered the subject.

Somewhere around this time I became aware of the most famous book on the field, Improvisation for the Theatre (1963) by Viola Spolin (“Originator of THEATRE GAMES”). Spolin was greatly influenced by the work of Neva L. Boyd, with whom she studied in Chicago. Spolin writes in the introduction to her book:

I received from her an extraordinary training in the use of games, story-telling, folk dance, and dramatics as tools for stimulating creative expression in both children and adults, through self-discovery and personal experiencing.

Spolin’s book is extensive and methodical, and by the end of it the reader feels able to do practically anything in the field. The advice on “side-coaching,” in effect guiding the improvisation while it’s going on, is outstanding. Spolin groups the exercises according to purpose, and for each exercise describes its steps, presents ideas for class evaluation, and gives extensive notes.

I suspect that everyone who works in the field has Spolin in mind as a permanent reference point, even people who want to promote different approaches. For my part, I admired her book enormously, but I couldn’t really make it work for me as a technique, for reasons I’ll describe in a moment.

The next challenge for me as a creative dramatics instructor was the Senior Citizens Drama Project of 1975, which morphed into a job for the New York City Housing Authority, also doing creative dramatics for senior citizens, in 1975-76. It was a mixed success. In some locations I never got any drama activity started at all. If I had known what I was to learn in four to five years, the whole thing would have been completely different. But at least I brought some people together, and I didn’t do any harm.

I then taught a class in Harlem and one in the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn; I don’t remember if the funding ran out on the city work, or if I got tired of it, or if it got tired of me. In any case, something great was about to happen. In 1980 I auditioned as a substitute for Pushcart Players, a fine touring children’s theater company out of Verona, New Jersey. It was successfully run, and still is, by Ruth Fost, and working with the theater at that time on creative dramatics was a very competent professional named Gretchen Johnson.

I toured for a year for Pushcart as “swing” (substitute) actor and pianist – I did dozens of shows for them. That was one of the best theatrical experiences of my life, because it taught me consistency and self-reliance. After that I was never apprehensive about being cast for a show; I knew I had resources to draw on. The cast was fun, too, a lovely group of people. We traveled all over the state of New Jersey; it was a lot of work, including putting up and taking down the set, and at least once we did four shows in a day. But with an experience like that, you find out what you can do.

But best of all, the Pushcart people were enthusiastic about an approach to creative dramatics they’d learned from an Englishman named Brian Way, equal parts educator and theater worker, who founded Theatre Centre in London, an organization going strong to this day, which describes itself as 

a professional theatre company touring to children and young people. A registered charity, since 1953 Theatre Centre has been taking outstanding new writing to schools to benefit children’s education and aspirations, and to enhance their knowledge and imaginations. We work closely with artists, young people and teachers, to ensure we consistently create high-quality, life-enhancing theatre experiences for young audiences. 
Way wrote a book that has had an enormous influence on me and on many others. It’s called Development Through Drama, and its basic principle is: no “performing” – everyone works together.

That turned out to be the magic key for me. Viola Spolin’s famous exercises begin with people standing on stage and being stared at. Brian Way didn’t want anyone to be stared at. He wanted the participants to feel safe and free to work. He felt that the work should be its own critique – that the class process itself should produce the desired results.

Armed with some training from the Pushcart staff in Brian Way’s approach, I began teaching creative dramatics with them, and soon I was going out to schools by myself to lead full days of classes for Pushcart. I still use the material I learned then, with continuing modifications, of course, but the basic approach is so good that I consider it completely reliable. And the fundamental principle – that everyone works at the same time – is pure gold.

After Pushcart I taught some classes for my friend Mona Hennessey, who was teaching drama at a school in Jersey City at one time. I taught for a year at a theater school in Hackensack, New Jersey, then joined the staff of the Performers Theater Workshop, run by Howard and Esther Kravitz, in Livingston, New Jersey, and taught there on Saturdays for years. Howard was formerly a big band musician, and Esther a Las Vegas performer, but they both had a lot of respect for the creative dramatics program.

I also led creative dramatics sessions in Montclair, New Jersey, for birthday parties under the heading “Creative Birthdays.” And I’ve used creative dramatics techniques in many other situations, directing being not the least of them. It’s a wonderful field and I’m so glad I finally got a handle on how to do it.

So what’s the point of creative dramatics, really? The three goals that stand out for me are creativity, confidence, and competence, more or less in that order.

Creativity – the basis of creative dramatics work is the assurance that everyone has not just an imagination, but a good one; that while social pressures in particular may discourage us from using our imaginations, they are retrievable; that the imagination gets stronger with practice – a point that the work is designed to reinforce quickly; and that one person’s imagination is as good as another’s. We will certainly have different results when we use our imaginations, but there’s no rating system – each person’s is just fine.

How do you deal with participants who adamantly refuse to imagine anything at all? That’s the strength of everyone’s working together. On the one hand, the reluctant members of the class aren’t singled out. On the other hand, the fact that other people are picturing and saying increasingly wild things provides comfort and reassurance. I don’t believe I’ve ever had a situation where someone simply refused to do the imaginative work at all.

