Definitions and Discussion of Important Terms

 

Below find some basic definitions and discussion of some important terms in Drama with and for Children--terms that will show up in the other discussions and lesson plans on this site.  This is by no means an exhaustive list. (It is also important to note that while my use of these terms is consistent with their accepted use within the academic discipline of Child Drama, in practice both Theatre and Education professionals will use a wide variety of terms in a wide variety of ways.)

 

Much of the information that follows comes from an article called Terminology of Drama/Theatre with and for Children: A Redefinition, by Jed H. Davis and Tom Behm, from Children's Theatre Review, XXV11, 1 (1978), reprinted in the book Theatre, Children and Youth, by Jed H. Davis and Mary Jane Evans. (Anchorage Press, Inc., revised edition, 1987.)

 

According to the Children's Theatre Association of America, one can look at all Dramatic activity as existing on a continuum with Drama in its Natural State (the kind of dramatic play all children, and indeed all humans engage in) at one extreme and formal Theatre at the other. Between the extremes we find Creative Drama and Participation Theatre. These forms do not exist as discreet disciplines, but rather as flexible points on a continuum. (In other words, a specific activity may have characteristics of Participation Theatre and of Creative Drama, and two observers may put the same activity in slightly different places on the line.) The distinctions between the various points on the continuum are drawn in part from the classical definitions of Drama (a thing done) and Theatre (to gaze). Basically the more the focus of Drama work is on the PROCESS of doing the work, the closer it is to Creative Drama, and the more the focus is on the PRODUCT-the performed work and its impact on an audience-the closer it is to formal Theatre. I personally believe that, in general, this continuum also reflects the minimum ages at which students can benefit most from particular activities. I do practically no formal theatre with my Kindergarteners, focusing entirely on PROCESS, and as students grow older, I do more and more presentational work. (I never stop doing the process-oriented work,though. Creative Drama is of benefit to every age.) In this I concur with Davis and Behm, who say in their definition of Theatre by Children and Youth, "preferably the performers are no younger than ten years old and have been well schooled by a director in their primary task of bringing the dramatic material to life for an audience."

 

CONTINUUM

 

Drama in its Natural State------------Creative Drama------------Participation Theatre------------Theatre

 

 

Here are some basic definitions, with discussion, again drawing heavily on the article by Davis and Behm:

 

CREATIVE DRAMA

"An improvisational, non-exhibitional, PROCESS-CENTERED form of drama in which participants are guided by a leader to imagine, enact, and reflect upon human experiences." (Davis and Behm-my emphasis.)

 

Creative Drama is not primarily concerned with teaching theatre skills, although this may of course occur. The purpose of Creative Drama is to use the natural dramatic impulse to facilitate learning in an unlimited number of fields and areas. Children naturally act out their perceptions, try out roles, and play "pretend." It is the primary way the very young learn about their world. (This is why, although I know no adults who enjoy vacuuming or cutting the lawn, you can go to any toy store and buy toy vacuums and mowers. Children are "trying on" adult roles.) Creative Drama structures this kind of activity so that students can explore topics experientially. Aristotle said, "Tell me and I will forget. Show me and I will remember. INVOLVE me and I will understand." Creative Drama can foster personality growth and self-esteem. It can help children learn to work together and to think creatively. It is often a classic problem-solving exercise. It builds language and communication skills better than just about any other activity in school (often including English class). It promotes empathy by letting students step into others' shoes. It can also be used as a tool to teach literally any other subject, if lessons are carefully designed. Whenever I can, I try to support the curriculum of my students in other subjects. What's wonderful about this is that since every Creative Drama lesson necessarily involves subject content of one kind or another, you can usually design a lesson around a non-dramatic curricular topic without compromising the dramatic content of the lesson at all.

 

Creative Drama is also sometimes called "Creative Dramatics" or "Creative Play."

 

NARRATIVE PANTOMIME

A form of classroom drama in which an instructor reads or tells a narrative story and the children, each on his or her own, acts out the story in pantomime.  The form is useful in many variations and contexts.

 

THEATRE FOR YOUNG AUDIENCES

"The performance of a largely predetermined theatrical art work by living actors in the presence of an audience of young people. . ." (Davis and Behm.)

 

TYA is formal Theatre. Ideally the performers are skilled actors and the production is overseen by skilled and trained directors and technical staff. The story line can be drawn from history, literature for children, folk and fairy tales or real life issues important to young people. When most people think of Theatre for Young Audiences they think of fairy tales, presented with lots of bright colors and peppy music, but while such entertainment has a place in the field, TYA can be much more. Contemporary playwrights are becoming ever more aware that children can handle--indeed, should handle--sophisticated ideas and serious issues. Children's plays are being written today that challenge young audiences both by their subject matter and by their theatricality. In my own work as a playwright I try to do this.

