This week's featured guest blogger is Joseph Couch, Professor at Montgomery College.
Teaching drama may pose the most difficult challenge of the literary genres for instructors. Plays have speakers like poems, plots like fiction, and scenes like films, but without the benefit of stanzas, narrators, and shots to help guide readers. While plays from the Renaissance and earlier often have prologues to help set initial scenes and introduce characters, readers are largely left on their own to navigate the worlds of plays and the characters that inhabit them. One of the puzzling facts about plays for students new to them is that they are written from the point of view of the stage rather than of the audience. As a result, trying to visualize character movement through dry stage directions like “walks up stage” can be quite difficult when a reader does not know which direction is “up.” While following the movement and action of characters on, say, an Absurdist stage that simply contains two characters, a tree, and a stump may not pose a particularly difficult challenge, most plays ask quite a bit more of readers. As even an experienced play reader will admit, keeping track of the placement of scenery and props, as well as characters and their movements, on a busy stage, not to mention a stage with scene changes, all while trying to read the dialogue can be a daunting task.
To help students visualize stage space, I often use a small group activity early in the semester or drama unit. It will require some willingness on at least one student per group to do some drawing, although not anything fancy, and students do not seem to mind a little shared artistic responsibility. For materials, each group only needs a piece of paper and a pencil (obviously easier to erase than pen).
- Assign the specific scene/set for the groups, generally after some warm-up about the play or even after the play has been discussed if issues with reading stage space arise.
- Have students sort out who is doing the close reading of the setting and character movements and who is handling the drawing before pencil gets to paper. As is the case with much small-group work, the delegation of roles will be the key to success. Equally important will be the need for students to be open to the interpretations of others to make this a group effort.
- Once the basic set design is drawn with props, an instructor can ask to have each group show their work. It might be a good idea to make sure every group is on the right track before moving on to the last step.
- Where are the characters? Now that the groups have drawn a set for a particular scene, have the groups do some blocking of the characters during a key passage. Simple diagrams or stick figures should do just fine. You can also have them use arrows or another indicator of characters’ movement in the scene. Interpretations may vary, and they can also be included in the drawing up to a point. A picture full arrows and lines would probably defeat the purpose of visualizing the stage.
Variations could be using space on the board if the room and class size can accommodate it, and, time and tech permitting, students could use a free drawing program like SVG Edit that works right in a browser with no need to download software. How many sets the students draw depends on the complexity of the play’s staging, as well as how much difficulty students in a class are having with navigating dramatic texts. As a result, all the groups could work on the same set if it is complex or challenging, or each group could work on an individual set for plays with multiple locations. Classes can also revisit this exercise during work on an individual play for reminders and clarification and/or use the exercise for each play covered. In addition, having students map out the stage space can also be the springboard for student interpretations of setting and directions. How far up is “up”? The answer is up to students’ productions of plays taking place in their own minds, a realization that can be a rewarding teaching and learning experience.