"Taking the Trauma out of Drama"
Script-less techniques for performing skits, dramas and with puppets
in the Drama Workshop
A Drama Workshop article by Neil MacQueen
This article introduces the "over-projection" technique,
which is described in more detail here. It also talks about how to use the "Newsroom" "Breaking News" drama format for a fun presentation style.
I sort of cringe every time I see a photo or video of children "dramatizing" a Bible story by standing and reading from a multi-page script. Their bodies are rigid. Their eyes are downward fixed on the paper. And their voices are monotone. Not especially memorable, fun, or multiple-intelligence informed.
I also sort of cringe when dramatizing Bible stories require too much teacher set-up time, props, and staging/rehearsal. Such things don't leave much time for reflecting.
I feel sorry for the kids who don't read well, or at all, and who don't like standing exposed in front of their peers. Many kids are self-conscious about both things.
And I feel cheated when a drama script is simply a STIFF RE-CAP of the story, offering few if any insights or teachable moments.
So what do you do?
Over the years, I've experimented with a number of techniques and formats to address my concerns and break away from the tyranny of scripts. I've also scoured the great ideas here at Rotation.org, looking for scripts and techniques that "do drama without trauma" to the kids, the teachers, the lesson time, or the story itself.
What follows is a list of ideas, suggestions and links to lesson plans. I invite you to post your questions and ideas.
1. Divide the Acting and Narrating Responsibilities
This insight came from doing puppet lessons where some kids focused on "acting out," while others (and the teaching staff) provided the narration. This frees the actors from looking at paper, and makes them "listen" more carefully for their cues. Listening requires focus, and focus is a requirement for memory formation. Read further to see how this plays out in the "Self-stick Newsroom" technique.
2. Turn Off the Overhead Lights
I love how the Shadow Puppet and Blacklight drama techniques here at Rotation.org, turn off the lights in the classroom --and bring special light to the action.
Funny thing about special lighting, it calms and focuses the kids' attention. Special lighting sends a "signal" to the kids that it's "time to focus and get it right." And perhaps most importantly, I've seen how certain "dark" or special lighting methods create a degree of anonymity that allows kids, especially older ones, to act in front of their peers without feeling self-conscious.
3. Turn kids into puppets or actors, not readers.
There are several ways to do this.
- Shadow puppeting with puppets or live actors
- Selfie-stick drama "Breaking News" ...the Newsroom technique
The rest of this article will describe the above techniques.
If you have more, please post them!
Shadow Puppeting and Blacklighting
I like turning the kids into the puppets (posing/dramatizing) behind the screen or in the cool-dark of blacklight for two reasons:
a. The screen and shadow light source provide a degree of anonymity, which reduces self-consciousness. Making them glow-in-the-dark under blacklight has a cool factor too. Luanne Payne here at Rotation.org has been a pioneer in this technique. Read her how-to articles. You can also see a great blacklight lesson in the Writing Team's "Pentecost: Wind, Fire, Faith!" lesson set.
b. Acting/posing is a form of kinesthetic (movement) learning. Literally, our motions enhance the memory formation, in a way that standing rigid with a script cannot.
Sunday School teachers have long used movement, song actions, etc., --which are a whole lot easier to do when you don't have a script in your hands, ...and don't have your peers staring at you.
See a longer description of Over Projecting here.
"Over-projecting" is my name for a video projecting technique I've experimented in several different ways over the years. It shares some of the same insights and reasons for doing shadow puppets and blacklight drama. It takes the pressure off of the kids and teacher because it uses existing video content --into which your kids step and with which your kids interact, ...while you videotape the action.
Over-projecting is when you project a Bible video, music video, or set of pictures onto the wall --which the kids step into and act out.
You can use movies, animations, YouTube music videos, still images of Bible scenes. Whatever you project, the kids can interact with.
Below are two girls acting out lyrics from a Mercy Me music video, "I Can Only Imagine."
The first time I ever did this it was like an epiphany...
I had a cheesy 10 minute David and Goliath video (which I didn't like very much, but it's what we had back in the pre-internet days). We watched it first, discussed it, then assigned roles. I projected the video from my DVD player through my LCD projector onto the wall, and told my actors to "jump in and act out the parts" --trying to stay in sync with what was happening on the wall behind them. Their attempts at lip-syncing, and inevitably realizing they were out of sync and needed to move/match/catchup to the screen actors was not only hilarious, they asked to do it again (repetition!). And what were they focused on lip-syncing? The video's script.
Evolving the idea to include music videos...
A few years later I saw a YouTube music video that featured people holding poster-board signs DURING the song. The signs reflected on what the singer was singing about. That gave me the idea to project another Christian music video onto the wall (which didn't have kids with posters in it) and have my kids MAKE the posters and step into the video on cue with the lyrics. Essentially, we made the song our script, and the song's graphic our stage. We rehearsed then videotaped their performance over-projection performance. The poster prep was teaching gold. The song stuck in our brains. And they were transfixed watching themselves on video. It was also a great way to introduce and discuss some of the terrific Christian songs being written today.
The "posters in the music video" idea actually came from several music videos I've seen on YouTube produced by the artist to sell the song. It's a great way to quickly add comments/captions to lyrics and scenes in the video. Of course, what to write is fodder for lesson discussion!
As a member of the Rotation.org Writing Team, I've been part of several Video-Drama lessons now that use music videos in this way.... kids interacting with them, holding signs, etc. Great way to include MUSIC in our teaching and music is an awesome memory hook.
