Deirdre Moore | May 2016

Say It Like You Mean It: Teaching Students to Explore Vocal and Physical Expression

I’m a person of ideas, so I love to get philosophical. However, I am a teacher, so I also need to be practical. Today, I’d like to be practical. I read the arts standards, both state and national, and as the grades get higher so do the expectations. The problem is that if the students have not yet had much experience in a particular art form, you as the teacher have to start where your students are. If you want students to be able to reach those standards, or to be able to explore other content areas through theatre, they have to have some facility with their basic actor’s tools: body, voice and imagination. I like to start with voice (which involves some level of imagination), and then add the body.

For example, I just started working with a few groups of third graders on an arts integration lesson, who have had little to no theatre instruction before, so this third grade standard is a bit beyond them at the moment:

TH:Cr3.1.3
a. Collaborate with peers to revise, refine, and adapt ideas to fit the given parameters of a drama theatre work.

b. Participate and contribute to physical and vocal exploration in an improvised or scripted drama/theatre work.

c. Practice and refine design and technical choices to support a devised or scripted drama/theatre work.

Let’s focus specifically on “b” for a moment. Before students can contribute to physical and vocal exploration in an improvised or scripted drama/theatre work, they need to play with physical and vocal exploration. This is one progression I like to use to facilitate that kind of play:

First, I read the actors a story I call “The Story of Oh.” It’s a story that I made up whose main character uses the word “oh” in lots of different ways to mean very different things. I hold up a cue card each time I expect the actors to say “oh”,  and the context combined with my facial expression clues them in as to what inflection to use. They say “oh” to mean things like surprised, grossed out, alarmed, nonplussed, or gradually becoming aware of something.

Now that the actors get the idea, we sit in a circle and toss around a two word dialogue, “Please” and “No.” The goal of each actor is to say the words differently than the actors before them. By the time it has been passed around the circle, every actor has said both lines. You quickly get a sense of those students who are pretty comfortable with acting, and those who are not if you had not already! You can try the same exercise with “Why?” and “Because.” For fun, I sometimes throw in the “Shakespearian insult” where the students pass around the same insult from one of Shakespeare’s plays but again, challenge the actors to say it differently from the students before them (e.g. “Get you gone, you dwarf.”). Through these exercises, the students can explore pitch as well as inflection.

Now that the actors have done so much work with their voices, they are ready to get the body more intentionally involved. I teach the students about facial expression (which they have all already been using most likely), gesture and posture and we play with messages and feelings and how our bodies convey them. I throw out phrases and watch for matching gestures:

Oh no!
Nice job.
Pleeeeeeeaaaase.
What did you say?
I wonder….
Stop!
Quick, come here!
Come. Here. Now.

Then I throw out different feelings or emotions and ask them to show facial expression and body posture to convey them: surprised, angry, impatient, bored, excited, gloomy, etc.

Now they are ready to put it all together, we first we read a popular nursery rhyme like Humpty Dumpty – short and sweet. Then, I put the students in groups of 3 or 4. Each group is assigned or chooses an emotion to convey. In their groups, the students rehearse how to say the nursery rhyme using body, voice and imagination to convey very different meanings or intentions. If the students have had the chance to do all the previous exercises, they should be making use of both vocal and physical expression to give a truly “emotional” performance!

About the Author

Deirdre is a teaching artist and AI coach in the San Diego public schools dedicated to helping classroom teachers make arts an integral part of their teaching. Deirdre has an MEd in Arts Integration and over twenty years of classroom and performing arts teaching experience. Email Deirdre.