 

For me, the most important thing Theatre for Young Audiences should be is ABOUT children. Children live in an increasingly complex world, and their real concerns deserve to be addressed. As much as I enjoy the old Disney animated films, for example, the fact is that most familiar fairy tales really aren't about children--they're about young adults. In addition to promoting blatantly sexist values, stories like Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty and Rapunzel are about first love. Children who have not reached puberty can understand and think about sexual love--they know it exists intellectually, and can readily accept it as a plot device--but in a real sense they cannot EMPATHIZE with it. It does not mean anything on a purely personal level. I have no problem with presenting stories that involve sexual love--or even sex itself, if it comes to that--for young people, but when the CENTRAL CONFLICT of a story is sexual love, I don't know that kids really become as totally involved as I want them to. (I think this is why the classic Disney films all have added comic characters--the mice in Cinderella, for example--who take much of the focus off the central story. In any case those films were not necessarily originally intended for child audiences.) I like best those children's plays with real CHILD PROTAGONISTS, although certainly there are important stories we should be telling that don't have them. I also like stories whose protagonists are truly ACTIVE. Sleeping Beauty does nothing to bring about the denouement of her story--it happens TO her. An active protagonist makes things happen, and addresses the conflict of the story directly. This is empowering for a child audience.

 

A word about selecting plays: Just because children are excited and enthusiastic in the auditorium during a production, it does not necessarily follow that the play is as good as it should be. It is exciting to go to a real theatre. It is exciting to get out of class. We owe it to children to select the very best material we can. Pioneering Drama teacher Lin Wright was quoted at her retirement party as saying (with characteristic frankness), "If you give children nothing but shit, they will come to love shit." I take this to mean in part that in the absence of anything deeper, children will latch onto whatever they can get in the way of entertainment. (Witness the horrifying popularity of Barney--one of the worst written, worst acted shows in television history.) Often I hear adults leaving the theatre say, in essence, "I thought it was kind of dull, but the kids seemed to like it." As a rule of thumb, if you think it's dull and insipid, it is. Children deserve better.

 

CHILDREN'S THEATRE

This is often used as a synonym for the less familiar but more accurate term "Theatre for Young Audiences." I use it that way myself often. ("Children's Theatre" is the first seach meta tag on this site, largely because I suspect many people looking for children's plays will not think to type "Theatre for Young Audiences" into their browsers or search engines.) The problem is that the term "Children's Theatre" is also often used as a synonym for Theatre BY Children or, indeed, used to mean anything that involves both Theatre and children. Still, this is the more familiar term for TYA, and I can't do anything about it.  (This kind of theatre is also sometimes called "family theatre," but I personally hate that term, largely because the word "family" has been hijacked by the Christian Right and now tends to mean something a lot more specific than simply "intended for children.")

 

CHILDREN'S PLAY

A play written to be performed for children, usually by skilled actors. This term has the same problem as the term "Children's Theatre," in that it is also used to describe plays performed by children, but I use it anyway because I can't figure out an efficient alternative. "I write children's plays" is just much neater than "I write Plays for Young Audiences." Plus this is still the term used in virtually all play catalogues.

 

PARTICIPATION THEATRE

This is a special case of Theatre for Young Audiences (or for adults, for that matter.) It consists of "the presentation of specially written, adapted or devised drama with an established story line constructed to involve limited and structured opportunities for active involvement by all or part of the audience.  Participation may range from simple verbal responses to an active role in the outcome of the drama.." (Davis and Behm.)  Usually this kind of Theatre is done with very young children, but it is becoming increasingly popular in adult theatre. (The Mystery of Edwin Drood, Shear Madness, Tony and Tina's Wedding.)  Lots of (mostly bad) children's plays ask the audience to make sound effects, join in songs, and the like. More ambitious participation theatre is constructed so the audience actually determines the outcome of the play--as in the above examples--or directly takes part (in role) in the action.

