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Theater-acting-teaching kids

Working with schoolchildren

drama program at PS138 in Manhattan, 1994-5


This commentary is a slightly edited version of a Spring, 1995 report I wrote for the NYC public schools during the 1994-1995 school year, when I was working intermittently as a volunteer at PS138 in Brooklyn with Ms. Dworkin who, along with the principal, Mr. Louis (who requested I write this), was extremely supportive of my participation.   I don't know what ever became of this document after I gave it to Mr. Louis.

(NOTE: At the end of the school year, Ms. Dworkin and I parted ways when I did not feel able to be enthusiastic about a play she had written and wanted to produce.)

I had had extensive experience as a teacher as well as specific experience teaching acting, though not in some time:  I had taught improvisational drama to teenagers in and around London, to convicts at San Quentin prison, an acting class at a London theater school, and a scene study class at Brandeis University.  In England for Hertfordshire County teachers I had conducted a workshop on using drama in the classroom.  In academic settings, I had often used role-playing as a technique for identifying with alternative frames of mind and for illuminating subject material.

Here’s what I wrote in 1995.


Let me be clear what Ms. Dworkin’s drama program at PS 138 is not: it is not a class to make children become actors.  (I’d be delighted if any of the children go on to explore theater seriously as actors, technical people, writers, directors--or audience--but these are not the immediate goals.)  As Ms. Dworkin’s [separate] statement indicates, and as my comments here reinforce, drama at this level offers a creative, fun context for learning a wide range of intellectual and social skills.  Many of the basic principles actors must learn are variants on basic principles of being a constructive member of society (trust, responsibility, self-discipline, taking turns, being supportive, cooperating, succeeding by working together, attentiveness, observation) and of feeling personally competent and fulfilled (risk-taking, spontaneity, improvisation, experimentation, intuition, practice, concentration, stress on process at least as much as results).

If personal testimony means anything, I can point out that as a child, although very bright, I was socially uncomfortable, unpopular, introverted and timid.  It’s hard to say what is cause and what is effect, but the skills I’ve accumulated as an actor clearly interplay with the rest of my life in giving me poise, assertiveness, extemporaneity, and improvisational and intuitive responses to events in my life.


I began at PS 138 as a Screen Actors Guild volunteer for a SAG program that sends actors to read to public school children.  Through the PS 138 librarian, Ms. Diaz, I read to several classes, and they seemed happy with the results.  I involved the children in the stories: asked questions about what they thought might happen next, had them act out roles in the stories, and had them recap what had happened so far in a given story.  I often dramatized scenes I was describing.  I found that writers like Poe, whom we might expect still to appeal to children, did not work well, but a variety of more contemporary stories (including Dr. Seuss and especially scary stories) did.  Involving the children in choosing the story usually produced good results, but it sometimes required several minutes to organize.

Within a few weeks of my start at PS 138, Ms. Diaz introduced me to Ms. Dworkin, and with the exception of one week when Ms. Dworkin was absent and I read to her classes, I worked with her drama program.  I have witnessed only a fraction of what she has actually accomplished on her own, but it is clear that she is dedicated and committed to bringing the world of drama to her pupils.  Despite difficult circumstances (too many pupils in a class, discipline problems, children often not accustomed to voluntary self-control, severe limitation on available materials, a classroom that is sometimes not properly heated), she carries forward valiantly and creatively.  She shows strong willingness to experiment and take risks in giving the children a chance to express themselves.  Of the activities she describes, I have seen her show videos, involve classes in discussion of the films’ contents, have the children act out moments in the films; have the pupils improvise both abstractly (e.g., passing around an imaginary ball that changes size) and concretely (e.g., walking through different heights of snow), and emphasize vocabulary.  I have also seen some of the results of scriptwriting and of children directing rehearsal of what they have written.

