If you’re new to teaching junior Drama and aren’t quite sure what to include in your course, here’s a few ideas. Of course, it all depends on how strict or forgiving your curriculum guidelines are, but I’ve found the following activities very worthwhile over the years at the junior Drama level:
Basic Expressive Skills
You may find at the start of secondary/high school, your Drama students have had varied experiences of what constitutes ‘Drama’ in primary/elementary school. Therefore, your junior Drama class may well be very mixed in their abilities. The important thing to remember at these levels is that everything is basic. Simple expressive skills such as mime, voice, movement and gesture can all be taught as separate curriculum units with their own set of activities. Throw focus in here for good measure as well, because without the skill of focusing on stage, your Drama students will be fighting an uphill battle.
Simple Theatre Genres
‘Genre’, from the French meaning ‘kind’ (type or category) is useful at junior Drama. If students have a basic understanding of different types of dramatic works, they will be well founded for more senior years. The easiest genres to explore in junior Drama are ones like comedy, fairytales, soap operas, tragedy and horror. It’s all a bit sexist, but it still rings true that boys love horror in Drama while the girls love fairytales and soap operas. These can be explored using a combination of students’ own scriptwriting (with teacher guidelines), working from published scripts or improvisation.
Scripts of course, are generally more formal in nature than improvisation, mainly due to the conventions present. Scripts have their own set of simple rules that need explaining to the students such as stage directions, character descriptions, basic plot structure (beginning, middle and an end), layout on the page etc. Readers Theatre is a form of drama involving the reading of scripts aloud among the group, instead of physically performing them. This can prove very worthwhile in getting students to grapple the expressive skill of voice. This is achieved via a certain sense of confidence and then varying the pace, rythym, tone and projection of the lines, learning to emphasise particular words over others to enhance meaning.
But students naturally want to perform their scripts, so turn the classroom into a performance space and watch some drama! Students at this level need to know being an audience member also involves the skills of being attentive, concentrating and being silent. I have a golden rule every day in my Drama classrooms – absolutely no talking while watching others perform. This rule is never to be broken, because it is about respect for others before we even get to considering the need for silence from a theatrical perspective.
When performing scripts at the junior level, understanding focus is crucial. If students giggle in the middle of their lines, then the belief in character by the actor has been broken. As a teacher, if you don’t get your students to achieve good focus in junior Drama, then you will be fighting a difficult battle in senior Drama a few years later.
Basic stage skills such as the need for movement and facing the audience whenever possible are also important at this level. These skills will not be learnt overnight and will require frequent reinforcement.
Students in junior Drama just love writing their own scripts, too. It’s a good idea to make them familiar with published scripts first, as they then have something to use as an example or guide. This will require structure from the teacher. Perhaps some tuition on how to write a script, the necessary ingredients of a successful script, the need for stage directions, a beginning, middle and end and interesting characters etc will prove worthwhile. You can of course tackle several topics at once, such as students scriptwriting in the genre of soap opera and including the conventions of a soap in their performance.
Improvisation involves acting without the use of scripts. In some parts of the world it is affectionately known as simply ‘improv’. Improvisation skills are vital in the junior Drama classroom. Students should acquire the skill of being able to think on the spot with little or no preparation. It makes a more flexible actor in the long run and really helps students’ confidence, because improv skills are challenging for many. Down the track in senior Drama, you want your students to be equally adept at both tackling a masterpiece of modern drama in a scripted performance and improvisation. A student with poor improv skills will falter when lines are lost on stage. The opposite will occur with a student with great improv skills. You’ll be amazed at how important improv skills really are when you see the results of them popping up in the most unusual places.
A more formal and very useful form of improv is Theatresports™ games. Students love Theatresports™ at the junior Drama levels and you could view this as a more sophisticated form of improv, once basic skills have been acquired.
The following are common curriculum units, topics, genres and themes for junior Drama levels:
- Fairytales / myths / legends
- Drama games of all kinds
- Using costumes in drama
- Mood and atmosphere
- Object transformation
- Theatre publicity (poster / programme / ticket designs)
- Basic characterisation
- Manipulating dialogue in the drama
- Vocal work
- Scripts and scene work
- Use of space
- Group-devised performance-making / playbuilding
- Puppet theatre
- Body language
- Soap operas