“Man is least himself when he talks in his own person. Give him a mask, and he will tell you the truth.”
The Up Side of Wearing the Acting “Mask”
Teachers understand that high school students face increasing pressure to excel in classwork and extra-curricular activities, gain admittance and scholarships to colleges, and figure out who and what they want to become in the future. At the same time, many students strive to perfect how they present themselves to peers; they are too scared to simply be themselves at the risk of not fitting in with other students. Many students just want to blend in, even if it means hiding their true personalities.
I understand this because when I was in high school, speech class was far more terrifying than acting class. One required me to be authentic and real. The other allowed me to be Alice in Wonderland, Miss Havisham, or Lady Macbeth—all preferable choices to my timid high school self. One class made me sweat and feel nauseous; the other class made me giddy and energized. Recalling my high school experience is paramount to running a safe classroom where everyone feels accepted and validated.
This year teaching was different and more intense than ever before. While teaching in a mask to a group of masked students was not fun and proved highly challenging, there is an up side to “metaphorical masks” actors can magically don when working on improvisation or even on a specific role. A “character” is not the person, so the mask is a way to transcend insecurities, listen to impulses, and embrace the freedom necessary to grow as humans.
After a year of pandemic duress, it’s fun to fantasize about the return to face-to-face teaching at its finest, especially using acting skills to help students find their true selves. In addition, students who attended school virtually may be nervous to be “live” again among their peers every day at school. Theater games are an incredible way to “get everyone on the dance floor” in terms of participation. Here are a few scenarios to show you what I mean.
Scenario I: Superhero Party
There’s a hip party where only Superheroes have been invited because there is a worldwide catastrophe; furthermore, your unique superpower must be harnessed. While you cannot openly declare your specific power, you must somehow ease it into the conversation or demonstrate it more subtly so the host of the party can figure out what it is. You score points when the host acknowledges you by giving you a Superhero moniker. Ex. Someone who is madly dashing around, moving in and out of conversations might become Random Man.
There is nothing more fun than taking a group of new acting students who barely know each other and watching them play this game in the first weeks of school. Some students bounce right into the game and others gaze into it from the sidelines, leery of looking silly but secretly anxious to play.
Playing is paramount in acting classes. Embracing the risk of looking foolish pushes high school students to a freedom they haven’t felt since they were small children. Body language changes as students create their superhero personas. Allowing them to pretend is passing out joy like ice pops on a steamy summer day. After approximately ten minutes into this game, there is so much laughter that it’s tough to hear the dialogue for students riffing off of each other in a mad creative frenzy. It’s called teacher bliss.
Scenario II: Tighty Whities Show and Tell
Isabel kneels on the ground, pounds balled fists against the floor, wails in her native sing-song about missing Show & Tell. A senior in my Acting Technique II class playing a game called “Oscar Moment,” she rolls herself into a fetal position and whines in an even higher key as her scene partner, playing a Kindergarten teacher, soothes her by explaining that Show & Tell would happen again next week.
I relish how the other students laugh collectively, giving Isabel the encouragement to take it even further. The louder and more insistent her crying, the more they enjoy it. She even uses the “Yes, and…” technique, explaining in her little girl voice that there would only be one “W” Day for the whole year and she had forgotten her dad’s “Tighty Whities” on the kitchen table. She uses her entire body, sometimes sprawling out as big as she could make herself across the floor, other times rising to stand so she can emphatically stomp in punctuation to her rant, and then finally curling herself into a seated rocking position.
Improvisation offers the opportunity to think on one’s feet, listen closely, and build momentum with creativity. The more a student lives in the moment, buys into the absurdity, and really stretches, the more they take away after the class and trust themselves to make strong choices in their theater work and their real lives.
Scenario III: Making a Pizza
Two parallel lines of eight high school students each stand with their backs to the students at the head of the lines. They become silent at my command, but continue to bounce in excitement. I whisper the cue “making a pizza” to the first student in each line. The first two students quickly tap the next person in line who turns to watch them rolling and spinning dough, adding toppings, and putting the pizza into an oven. When they think they recognize what their classmate is pantomiming, they tap the next person who turns around and hurriedly acts it out again. The last person in the first line thinks they can name the action, so the entire line sits and they raise their hands. When I call on them, they shout, “Packing a suitcase!”
Again, watching these students abandon their academic struggles, their invented personas, and their overriding self-consciousness entertains me every time. The simple command, “You may not talk,” creates a fun tension and urgency to their actions. Lost in play, they are kids again. Their competitive natures take over, and they really want to win this game. They relax and play. For this reason, studying acting is not only beneficial for emotional balance, but necessary for managing stress.
Recalling the physicality of a particular action and executing it in pantomime requires risk-taking. They are not worried about looking foolish or being judged. Theatre games are about allowing students to forget the hard work they do each day in building an identity. When all of the pretense is stripped away, they show me their inventiveness. They are open, responsive, and creative.
When the bell rings to end class, they have not packed up their things, nor are they searching for their coveted phones. A phone-free zone is refreshing too. Ask any of them, and they’ll say they resisted it, but found it to be a welcome break from electronic everything.
All teachers could feasibly insert some theatre games in their lesson planning if they are willing to lean into some noise and confusion for a brief time. Not all of my experiments with acting games are Wilde-ly successful, but they are all Wilde-ly fun. Anything that pulls students out of the pressure cookers that are their lives is worth the time and energy. Besides, watching students who often tower over me pretend to be outlandish superheroes, whining Kindergartners, and master pizza chefs makes for some memorable classroom days.
Winter Stars: Three 10-Minute Plays includes one tragedy, one noir fantasy, and one comedy: Winter Stars; To the Shadows We Return, and Auras in Suburbia.
” I’d love to see these on stage, especially for youth theater,
and I look forward to more from this author.”