I have been impressed with the responsiveness of the children to what Ms. Dworkin does and to what I have brought to them.  Later, I’ll discuss some of the difficulties and complexities that I notice in this setting, but let me start by underscoring how impressed I am with what the children do.

Nearly all the children are enthusiastic, eager to volunteer and participate.  The chance to role-play, to try out different personae, and to express their own feelings in the relatively safe setting of fictional presentation seems to liberate many of them.  (Among other things, the role-playing includes behaving in ways that in their normal lives merit reproof but on “stage” can be creative outlets that receive approval.)  I have been especially struck by how children who initially appear shy and quiet can, with very little encouragement, allow themselves to get involved in playacting before their peers.

Ms. Dworkin’s account of the program lists many of the general benefits that drama can provide our children.  Let me stress those that mean most to me: working together (collaborating, cooperating, trusting); observing/paying attention (noticing what is happening, listening to fellow actors and to the director/leader, remembering what an experience or place was like in order to reproduce it for an audience); sharing (space, attention, words, even feelings); discipline and self-control (or personally experiencing the consequences when self-control breaks down); using the imagination (and being rewarded for it); taking constructive risks; and learning from watching others (probably the benefit that occurs least).

At this developmental level and with class sizes as they are, the drama experiences are most successful when they involve the most pupils.  Doing a single exercise in which many children can take part, or in which many small groups can function side-by-side, has been important for keeping the children engaged.  The mirrors exercise[1] summarized by Ms. Dworkin was particularly striking.  My own assumption, before trying it, was that this exercise was only appropriate for older (and relatively disciplined) teenagers and adults.  But it worked well even with first graders.  Some children could not get past the giggle and discomfort stage (a common stage for all new actors of any age), but they were few.

Nearly all the children, after varying amounts of adjustment, took the mirrors exercise seriously and made something interesting of it.  They responded well to encouragement.  (My disposition is not to scold children when they are not succeeding, but also not to pretend they are succeeding.  In a tone of collaboration--that we’re in this together and that I know they want to be effective with the exercise--I point out where they need to focus their attention, and most of them respond well to this.  Then, when I can genuinely praise them for what they have achieved, they seem just as genuinely pleased with themselves.)  It would be interesting to figure out reasons for the unexpected success of this difficult and concentration-demanding exercise, and to think about ways that equivalent effects could be encouraged in other areas of education.  Some of the theatrical and social purposes here are identical: intense concentration on the task at hand, with an ability to shut the mind off to outside distractions (with the more successful pairs, I will deliberately try to distract them, e.g., by walking between them or making funny faces at them); to work with a partner and help, not trick, that partner (it takes many children a long time to understand this); to have your own success inseparable from your partner’s (the exercise is most successful when an onlooker cannot tell who is leading and who is following).  As partners develop confidence and a sense of cooperation, they can also undertake more and more interesting and complex movements.

Pretty much any role-playing exercise that touches students’ own experience can work.  We’ve had them jumping rope (without a rope: those at either end of the rope must work together to seem to be turning the same rope; the jumper must try to find the rhythm established by the turners), riding a subway car together (moving in sync with the movements of the car), carrying imaginary buckets of water (they must show the weight, and show how the weight changes as the leader calls out changes to them), taking a common object like a book bag or block of wood and improvising other objects (the bag might be a hair dryer or an apron; the wood might be a pillow or a typewriter; they must free associate--and they must take turns).

With one class I did a simple group exercise: go into a movie theater and watch the movie.  This turned out to involve considerable brainstorming and sequential thinking: what can happen when you get to the theater (e.g. there might be a long line) and at each stage of getting in?  Who works there?  What must happen for you to see the movie.  (It took a long time for the children to remember that the lights get dimmed, or that someone must work a projector.)

