Three Ways to Bring More Acting Technique into the Drama Classroom

 Three Ways to Bring More Acting Technique into the Drama Classroom  

By Samantha Marsden, author of 100 Acting Exercises for 8 – 18 Year Olds. 

One of the most magical moments when teaching drama is when a student let’s go of all inhibitions and gives a truthful performance. Here’s some ideas to add more acting techniques into the drama classroom.

Given Circumstances

Adding given circumstances can turn a simple drama game into a more advanced acting exercise. Encouraging students to think up the given circumstances for their characters during improvisation-based drama games is a great way to introduce students to the term coined by Konstantin Stanislavsky. Given circumstances refers to the environmental, historical and situational conditions a character finds themselves in. For Stanislavsky the six questions that make up a character’s given circumstances are:

  • Who?
  • When?
  • Where?
  • Why?
  • For what reason?
  • How?

When working on a script or improvisation, it’s can help students if they are reminded to ask these six questions. Given circumstance can be added to many different drama games. Take the classic drama game Park Bench for example.

Improvisation Exercise - Park Bench with Given Circumstances

A fun improvisation exercise to help participants react intuitively and think fast.

Age: 8 plus.

Skills:Imagination, confidence, improvisation, listening, energy, spontaneity, social skills and trust.

Participants:Pair work to be performed in front of a group.

Time:10–15 minutes.

You'll need:A bench, or three chairs put together in the shape of a bench. The group sits facing the two actors on the bench.

How to: One person sits on the park bench and does something; for example, they could eat sushi, drink coffee, or do a crossword puzzle. Another person joins the original person on the bench. It is the new person’s aim to get the first person to leave the bench, but without using any physical force. Perhaps the new person could be very annoying, maybe they pick lice out of their pet dog’s fur, or they talk about how the world will end soon, or they won’t stop talking about how they’re going to win the next X Factor while doing demonstrations of their audition. To add given circumstances both students, ask the who? When? Where? and Why? for their characters. For example, it could be one character’s given circumstance that she’s a manager of a large firm (who), it’s her lunch break (when), she’s in the park (where) and she is on her laptop to prepare for the meeting (why). The other person’s given circumstances could be: she’s a teenage girl (who), it’s her lunch break (when), she’s in the park (where), and she’s hiding because she’s told a terrible lie about her best friend and has just been found out (why).

Playing with Statuses

Many people tend to act differently dependant on who they are with. For example, you may not behave in the same way around your boss as you might with your best friend. Whenever students begin an improvisation, or scripted piece, I encourage them to ask, “what is my characters relationship with the other people on stage?’ A good way to introduce this is through playing with statuses.

Improvisation Exercises - Status Pairs

A fun acting exercise where students play at being people with different statuses.

Age: 8 plus.

Skills: Listening, spontaneity, imagination, social skills and improvisation.

Participants:This needs to be practiced in pairs.

Time: 10–20 minutes.

You'll need: A space where students can stand in a room in pairs and improvise.

How to: Ask the students to get into pairs. Name one in the pair A and the other B. A will start by being a person with high status and B will be someone with low status. For example, A might be a queen and B a servant. Or A could be someone interviewing people for a job and B an interviewee. It is important to note that a job title doesn't necessarily give someone higher status. For example, A could play the higher status as a student and B the lower status as a teacher; perhaps because it's the teacher’s first day at school and B is a student testing the teacher’s boundaries. Ask the students to come up with a one or two minute improvisation where A has higher status than B.

      Now ask the partners to swap over so that B has a turn being the person with higher status and A the lower status. Examples include: B could be the head cheerleader and A is trying out for the squad. Or B is a cleaner who has just spotted her boss, person A, stealing money from the safe.

      Once the pairs have both had a turn at playing with both statuses, ask them to choose the improvisation they thought worked best, then ask them to practice once more and then show these to the rest of the class. The audience can guess which character had the higher status.

Adding history to a character

It’s importance to know the history of a character to play them well. The actor should know everything that has happened to the character they are playing up until the point of the text that they are performing. When the playwright hasn’t provided the information it’s up to the actor to fill in the gaps and create their own histories for their character. 

Improvisation Exercises - Adding history to a relationship:

An improvisation exercise where two people bump into each other in the supermarket but there is some negative history between them.

Age: 10 plus.

Skills: Improvisation, spontaneity and character building.

Participants: This exercise needs to be practiced in pairs.

Time:15–20 minutes

You'll need: A space big enough for students to rehearse a scene in pairs.

How To: Ask the students to get into pairs and explain that they are both going to play a character who is shopping. Ask them to think of at least one given circumstance and one objective to help them create their character. For example, maybe one of the characters is a poor law student at the nearby university (given circumstance) and they are trying to stretch their weekly food shop as far as possible (objective). The other person might be a mother and owner of a cafe (given circumstance) and they need to buy lots of milk as the cafe has run out (objective). Once the students have come up with a character each, both with one given circumstance and one objective, together the pair can think up a past history between the two characters. Perhaps the student used to work at the cafe, but they got fired; or the cafe owner is an old family friend who the student misses dearly; or the cafe owner once caught this student stealing a piece of cake from the cafe.

            Once they've had five to ten minutes to rehearse, ask them to share it with the rest of the class.

Final Thoughts

There are many ways to add more depth to drama and improvisation games to stretch a student’s acting albites. I’ve found when students are challenged in this way and encouraged to add multiple dimensions that they thrive. In my book 100 Acting Exercises for 8 – 18 year Olds you can find simple and advanced techniques for the classroom and rehearsal studio.

Buy the book 100 Acting Exercises for 8 – 18 year Olds 

About 100 Acting Exercises for 8 - 18 Year Olds

Theories and techniques of some of the greatest theatre practitioners including Sanford Meisner, Constantin Stanislavski, Lee Strasberg and Uta Hagen provide a basis for Samantha Marsden's original exercises. The exercises have been tried and tested in the author's own classroom. Focus points used in leading drama schools such as voice, movement, relaxation, character development and understanding text are recreated for a younger student.

The book features a foreword by Paul Roseby, CEO and Artistic Director of the National Youth Theatre.

“Here is the book that every drama teacher should have on their shelf” –  Sylvia Young, OBE

“An excellent resource. In it, acting coaches and their young students will find daily inspiration.” –  Robert McKee, author, lecturer and story consultant

“Every young actor that wants a working instrument should do these great, fun and practical exercises” –  Michelle Danner, Artistic Director of the Michelle Danner Acting Studio

About the Author

Samantha Marsden studied method acting at The Method Studio in London. She went on to study Drama, Applied Theatre and Education at the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama. She worked as a freelance drama teacher for eleven years at theatre companies, youth theatres, private schools, state schools, special schools and weekend theatre schools. In 2012 she set up her own youth theatre, which quickly grew into one of the largest regional youth theatres in the country. She also writes for The Stage and is the author of Teach Drama: How to Make a Living as a Freelance Drama Teacher.