Making the Invisible Visible
Theater Games for any Discipline
a book review by Stephen Haff
No matter what you’re teaching, have a copy of Viola Spolin’s Theater Games for the Classroom on hand. This classic has inspired teachers and students across many disciplines by providing highly adaptable, fundamental exercises that establish a cooperative, focused learning environment.
Spolin describes hundreds of simple games in straightforward, clear language, accompanied by notes in the margins on how to coach kids during the activity. Built into each game are questions for reflection and evaluation that help participants assess their own learning by value-neutral methods. The catalogue is organized according to types of games (“Warm-Ups,” “Senses,” “Mirror,” “Words”) and cross-referenced according to curriculum area. An extensive bibliography offers teachers further resources on writing, acting, puppetry and stories and fables. For drama teachers, there’s extensive help with putting together a formal production of a play.
The applications to English are readily apparent. For example, one game asks a team of students to communicate a specific setting, character or relationship to the rest of the class without using words or physical objects. “Show us Times Square at midnight,” might be the challenge. The exclusion of words requires focus on the task of inhabiting a place or person, much as we do when imagining what we read in a book. Students who have trouble making the connection between words on a page and pictures in their minds can benefit from the practice of what Spolin calls, “making the invisible visible.”
But why should English have all the fun? In your science classroom, students could inhabit a rainforest, or in social studies, create a living Egyptian palace. By drawing upon bodily or spatial intelligence, students might register and retain the experience more meaningfully than they would through traditional chalkboard notes or textbooks. Spolin also asks students simply to write a favorite word as big as possible or as small as possible, using the entire body to communicate on paper, to “feel” the word as an extension of self — a natural for art class. She brings a class together for “choral reading,” unified and even sung group expression of a non-musical text, an experience of the communal power of words. Music teachers? Any text can be used. I’m thinking of a passage, say, about wolves, howled by a pack of high school sophomores.
Language exploration becomes both sophisticated and silly with the use of gibberish, or spontaneously invented non-languages. With Spolin’s guidance, you can help students feel the frustration of colonial Europeans and Native Americans attempting to understand each other by replacing the real languages with your own consistent, non-overlapping sound sets. One group might only get to use consonants, the other only vowels.
Mirror games, such as one in which one group of students follows a leader’s subtle gestures and another group must deduce who the leader is by observation, sharpen students perceptive abilities and concentration. Try it in physical education class to promote team cohesion or awareness of strategic patterns.
Another basic principle at work here is problem solving, the heart of mathematical thinking. Every game poses a problem to be solved. How can three people show the audience a clearly recognizable, functioning subway train, for instance, if none of the three can use his or her hands and nobody is allowed to speak? This exercise also highlights the cooperative nature of the work, a quality inherent in theater that is much sought-after in other subject classrooms. Reshape this game asking a team of kids to solve an algebraic problem without pencil or paper or speech, by manipulating bodies or objects found in the room, or by placing the problem in the context of a dramatic conflict that depends on its solution and which they must act out. The constraint not only focuses students on the heart of the thinking process by removing its familiar trappings, but spices up the task with playful urgency. Even if the games don’t explicitly use algebra, they do hone problem-solving skills and build a base for algebraic work.
If this all sounds too easy, if you’ve tried implementing improvisational games into your curriculum and faced a room full of fearful, blank stares, Spolin gives wise counsel on how to coax reluctant kids into action. She advocates patience and respect for individual choice in a way that’s very reassuring and practical.
I’m an English teacher in a notoriously “difficult” Brooklyn high school where the need to be seen as “cool” or “gangsta” can inhibit students’ performative instincts. They don’t want to look stupid or feel they’re playing kiddy games. How we negotiate that psychological terrain is up to us and the specific kids we work with. I let the kids choose the settings and characters and conflicts and parameters for the games, or they pull scenes from whatever book we happen to be reading in class. Maybe it’s The Autobiography of Malcolm X. What would happen if Malcolm X would have talked back to his racist, condescending English teacher in eighth grade, instead of walking away, seething inside? Show us the classroom, Malcolm Little, the only black kid, and the teacher towering over him. No words. Or, you have to sing everything. Or, you can only use your face to express yourself. When they get to modify, and therefore control the exercise, they can ensure they’re not being subjected to something beneath their level of maturity. In fact, the big reason I strongly advocate the use of Spolin’s book is that it’s meant to be changed to suit your specific needs and situation. Like all great works, its basic message is simple and elegant and versatile: nurture intuition, cooperation and problem solving. Specific step-by-step guidelines are there for those who want them, but I have never used them exactly as written, because they suggest so many other exciting and unique possibilities for my kids. The book is a blueprint and an invitation.
What’s more, this is a deeply humane book, an important antidote to whatever the latest educational fad might be. The author’s compassion for children, her embrace of all learning styles, and her trust in the native ability of each student to work things out are liberating. They encourage teachers, too, to trust our instincts, and to play.
Stephen Haff has been teaching English and drama at Bushwick High School in Brooklyn for five years. He is the founder and director of Real People Theater (RPT), a Bushwick student company that reworks classic and modern plays to create an authentic “Brooklyn” voice. RPT has performed all over New York City at colleges and professional theaters, and as far away as Vermont, Toronto, Los Angeles and Chicago, and has been profiled in The Village Voice, The Brooklyn Rail and The Chicago Reader. RPT is also the official apprentice company to the world-famous Wooster Group. For more information about RPT, email email@example.com.