Let’s lead with some obvious advice: great drama classes are fun. Defined largely by games, activities and an overarching sense of play, they are joyous and fulfilling activities that will often educate students without them ever realising they were learning. However, for this very reason, drama classes can feel chaotic for some less experienced teachers to plan and facilitate. They will often struggle to maintain a balance between ‘fun’ and ‘structure’, and results can range from creativity-stifling austerity to an impromptu enactment of “Lord Of The Flies”.
Thankfully, there are many effective strategies one can employ when teaching a drama class. This article details seven important concepts that will help you plan your lesson, set the tone of your room and maintain that all-important ‘fun’/’structure’ balance.
Plan Your Lesson Well…
You can not do enough preparation before you step into a drama class. Know exactly what the structure of your lesson will be and what you expect your students to get out of it. Then make a habit of writing out a lesson plan—listing all activities and the time they will take to perform. With older groups, this might be information you want to share with them directly at the start of each class: try telling them what you intend to cover so they know what to expect. This will make them feel a part of the larger plan and not as though they are simply taking orders from a teacher.
Students will always respond well to structure, and it will lend your voice an authority if they believe that the lesson isn’t just tumbling out of your head as you go. And if the students know your lessons well enough to request certain games or activities … don’t fall into the habit of taking requests. It might win you some points in the short-term, but students knowing they have control over the structure of your classes will eventually erode the legitimacy of what you plan each week. A good compromise is to promise a favourite game or exercise at the end of each class if all other work is completed: then requests can be taken, but it is at the behest of the students to complete your own set tasks first.
…But Be Prepared To Adapt
That said, there will be times when your careful lesson plans just won’t work. This can happen if you are teaching an unfamiliar group of students (which can make gauging their level of engagement more difficult), or if your students bring their day’s energy and mood—good or bad—into the room (as children always do). Have some alternative exercises ready in case something is clearly not holding their interest: for instance, you might want to swap out a meditation exercise for a more active game if they’re riding a high wave of energy and lacking focus.
Do remember that changing your lesson plan isn’t always a sign that a class is going poorly. Some groups may breeze through what you suspected could be a more difficult exercise, so it can be helpful to have a complimenting activity up your sleeve. You can also think of different variations or degrees of difficulty for a particular if you wish to make it more challenging.
While your lessons will change from week to week, it is always helpful to start each session with an identical short warm-up routine. This gives your students a chance to ‘leave their day at the door’, decompress and find some focus for the lesson ahead.
Start with some high-energy physical warm-ups to get the blood pumping and bring their energy up in the room. After that, move into some slower breathing and vocal warm-ups that require more concentration—older groups may also benefit from a short guided meditation or a ‘stretch and share’, where each participant demonstrates a physical stretch and talks to the group on an agreed-upon topic. Finally, one last high-energy warm-up builds momentum and excitement for the first task of the lesson.
Much of your success in a drama class is about building the tone of the room: warm-ups can still be fun, but they do signify to students that the time to work and be engaged is upon them. This is also a great tactic for getting students to let go of a bad day or mood prior to starting class: this short window of low-stakes activity can allow students to put any baggage they may be carrying aside without asking them to jump straight into more demanding activities.
Keep Your Material Fresh, Keep Your Material Building
In short: learn the rules of some theatre games and then learn to run them really, really well. Unless you are preparing for an end of term/semester/year performance, the majority of your time in class will be spent running different games and activities, so keep track of which ones your class plays well, and try to introduce new ones every few weeks that build upon the same basic skills the previous helped develop. In addition to keeping your lessons fun and fresh, this is also the logical progression towards more ‘serious’ drama activities such as writing, devising or scene work: introduce the games that will teach the foundational skills required for such activities in the weeks leading up. This will help you avoid a clunky gear change from ‘play’ to ‘work’.
It is a good idea to keep a personal database of drama games and their learning outcomes as part of your own teaching resources. Look for new activities you can add to your repertoire in textbooks, on the internet, working with other practitioners, at developments or rehearsals and even from students that may wish to share a game they know from elsewhere with the class.
Treat Your Students Like Colleagues
The relationship between drama teacher and the student must always be founded on respect, and it is doubly important that this be on a mutual level. The class should feel valued for their contributions, not only as students but as artists with voices of their own. Think about the kind of dynamic you can share in an open, inclusive rehearsal room or workshop, and try to instil that same nurture and respect. Treating your students as valued colleagues in an artistic collaboration will make them feel as though they can—and they should—offer you their best.
Of course, this is not to say that you should be informal, or try to operate on the same level as students—trying to appeal to them as an equal is a surefire way to lose your authority in a class. But your students do need to know that if they speak to you as an artist, you’ll respond in kind. Even though you still maintain the position of power in the room.
Know What You’re Talking About
Speaking of respect: think back on your career to every oblique director’s note, every vague exercise at drama school, every rehearsal or short-film-shoot where you were called early and sat for hours. Remember how polite you were and how you kept your opinions to yourself? Your students will never spare you the same embarrassment. Be ready for questions about why certain activities are being performed. Be ready for questions as to why a different game isn’t being played. Be ready for questions on whether or not a student has to participate if they already know this, or find it too hard, or boring, or they’re tired. Be ready for a lot of questions.
Teaching requires you to have direct answers to the kinds of questions you’d never normally hear an artist (or, sometimes, a polite person) ask. And while that may sound confronting, it’s better to think of it as an opportunity to really consolidate your knowledge and opinions: students will appreciate the honesty and directness, even if you give them an answer they don’t like. The politeness of ‘foyer talk’ will simply not hold up in a drama class. And it won’t take long for you to find that extremely refreshing.
Nothing Is More Fun Than A Challenge
One final, all-important point: while fun is a vital ingredient in a great drama class, don’t forget that it doesn’t always translate to easy or simple. Fun can be found in the challenge of a new task or exercise, the responsibility of learning lines, the thrill of standing up in front of the class for the first time and speaking as a completely different person. For many students, this can provide the first real taste of what draws so many actors and creatives to their chosen craft—and what keeps us all coming back despite the sometimes challenging nature of the arts.
A great drama class is a safe, inclusive space that challenges participants, rewards their courage and lets their imaginations run wild. If you can provide this, your students will find their own fun along the way. It is never something you need to manufacture. So relax. Have fun with it.