I have used a trust exercise which works but can’t involve enough children at one time (so that the watchers can grow restless): 4 children link arms, and a 5th falls into the arms.  The leader must be rigorous, test the linked arms, tune into whether the catchers are taking the exercise seriously, and not let the exercise proceed if it will not work.  (If the participants do not seem serious enough, it is important not to “blame” them but just to let them know that they need more work and attention to the exercise before they will be ready to finish it.)  But most of these children showed they were up to it.  The hardest task is for the faller, who has the instinct to put out her or his arms.  The falling is first face forward, then backward (we didn’t get to the backward part).  The children should learn the importance of trusting one another, and of building that trust by being trustworthy, responsible.  (I can think of no more fundamental principle of good acting than being reliable and trusting your fellow actors to be so, too.)

I plan to try other exercises, such as building a machine together (each one adds a rhythmic part to what others are doing; you can have them add sounds; the machine can speed up and slow down) and communicating with gibberish or counting or reciting the alphabet (the activity and tone of voice should make obvious what the words mean).

The children seem to enjoy having a “real” actor work with them.  While they have little patience for long explanations of exercises or their benefits (they want to get down to the work--or play--itself), they always seem interested in asking me questions about acting and discussing what it’s like to be in the theater or on a movie set.  Their questions, even at a very early age, are often quite thoughtful.

On the spur of the moment, I once performed a couple of audition monologues, intended for adults, and the children were quite absorbed with the material.

All that I’ve been saying points to a principle that has often been established in other contexts: People--including kids, and including kids we’ve been taught to think of as deprived and underprivileged--will, if given the chance, show unexpected depth, creativity and potential.


Although kids can adapt to the most constraining spaces, it’s best to have a large open area that can serve as a stage.  It’s possible to set up some simple lighting (photographers’ clamp lights can be used; and you can even set up reflectors with shaped aluminum foil), and this adds the theater “task” of operating the lights.  I personally don’t think a curtain is important to theater, but it would be easy enough to rig a wire above the front of the stage area and, perhaps with shower curtain rings or the equivalent, hook up old blankets or other large pieces of material.

A place to gather and store props would be good.  I would like to encourage pupils to bring in old clothes, toys, household objects, and the like.  (I’d set rules: you can’t buy anything; you must have permission from the owner.)  The collection of objects should have no intrinsic value; if they disappear, the only loss should be emotional, not financial.  The children should come to feel a proprietary interest in the common properties, and a sense of sharing them with other classes now in the school and attending the school in future years.  But the teacher(s) should not have to worry about keeping a close eye on the materials.

The props and costumes can provide a huge store of improvisational possibilities, ranging from creating a character on the spur of the moment to affecting different personae to developing a set and collection of characters that can tell a whole story.  They also intensify the children’s sense that this really is a drama setting, and that they're really doing theater.


I expect that the difficulties I’ve observed and encountered will not be surprising.  And they surely stem in part from the familiar limitations of a setting like PS 138: little money, large classes, exhausted and harried teachers (sometimes with competing agendas), kids who often have difficulty at self-control, a physically deteriorated building, minimal physical materials for stimulating the imagination.

Of course there are many disciplinary problems.  Sometimes but not always, these can be channeled into constructive classroom energy.  The exercise of carrying buckets of water can lead to throwing the imaginary water at classmates--or, more often, at me.  Eating together in a lunchroom can prompt a mimed food fight.  Suddenly, anti-social behavior that normally invites punishment not only avoids penalty but actually gets praise.

Those adults fearful of released inhibitions will no doubt argue that I’m only encouraging the same behavior in normal life, but the truth is quite the reverse: the children know they are acting (instead of acting out), they know that what they are doing is in a safe classroom setting, and part of their pleasure and energy comes from having no illusions that they are mimicking socially unacceptable behavior.

Sometimes, no matter what you do, some children will disrupt the class.  I have seen the occasional fight, children ignoring the lesson and hiding behind chairs at the rear of the room, squabbles over who owns what pen or notebook, and so on.  Some of this means the “lesson” is not as compelling as it could be, but some of it just goes with the territory.

