"What Are You Doing?" Sneaky Spies and Making Your Partner Look Good!

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By YIA Mentor Artist Thomas Arndt

For 8 weeks this Spring, I worked with 4 in-school 5th and 6th Grade Classes at Harding Elementary, exploring the basics of theatre and storytelling.  We began small, practicing mirroring and attentiveness to a partner.  I like starting this way because it teaches both awareness of the self and a sensitivity to the others in the room.  By the time we arrived at Improv Day, the kids were totally ready for one of the basic rules of improv: “Make your partner look good!”  With so much focus in the world on being competitive, it’s powerful to watch young people work hard to support their partners in “Alien Translator” or “Family Vacation.”  I think they really good see the way that, by supporting their partner, they were increasing the overall success of their scenes.
We also spent some fun time on voice and movement.  Vocally, we learned about “resonators,” warming up everyday so that we had full access to the different parts of our voices.  We discussed and experimented with the ways that different types of voices can create different kinds of characters.  We also played with the way that physicality can generate fabulous new characters.  Borrowing a lesson from my friend Bryan Quinn, I taught a Laban movement class where the students tried out different styles of movement choices: Heavy/Light, Slow/Quick, and Direct/Indirect.  I then had them form a line and instructed them to each make a choose for each category of movement.  Finally, I gave them a character type (Sneaky Spy!  Librarian!  Alligator!) and had them move across the room to grab a pen, placed on a chair.  (The pen generally transformed into something new each time: you can imagine the “T-Rex” trying aimlessly to pick up its prey!).  There’s something about this set up in the lesson that sparks even the most wall-clinging kid to step forward–it’s only 20 seconds of stage time–and make HUGE character choices.  This was a memorable day that they students and teachers referred back to often.  We simply had a blast this semester.
One of my big learnings this year came in one of my classes with a group of Deaf/Hard of Hearing students.  If you’ve ever taken a theatre class, there’s a good chance you’ve played the circle game “What Are You Doing?”, where people offer different activities (“Riding a bike!”, “Brushing my teeth!”, “Chasing a polar bear!”) for the next person in line to act out.  I noticed that the interpreter was making a very simple ASL sign for the game’s question, which is repeated ad infinitum, “What Are You Doing?”  I learned the sign, and ever since that day, no matter where I’m playing this game, I incorporate that sign into the game.  It’s a great reminder that we can always be working on multiple levels at once with our teaching.  Add “(Person’s name), What Are You Doing?” and you’re also playing a name game!  So, incorporating many levels of learning in a single theatre game, that’s “What I’m Doing”!   Happy Summer everyone!
Many thanks to the Thomas J. Long Foundation for their support of “Arts Unite Us” at Harding Elementary.

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