Needless to say, the leader’s response to everyone’s contributions is always strongly positive, since no idea can be “wrong,” and this strategy leads to . . .

Confidence – or at least it should. “Confidence” means “self-confidence,” of course, but it also means confidence in the process – the security that while the group is working, you will be respected and not put in a bad light or forced to do things you don’t want to do. The result ought to be, and very frequently is, an increase in positive feelings about one’s ability to function alongside other people, and to handle initially unfamiliar situations.

I’m sure there are scientific ways of measuring increases in creativity and confidence, but you don’t need metrics to tell when a group is growing, individually and collectively. In fact, most of the time the situation is as simple as this: if the instructor feels that the session is going well, it probably is, and the reverse is also true.

Competence – I have listed this goal third in the series for several reasons. One is that creativity and confidence are sufficient rewards in themselves. There doesn’t have to be any ulterior motive involved in the process. However, the fact is that people who enjoy and make progress in creative dramatics also may become increasingly capable of better work on stage – hence the more specialized field of theater games. In this sense I think my wife was wrong: creative dramatics can make one’s acting more creative, as one learns to listen more to the others in the scene, to respond freshly to new circumstances and events, to get a better idea of how a scene works from beginning to end, and so on.

So theatrical competence definitely can be a by-product of creative dramatics work. But – and here we come to one of the major benefits of the arts as a whole – the stage is not the only place where the competence one learns in creative dramatics can be applied. Theater, in its many forms, including creative dramatics, is a “portable skill” – it involves ancillary skills such as working with others, organization, punctuality, dealing with difficult people, giving and receiving instructions, training, finance and administration, calmness in the face of adversity . . .  a person who has a thorough background in performance has a “toolkit” that can be used in many aspects of life.

Creativity, confidence, competence – it’s an impressive list, and all three develop more or less spontaneously out of a good creative dramatics experience. Just what is a “good” creative dramatics experience, though? In a way, it can be defined circularly – it’s an experience that increases creativity, confidence, and competence. I’d also add, however, that it’s an experience that’s appropriate for the teacher, as my own story demonstrates.

I taught many approaches to creative dramatics that worked for other people but didn’t for me. That doesn’t mean that the other approaches were wrong; it means I didn’t respond to them, and so the groups I led couldn’t respond to them either, at least not as much as I felt they could. I suspect that almost any approach to creative dramatics can work, provided the leader believes in it and has sufficiently thought it through.

I have a pile of lesson plans for creative dramatics sessions over the years. Teachers would be appalled at my lesson plans: I scratched them out on any available paper, often in a sort of creative dramatics shorthand:

Move around and freeze
Yo-yo
Ad-ons
Relate an incident – other add detail
Freeze game
Improv – current events
Give me that ball
 
(I have no idea what that last one means.)

Some of my lesson plans are more extensive; some of them are filled with ideas from various books. Viola Spolin, I believe, advises keeping a good games book around, so you can turn to it when nothing else seems to be working. There are countless books on creative dramatics available these days. After a while they start to look the same, with the same kinds of exercises, but you can often find good ideas in them – my friend Mona Hennessy and I relied for years on a little pamphlet that looked like it was just a list of activities, but that turned out to be extremely useful.

Looking through my lesson plans – well, notes – I see a number of ideas that sounded good to me but that I was never able to make much progress with. Sock puppets, for example, sounded like a terrific approach, but I remember it as a bust for me and I only tried it once or twice. Especially after I started working at Performers Theatre Workshop, I tried working out plans for half-year sessions, and it was better to have the plans than not to, but I seldom if ever stuck to them through the entire series of classes, because some activities worked – and I tried to build on them – and some didn’t – and if neither the class nor I liked them, I dropped them.

While I was working with Pushcart Players, an excellent creative dramatics teacher named Karen Fredrickson led a workshop with us, and one of the things I remember best from it was her advice not to worry about repeating exercises. In fact, she said, children love repetition. Do what works over and over – just vary it and let it develop. I wish I had heard this very good advice years earlier. I was always afraid I’d bore the participants, and so I tried for constant novelty, which is not a realistic goal.

Pushcart worked out a general format for creative dramatics classes which I’ve used for years now, building on the parts of it in subsequent weeks if the class has multiple sessions. Derived from Brian Way’s practice, it has flexibility, and isn’t a recipe, but in part it goes something like this:

  1. Use strange objects to get the imaginations started – “What could this be?” Stress that no answer is wrong – everyone’s creativity is fine.
  2. Stretch and shake the various parts of the body.
  3. Build up to shaking everything on the body, and then freeze at a signal. From the freeze position, become different things as coached by the instructor (“something huge,” “something tiny,” “something beautiful”).
  4. In small groups, in short amounts of time, develop a story out of elements the leader provides (“your story must have a storm, an angry old person, and end with the words, ‘It just goes to show, you can’t mess around with magic’” – Brian Way’s idea)
  5. Have the groups, working together, form “photos,” still pictures, of moments in their stories, starting and ending at the signal. Repeat this several times, mix the groups up and create new stories, continue with “photos.”)
  6. Once the “photo” principle (“freeze – ready – put the story into action”) is mastered, move into more elaborate stories, based on the day’s school lesson, a social problem, something in the news, a book, poem, or commercial, or anything else. Or, in one-session classes, a narrated story can be used instead, with the group acting out the story as the narrator tells it.
So far we’ve talked about creative dramatics, but what about theater games? The preceding outline clearly could work as both. There’s no rigid line between the two, but as I’m using the term, theater games have a performance aim in sight.