Indeed, a key paradox of the kind of drama Ms. Dworkin encourages is that it heightens the discipline problem.  The children are implicitly encouraged to vent their energy, to make noise; it is hard for anyone, especially young children, and especially young children from backgrounds with a sharp dichotomy between good and bad behavior (good=quiet, restrained; bad merits repression), to maintain self-control.  Sometimes the leader must corral the energy, but sometimes it tempers itself and contributes towards that goal we all want to encourage: an internal control from one’s own sense of self rather than an external one imposed by other people.

The mall exercise was the riskiest this way, and I was primed for it to get out of control and have to cut it short; and indeed, there came a point where this seemed about to happen.  But in a way I don’t understand, the “chaos” peaked, and the exercise continued, not with total control but with tolerable disorder.  In the midst of about 10 different activities, with all the high stimulation, a number of students did very creative things: one group sized sneaker customers, one child telephoned an order to the pizzeria, a store promoted a variety of toys.

This point can create a different practical problem: even with a closed door, the noise from an active drama class may reach to others parts of the school.  Some teachers don’t trust the importance of drama anyway, and many people would look at it as an arty self-indulgence when we seem not to have enough money even for the core, traditional, “academic” subjects.  Some teachers and parents, I expect, would fear encouraging students to vent and express themselves as they must in drama.  (These are more guesses and responses to rumor; I have to say that personally at PS 138 I have experienced only support and thanks for my part in the drama activities.)

The size of the class is a major brake on effective drama at this level.  The ideal size would be 10-12, I suspect.  25 or so, especially with embedded discipline problems and the difficulty the pupils experience in staying focused and in control, severely undermines the range of activities one can manage in a drama program, especially at this level.

One evidence of the pupils’ engagement with the classes is the paradox of how poorly they often answer questions.  (I am curious how much the following phenomenon exists in regular classes, too.)  When I pose a question, I usually see a very large number of hands in the air.  But two curious and frustrating responses are common: (1) when called on, the child has no idea what answer to give (and rarely is there an intrinsically “right” answer) and (2) the child gives an answer that has nothing to do with the question.  I suspect part of the problem here--and I gather this at least is a problem across the curriculum--is that such a child listens to only a word or two of the question and then fills the rest in with his or her own question that has a known and personal answer.

Whatever other reasons explain these responses, I believe that one key explanation is the children’s desire to participate and be noticed.  (I try not to be punitive: to a child who has no answer I might say, “Think about it some more and raise your hand again if you have another idea”; to the child who gives an irrelevant answer, I’ll first try to figure out the connection between what I asked and what the child said: if I can, I’ll point that out and then recall the actual question, and if I can’t figure it out, I’ll say something like, “that’s an interesting point but the question was...” and then repeat the question and call on someone else.)  I get the impression that an irrelevant answer doesn’t perturb the child, but that having no answer is embarrassing.  In any event, I believe that the general demeanor of the teacher in face of such responses from the children should be to appreciate the desire to participate but to be gently clear that the response was not appropriate.  (Touching a child briefly[2] can often convey a feeling of caring that mitigates the experience of criticism even in gentle words.)

I’ve noticed that sometimes the brightest pupils are the most uncontrolled.  I would hope that drama is at least a small way of helping such children channel their energies, but it is hard not to give a disproportionate amount of attention to misbehaving children, which of course reinforces their disruptive behavior.  It also concerns me that these bright but disruptive children are exactly the ones who will suffer most--and probably cause most social harm later in life--from inability to focus their talent and from the besieged teacher’s need to deal with other children at the same time.

The problem is compounded for such bright children during question-and-answer exchanges: they can easily hold the limelight because they are able to come up with good answers and because other children (not necessarily less bright but certainly thinking of themselves as less bright) defer to them and reinforce the one-sidedness of the discussion.  Indeed the other children may feel intimidated not only intellectually but also physically.