Here's one WT lesson, The Emmaus Story Video~Music Workshop, in which we use Mercy Me's famous "I Can Only Imagine" music video (one produced by a fan) with this over-projection technique.
Another light-inspired moment...
During one projection drama, I noticed one of the kids had a white t-shirt on, which caused the projection to appear on his shirt and make him appear like he was "in" the video. So the next time we did it, I had a teach VIDEOTAPE the over-projection performance so the kids could see themselves in the music video. They LOVED that. White t-shirts are inexpensive costumes too. So, in 2017, I took this "music video over-projection" idea and turned it into a Writing Team lesson video for the WT's Jesus Heals the Ten Lepers drama workshop. They act out the powerful lyrics of an awesome contemporary Christian song. See the kids wearing white t-shirts?
FYI: I turned the "posters" idea into another kind of drama workshop that had them presenting "Yay," "Boo" "Huh?" posters to a creative scripture reading. (It's actually an old youth group idea we updated.) You can see a great example of this in the Writing Team's Judges Drama Workshop, and one for the genealogy of Jesus in the public Advent forum.
Update: The Writing Team just wrote a Road to Emmaus Video-Drama Workshop that turns Mercy Me's "I Can Only Imagine" video into a great "over projection" project.
One of the first big improvements to the Rotation Model's Drama Workshop concept was what many call the "TV Newsroom." In this type of drama, you actually DO have actors reading from scripts as they look into the camera --hamming it up as if they were local news broadcasters and reporters in the field. The script gets posted behind the camera like a "tele-prompter" (on a flipchart or chalkboard). In preparation for the newscast, the students can be involved in the creation of the script too.
Non-readers can practice their responses without the use of a script. Only the teacher or a helpful teen is needed to make sure the narrative is followed and questions are asked.
And they love being videotaped, then watching themselves. The playback becomes reinforcement and an opportunity for further discussion.
FYI: There's a great "Channel 7 Breaking News" lesson and script in the "Jesus is Born!" lesson set.
The secret sauce in the newsroom: A working microphone and "tele-prompter." Kids love pretending they are on TV, and I'm no longer amazed how the presence of microphone gets their attention and cues them to start talking. Adding a "tele-prompter" solves the "what to say" issue too.
Notice in the photo above that my students are looking at something OTHER than my camera. They're reading their scripted lines that we have projected onto the wall using an overhead projector! Kids act better when their head isn't buried in a script. Projecting the script on the wall was also more and "tele-prompter-like" which is playful to the kids. The more imaginative their "play" the better the drama. Non-readers, of course, can't read a "teleprompter," but an older child or helpful teen can. The non-readers can listen and respond, and act out as cued by the reporter or broadcast. (Tip: The video camera's record-pause button is your friend.)
You can use flipchart sheets, butcher paper, and chalkboards as your "tele-prompter." Just remember to include the kids in the script development process (such as, asking them to fill out certain answers).
The Newsroom gives you many different kinds of "roles" for many different kinds of kids. Some kids need to have a script, and others just want to act and make noise, which is okay. Some are good at remembering an answer to a question that the reporter will "read out of their notebook." Others need to be the reporter with "what to say" in front of them.
The Newsroom does need a script, but only certain actors use it. See a great "News Team 7" script the Writing Team wrote for its Birth of Jesus drama workshop.
Using a Selfie-Stick to Get "Up Close and Personal" or shoot "aerial" from your news helicopter
One of the most "freeing" and playful things we ever did to the newsroom concept happened when iPhones became our "go to" video camera, and selfie-sticks were invented. The teacher puts their iPhone at the end of the self-stick, and can then swing it in any direction, doing close-ups of some action being acted out, catching "bystander reaction" and doing "Chopper Five" fly-overs of the Biblical scene. The controlled chaos of being able to move the camera around like this sort of puts the kids "on the spot" to act when the camera comes in close to them. More importantly, it works. The video camera on the end of a self-stick also allows you to get close to their facial expressions, which they will naturally ham-up when the camera comes close. In effect, the camera becomes the prompter to get them from just standing there. ...And they love those chopper sounds, breathless chopper reporting, and fly-ins!
Heard: The sound of your news helicopter (a student beating their tummy)
Camera: "Flying" on a selfie-stick with the reporter "off camera" for part of the report.
Reporter: "We're live here at the home of Peter, and what's that? Someone is digging through the roof ...and lowering a man down through it. Let's get some reaction from the crowd.... And what do you have to say Jesus? Let's interview the guy on the roof. Back to you in the newsroom."
A group of protesters has arrived on the scene carrying signs. Tell me sir, what does your sign say, ...what does it mean?
Technically speaking, Readers Theater is very script-centric, but because it is done from a seated position, it takes the trauma of having to act on your feet out of the equation. Read more about this technique here at rotation.org.
Final Thoughts on Taking the Trauma out of Drama
Many years ago at Rotation.org we took a poll about "which workshop was the most difficult to pull off." The clear winner (loser?) was Drama. Expanding your techniques and getting away from "stand and read" will help.
But let me leave you with this one last tip: Your drama teacher has to be playful and great on the fly. No sense taking the "rigidity" out of your drama if it's going to be led by a stiff teacher.
I hope some of these examples inspire you to "take the trauma out of drama" in your Sunday School. These techniques are a blast to teach with, and can be used with a wide age range.
Related and Helpful Links:
Neil MacQueen is a Presbyterian minister and long-time contributor to Rotation.org. He was also one of the lead writers in the Rotation.org Writing Team's Renovation Project.