Generally speaking, with creative dramatics classes, I begged the schools not to insist on showcases for parents. If the parents had to see the children at work, whenever possible I framed the session as a class, and told the parents that all they would see was the way we worked every week. Even this approach has its problems, though, because it still turns the class into performance, and there’s a temptation to show off, for better or worse, for the parents.

Once or twice I had to arrange a performance of a creative dramatics class as part of a year-end show. Those events ranked with the Titanic as disasters. I recall saying to someone, while one of those dire presentations was going on, “I swear, if we live through this, I’ll never, never teach again.” I did live through it, and did teach again, but the scars remain. Any performance by a creative dramatics class will by necessity dominate class time. The group simply has to get ready for the public. Creative dramatics, basically, goes out the window, replaced by half-hearted theater games. One or the other must be the focus – never both.

But a theater games series is easier to plan than a creative dramatics session, because it has a specific performance objective as a goal. In effect, planning creative dramatics means planning from the beginning and going forward, but planning theater games means planning backwards from the end result, for example:

GOAL: Build a group feeling in the cast.
ACTIVITIES: Warm the cast up by playing different ball games with imaginary balls. Do group sentence-building and story-building.

GOAL: Loosen up a scene that seems to be “stuck.”
ACTIVITIES: Do the scene paraphrasing the lines. Sing the scene, do it in slow-motion or very fast motion, do it in mime.

GOAL: Improve projection of voices.
ACTIVITIES: Improvise a scene related to the circumstances of the play, place the locations of the scene around the auditorium.

Some actors don’t like to do anything in rehearsal except work on the script – some loathe theater games or “exercises” – so the director must work sensitively.

Theater games can also be used to develop original theatrical material. In the Pushcart Players creative dramatics outline above, by step 6 the group is positioned to create new scenes or even plays if desired, over a period of time. Any subject matter will do for story-building – even science and mathematics.

This summer I led three one-class workshops as part of a church summer camp, with classes for (1) preschool and first grade, (2) second through fifth grades, (3) sixth grade and above. The children basically had inner-city backgrounds; some of them reported that they had acted in school plays (one said, “I’m an actor!”). The organizers and I decided that if we kept the event fairly informal, we could have the groups demonstrate some “still photos brought to life” of Bible scenes at the end of the event – in other words, in a compressed way we did creative dramatics that could be said to blend somewhat into theater games, not something I recommend, but we found a way to do it acceptably.

We followed the class procedure listed above, leading into easily staged Bible stories – Noah getting the animals onto the ark, Moses and the parting of the Red Sea, Jesus calming the storm – with a different Noah, Moses, or Jesus each time. The groups became, in addition to the human characters, waves, animals, weather. I narrated – which removed the need for transition scenes – and “coached” the groups into forming the “still photos” that turned into various moments of the stories. We could fairly quickly have expanded the stories, but time was pressing.

I hadn’t led a creative dramatics session in some time, and had forgotten how much work it can be. In general I tend to think of my relation with creative dramatics groups, not as that of teacher to students, but as that of (nervous) party host to guests. My responsibility, I feel deep inside, is to have the participants leave in a good mood, nourished and entertained. This may not be the best attitude to have, but that’s what I bring to the table. However that may be, the satisfactions of the work are great. Helping to build creativity, confidence, and competence – not a bad day’s work.

[As I said at the top, I’ve had some small experience with theater games and creative dramatics.  For example, when I was rehearsing a stage adaptation of Anton Chekhov’s short story Ward 6, I wanted the actors, who were all playing either patients or staff in the psychiatric ward, to feel that the performance space was intimately familiar to them—where they literally spent all or most of their time.  I devised some exercises for the cast to explore the "stage" (a black box).  I had the actors do the exploration in character so that the link between the role and the space became indivisible.  Before that, when I was getting my MFA at Rutgers University, we grad students formed a children's theater one summer.  One of the performances we created was a scripted play (an Aurand Harris musical), but the other was a story-theater assemblage of tales all involving animals (like the Brementown Musicians and some James Thurber fables).  We developed the animal-story production by games and improvs, keeping what worked best and tossing out what didn't or didn't appeal to us. (We also made a group pilgrimage to the Bronx Zoo to observe some of the animals in our stories.) 

[Kirk’s last post on ROT was “Eugene Ionesco” on 2 July; he’s contemplating another contribution to the blog on what he says is “theater etiquette,” though I don’t know yet what that will turn out to mean!  (One of the really fun aspects of seeing submissions from Kirk is not just what he chooses to look at, his subject, but what approach he’ll take.  So far, he hasn’t failed to surprise me with his perspective and analysis.)]



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