Breaking Legs for the First Time
How to Start a Drama Club Without Wanting to Die
It’s never easy to start off a new job in a field that is very familiar to you, but with little to go off of. You were hired for a reason, right, and you had almost convinced yourself that there was no one better for the position than yourself when going for the job in the first place. Well, it’s true, you are the best person for the position. You landed the Drama teacher position because someone somewhere saw your potential, and you saw it too. Although it might have been a glimpse at the time, it was there, and no matter how much you want to deny it, you know you have something to offer.
The catch? Well, although theatre or drama might have been our thing in school and we caught on to the greatest of live performance as young thespians ourselves, we have to now convince a bunch of teenagers that getting dressed up, wearing stage makeup, and spending countless hours rehearsing and memorizing lines will be the best decision of their lives.
For some, the sell will be easy. Some students will naturally be drawn to the club. Whether it’s the acting cast or the backstage crew, there are always those kids that just know this is for them. The kids come out of the woodwork on their own. Still, there are always those kids that set our spidey-senses off; the kids we know could benefit from being part of a cast of like-minded people and could really contribute a lot to the crew. How do we attract those students into the Drama club without using coercion?
The Fool Proof Guide to Creating a Solid Drama Club for the Starter Drama Teacher
Cool your jets.
Some principals want you to hit the ground running day one of the school year. However, when starting at a new school, you need to know your clientele. Jumping into auditions and choosing a show or production before knowing your skill levels and abilities of your students is like buying an engagement ring before getting a girlfriend, it’s kind of ambitious, but mostly short sighted. Work with the students first and see what they can produce as individuals and as a collective first. Then, based on their strengths and skills, find a show that will work for them. It might take some time for them to show you what they are really capable of.
Grace them with your presence.
Don’t try to be the cool teacher. Students smell a fake from miles away. No one likes a keener, especially teenagers. Instead, show them how it’s done. Make it clear that you are the expert (because you are) and lead by example. I always start my drama classes with a unit on improvisational acting. There are so many reasons why I do this, but for now, let's focus on the fact that it allows you and your students to get hands on with acting, together. If they see you doing exercises that are out of their comfort zone, they will be more willing to try it, too. Be an active participant in the group exercises and do a lot of them. Let them know you're playing too and don’t hold back. However, you must also master learning to turn your Drama teacher persona on and off. It becomes a character I play in class. I make him someone the students want to see more of, but when I am teaching other classes (as most Drama teachers do) they don’t get to see that character. He only comes out for Drama class or club. What the students think they are seeing is a side of you no one else gets, and in most cases, they think they are seeing the "real" you or the "fun" you. This is how I gain their trust and respect, I am connecting with them while managing the classroom at the same time. You might feel like you’re being insincere, but it’s all about illusion. What do you want your audience to see and feel? A teacher that knows what they are doing, is confident enough to get right into the thick of things with them, and someone who makes it look easy, and can do it all without breaking character. My drama students love it when I break it down and get "real" with them, but when I see them in the halls or in my other academic classes I may teach them, they see the social teacher act or the english teacher act. It often baffles them, because it can be quite different than my drama teacher persona, but it makes them feel like there is apart of me only they get in drama. When students feel special, they will give you the moon,
Two Sweets, One Sour.
Boost their fragile egos like there is no tomorrow. I always make it clear that drama is about storytelling, and the best stories are ones that are exaggerated or amped up. Remember, don’t be fake—teenagers can smell out fakeness like nobody's business, but don’t be afraid to sugarcoat it. Most importantly, get to know each of your students or cast members individually. Everyone of them are at different levels of comfort, performance, experience. Know that some students will plateau at mediocrity, and that is incredible. Well, it is for them. Don’t hold back. If someone does something well, make a freaking big deal about it. If someone does something funny, laugh! Point out all the successes you see, but do it in a way that will keep students on their toes.
- "Dang Tommy, that was super deep. Did you see how Tommy went to that really dark place to hone in on that despair he displayed? Didn’t know you had that in you, bud. Come back to the light. We need you here."
- "I am speechless, where did that come from, Amy? All this time, you were hiding this firecracker of a comedian inside and no one knew about it. I like that snarky side of you, I want to see her come out to play more often. She’s fun, eh? I mean—no offence, Amy, you're fun too.. but I like Sarcastic Amy. More of that, please."
- "Did you see how Nicole used her body language to express herself? She didn’t even have to say a word and I knew exactly what she was saying. Those are some mad skills there. 80 percent of communication is in your facial and body expression. Nicole just nailed this. Take notes, everyone, that's how this is done."
When the students see and hear that you are willing to go to bat for them, they will produce quality work. Sure, it might be uncomfortable for some students at first to get attention like that, but nine times out of ten, they will be coming back for more.
At the same time, don’t be afraid to give constructive feedback, too. They can’t improve if they don’t have something to work on. These do not need to be harsh criticisms. Basically, with every two pieces of praise, give them one piece they can try next time.
- "Okay, Jay is right on the money here. Great projection with his voice, creative use of character movement, but be careful not to turn your back from the audience. It’s more important they see your face and movements than it is for the other characters on stage to see it."
Welcome to the Safety Zone.
Under no circumstance can you tolerate bullying, teasing, harassment, or mockery. You must, at any cost, ensure your drama space is a safe space. This expectant must be established by day one and must be repeated every day. Being expressive also makes students feel vulnerable. This is often a key element of drama. If students are tapping in on emotion, you are winning as a drama teacher. However, it also can be interpreted as weakness by other students. Reward and commend students who show genuine or performed emotion. Method acting is scary as hell, but its tried and proven to be effective. Don’t ever demand this or expect this of your students, but when you do see it, you will know, and it will be magical. Protect those moments and harness that tone and mood created. Don’t focus on the student, but on the product and feeling created. If students start sneering or mocking, don’t tolerate it. If students are to be convincing, they need to feel safe and secure. Make this happen.
Make a schedule. Keep to it. Stay consistent, and the students and everything else will fall in line. Don’t micromanage, just direct. Don’t show anger, show disappointment. Make a the crew and cast feel like family, not like inmates. Welcome interpretations, and don’t try to relive your glory days. This is all about the students, not about you. You can play the puppet master, but you can’t be play the puppet too. Be humble, not prideful. Accept help, don’t you dare do this alone. And at the end of the day, you have to let them fail to succeed. It won’t be easy, but it should be fun. Don’t get caught up on the little things, and no matter what, the show will go on.