The Only Constant is Change

The workforce of today has changed quite a bit from the time I went to high school. I graduated in 1976, went to college and acting school and entered the workforce in the 80’s. I remember when the first electric typewriter came into the office, and shortly after the first PC. Personal computers used to be no more then enhanced word processors and spreadsheet programs. Then came the World Wide Web, connecting us to limitless possibilities. Today with various applications available to computers, laptops, phones, watches, medical systems, androids, and bionics we have a different set of skills that are necessary for entry level workforce and higher education opportunities. According to the Common Core Website “The college- and career-readiness standards were developed first and then incorporated into the K-12 standards in the final version of the Common Core we have today.” California is one of the forty three states that are adopting the standards and this will be a summary of the California Common Core Standards for Reading and Literature for 9-12 grades as they apply to Theatre Arts.

It is no longer enough to know what to think, it is increasingly important to know how to think. The workforce of today and tomorrow will be adapting to new work platforms, tools, and global partners so it is vital that education set a frame from which students will gather the tools necessary to be effective learners.

I teach drama for grades 9-12. I teach beginner classes which give an overview of several acting schools as well as theatre history and several contemporary and classical works. I also teach advanced theatre classes where we delve deeper into more complex texts, some of which culminate in fully staged productions.

It is important when reading any text that the student be able to comprehend the text in an authentic voice. The standards require that the student “Cite strong and thorough textual evidence to support analysis of what the text says explicitly, as well as inferences drawn from the text.” This is especially important when the student is an actor, as the actor must know the text well enough to make emotional and motivational choices throughout. This is done with the director, by choosing a theme, or central idea of the play. It is important that all players agree upon the theme in order to make effective choices to support the telling of the play. In addition, there may be sub-themes to be explored as well. Each character will support the overall theme and may be important in the fleshing out of sub-themes. Most of this work is done through first read and in-depth discussion during first read. Individually the student can write character histories discussing how a different family, culture, background (including schooling and economic background) would be necessary in order for the character to make the choices required to fulfill the theme and allow the plot to move forward.

Once themes are identified, the character construction needs to be addressed. This is done by identifying motivation, possibly multiple and/or conflicting motivations, and discussing how they interact with the other characters in order to develop the theme of the play. A careful analysis of the text structure is necessary in order to remain true to the intention of the author which will include an analysis of the word choices and figurative and connotative meanings. We are working on this right now with Pippin, Identifying the theme of “Looking for Fulfillment in all the wrong places” and the sub-themes of each characters’ battles with validating themselves through outside material means. Live situational improvisation is used often, to allow the actors to flesh out moments that are referred to in the script, but that never actually are seen on stage. This helps the actors make the connections necessary to fulfill the character arcs which need to be in place in order for the plot to unfold.

It is important that words and phrases are clear while working the script, including figurative and connotative meanings. This includes word choices on meaning and tone, and words with multiple meanings or language that are particularly fresh, engaging, or beautiful. Analyzing author’s text structure choices is important to uncover clues for plot structure and character development. Things such as order of events, parallel plots and how they manipulate time (e.g., pacing, flashbacks, soliloquies) in order to create such effects as mystery, tension, and surprise are important to discover and deconstruct the text. For instance, “Analyzing how an author’s choices concerning how to structure specific parts of a text (e.g., the choice of where to begin or end a story, the choice to provide a comedic or tragic resolution) contribute to its overall structure and meaning as well as its aesthetic impact.” Good exercises to uncover meanings are situational living improvisations where actors act out moments not actually on stage to flesh out relationships between characters.

It is also important to analyze “a particular point of view or cultural experience reflected in a work of literature from outside the United States, drawing on a wide reading of world literature.” We do this through working plays on Commedia Del Arte, Shakespeare, Christopher Marlow, Sophocles, Charles Dickens, and more. It is important to identify distinguishing tones (satire, sarcasm, irony, or understatement) that may effect the understanding of the author’s choices. There are many improvisation exercises that work to make the actor comfortable using different cultural norms. For instance, having an “insult off” in Shakespearean language can connect the actors with how much fun the  comedy of the renaissance can be as well as giving them comfort with the unusual language used.

It is very helpful to analyze how a subject or a key scene in two different artistic mediums, (including what is emphasized or absent in each treatment) inform one another. By analyzing multiple interpretations of a story, drama or poem the student can grow in understanding of how the director’s or artist’s interpretation of the material can change through the point of view of various directors or actors. For example we did Othello, set it in 2050 to discover if the business machinations, jealousies, and dishonesties still apply in our modern day world. It was interesting to put the clowns as droids, creating the reality that they were to learn about human emotional choice by studying the people in the household. It caused the droids to short circuit by the end, as they watch the humans make completely illogical choices to deal with conflict as it arises during the play.

We have analyzed multiple interpretations of A Christmas Carol, one a Commedia style modernized version, one a classic version, and one an original adaptation bringing the Cratchit family into the 1990’s. We have also studied various versions of Richard III, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and MacBeth.

When possible, we analyze how an author draws on and transforms source material in a specific work (e.g., how Shakespeare treats a theme or topic from Ovid or the Bible or how a later author draws on a play by Shakespeare) and demonstrate knowledge of eighteenth-, nineteenth- and early-twentieth- century foundational works of American literature, including how two or more texts from the same period treat similar themes or topics.

  All of this compelling and complex literature can be explored best in small groups, using different exercises, thus using a scaffolding technique to introduce new information and empower the actors throughout the rehearsal process, as each actor is at a different skill level, yet they need to work together as a cohesive group.

By the end of grade 10, students should read and comprehend literature, including stories, dramas, and poems independently and proficiently. By the end of grade 11, students should read and comprehend literature, including stories, dramas, and poems. By the end of grade 12, read and comprehend literature, including stories, dramas, and poems independently and proficiently.” A variety of material is used to fulfill these guide lines including Dead Man Walking, The Great Gatsby, Waiting for Lefty, Custer, Les Miserables, A Line in the Sand, and more. Each of these works took on a different time period and several were cross curricular projects with the English, Social Science, Morality and History Departments. Each of these shows took a team effort and a great deal of work.

I am in process of following these guidelines to flesh out Pippin, our spring musical. I am enjoying learning about Common Core and am using many of the ideas to further the exploration or the text, and it is comforting to know that most of these requirements we have been using. I find the Common Core to be a good solution to our present education dilemmas. Teaching to the test has done so much damage and has made it difficult to explain why the arts are necessary in education, as they are not one of the skills tested on any of the standardized testing that has driven education for the past thirty of so years. Having Common Core establish the need for critical and creative thinking skills and teaching the “Who, what, where, when and whys” of curiosity brings the arts back to a relevant standing.

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