As an outsider and a relative newcomer to NY (I was born in the Bronx but left when I was 4, intermittently visited NY over the years since then, and at the start of 1994 came here to live and see if I could develop an acting career), I am most struck by the de facto segregation at PS 138.  Having worked in the civil rights movement, including a stint as a teacher in Mississippi Freedom Summer, I am especially dismayed by what strikes me as mainstream American society’s dereliction towards our most victimized communities--victimization which our society nurtures, sometimes actively, often passively, and then turns around and condemns when it impinges on their own lives.  In different communities around the country, different groups of people are the victims; in PS 138, it seems to be largely the children of what we label as minority groups.  (I mistrust such labels: however well intended, they tend to make both the labeled and the labelers see the group as deviant from a norm and sometimes even as damaged.  Early on as a single parent, for example, I realized that my son and I had to view our family as a norm and not a “broken home,” as the common sociological parlance had it 20 years ago.)

I wonder at the effect of having two white teachers of European extraction for students who are almost exclusively non-white, non-European in background, or both.  But the children, though often showing constructive sensitivity and pride (sometimes curiosity) about their ethnic and racial backgrounds, seem concerned only with whether they are enjoying themselves.  I believe in multiculturalism, and I would not want to find myself irrelevant to them any more than I want to find them irrelevant to me.

Theatricality, of course, is intrinsically multicultural.  In a wide variety of forms (including story-telling, oral history, public recitation, music and dance--separately and together in all their local and international permutations,--oratory, rites of passage, role-reversal, religious ceremony, puppetry, miming, mock hunts, juggling, strolling minstrels, traveling theater troupes), it is universal and basic to human culture across time and geography, in part because it reinforces cultural values, in part because it creates a sense of community, in part because it simultaneously develops the individual’s separateness and connectedness with society, and in part because it’s just fun.  It is no accident that in all cultures, much child’s play involves theatricality: playing house, trick-or-treating, dressing up in parents’ clothes, playing with dolls, acting out various social roles and professions, war games, hunting games, and so on.

I suspect that all our behavior is ultimately imitation of others: at first, the imitation is self-conscious, awkward and obvious--not at all a part of us, merely a grafting on of someone else’s behavior--but over time it becomes natural, becomes part of who we ourselves are.  The human being in this sense is like a great actor who portrays a shimmering collocation of behaviors that blend into a single, unique personality that convinces others of its authenticity.


Viola Spolin’s Improvisation for the Theater is a classic that has many wonderful exercises.  She devotes a short chapter to working with young children, but many of her exercises elsewhere in the book can be adapted to such children.  The book is published by Northwestern University Press, apparently last revised in 1999 (I have the 1963 edition), and can be found at web stores like Amazon and

John Holt’s How Children Fail, first published in 1964, remains a terrific text for thinking about how ostensibly difficult children really have very bright strategies to circumvent pedagogical intent.  The latest edition appears to be 1980 by Dell Publishing.  This book, too, you can find at Amazon or

Both writers have written useful follow-ups that you can easily find in a Google or on-line bookstore if you search for their names.

Notes added in 2007

[1] In the mirrors exercise, participants pair off and face their partners.  I label one partner A, the other B.  They start with feet together, hands at sides.  I tell A to start moving and B to mirror exactly what A does.  After some coaching to overcome universal mistakes (A: move slowly, help your partner—don’t trick him or her; B: watch your partner carefully; are your fingers bent like your partner’s? your knees?), the “players” start to get the  idea.  Some learn more quickly than others.  After awhile, I will call out that B should lead.  Initially, this adjustment is always difficult.  But as I go back and forth between A and B as leaders, shortening the time before the shift, most partners perform quite decently.  Eventually, maybe the first time, maybe a later day, I call out, “Nobody is leading.”  I have found this exercise helpful even to trained actors.

[2] Would this be a problem in classrooms today with so much anxiety in our society about molestation?

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