 

I'll be honest: I really don't like Participation Theatre for children. The idea is very exciting, and if it is done well it can be very effective. The problem is that it is almost never done well. Typically playwrights or producers "cheat" to be sure of the outcome they want. The classic example of Participation Theatre is the scene in Peter Pan in which Tinkerbell is dying and Peter announces that if enough children clap their hands, she will get well.  A Christopher Durang character tells her psychiatrist of an early childhood trauma viewing Peter Pan.  She clapped her hands as loud as she could, but the actress playing Peter announced that the children had not clapped hard enough, and Tinkerbell was dead.  Of course we know no real Theatre would ever do that, but that's just the point: if the outcome is predetermined--Tinkerbell will live no matter who claps--then the children are not really affecting the story, and they have been, in a sense, cheated. (I should note for the record that I love the play Peter Pan--I'm just not sure about that one scene.) Even when the actors truly intend to incorporate the children's suggestions, often they are only prepared for a limited range of suggestions. As I see it, if an actor says, "what should we do now, kids?" she should be prepared to do what they suggest, but usually a company rehearses only a few options. (An instructor of mine once told a story about a production he had seen, in which suggestions were solicited from the audience. Lots of creative suggestions were made, but apparently not any of the ones the company was prepared for. The actors politely acknowledged each suggestion, but indicated that they might not work. Finally one of the actors PRETENDED to hear the suggestion he was looking for. "What did you say? Did you say we should. . ." This is dishonest and unfair to the audience.) What it comes down to is that beyond very simple kinds of participation--everybody make the sound of the wind--it is extremely difficult to construct honest participation theatre. When it works, though, it is great.

 

ROLE DRAMA

This is probably the dramatic form best suited for use as a teaching tool for other subjects, particularly history, social studies, etc.  In fact, many good classroom teachers use role drama in their classrooms without even realizing it.  In role drama, students take on specific, defined roles--usually real historical characters (or types, such as generic migrant laborers or generic legislators) or similar characters from a work of literature--and those characters are places in a specific defined context, but then the students, based on what they know or believe about their characters, determine the outcome.  Perhaps a concrete example will best illustrate the technique.  A friend of mine who teaches Middle School American History does a wonderful project in her unit on the creation of the U.S. Constitution.  BEFORE students read the actual constitution, each is assigned the role of an actual member of the Constitutional Convention.  Students research their characters and the concerns of their states, and then they all come together to debate and create a Constitution.  That in itself is a valuable education in the parliamentary process and how it works (or doesn't).  Then the document they come up with is compared to the real thing, which leads to many more productive discussions.  One can do a similar thing with a work of literature, which can be a great way to explore characters' motivations, authors' themes, etc.  When done with more advanced students, role drama can also be a powerful acting tool, because it forces them to fully inhabit characters who are different from themselves.  (This is difficult for kids younger than high school, though--in the project mentioned above, the resulting constitution invariably treats women, blacks, and Native Americans far better than the real document did, because the kids argue their own personal opinions instead of those of their characters--and when one really does make an honest effort to stay in role, his classmates sometimes resent him--they have a hard time separating his character's beliefs from his own.)

 

THEATRE BY CHILDREN AND YOUTH

This term applies to any formal Theatre performed by young people, and particularly to Theatre for Young Audiences performed by young people. (As opposed to the High School musical, which is performed by young people but largely for adults--their parents.) One of the most successful things you can do with High School actors is to perform a children's play for the younger children in the community. Children are a wonderful, responsive audience. It is VERY IMPORTANT, however, to make sure that your young actors are ready to be really professional, because you owe it to your audience. Ordinarily when I direct a High School play, my primary objective--whatever I say to the kids--is to give the performers a positive theatrical experience. But when I direct a children's play I have an additional and equally important objective--to give the audience a positive theatrical experience. Many schools (and indeed many professional companies) see the annual children's play as a sort of training ground for actors not quite ready for "real" theatre. I can't tell you how angry this makes me. By all means do a children's play with your high school group, but treat it like the most important play of the season.

 

Left to my own devices, I would almost never do Theatre by Children and Youth with kids much younger than Middle School. Formal Theatre is necessarily and by definition primarily concerned with PRODUCT. The repetition and rote memorization necessary to do a good play provide an inefficient learning experience and are unnecessarily stressful for young children. It is inefficient because once all of the lines and blocking have been experienced and understood, any further repetition (rehearsal) is devoid of new learning, and it is stressful because it "must" be "perfect" by a (usually) specific, predetermined time.  PROCESS oriented Creative Drama is more appropriate. That said, I did formal theatre to a limited degree with all of my elementary classes when I taught at that level. You probably do too, if you teach elementary school kids. It is unavoidable--the "class play" is an expected part of most drama teachers' duties. When I am faced with the necessity of doing a formal play with very young children, I try to make it as much about PROCESS as I can. If possible, I have the kids write their own plays--usually from existing stories from their curriculum--and to a limited extent also direct them. This means I have less time to spend "rehearsing," which is good for the kids but potentially bad for the end quality of the performance, so I have to carefully balance pleasing the parents at the performance with serving the students well. If I could get away with it, I would have the students IMPROVISE their performance rather than memorize specific lines, but so far that has never worked.

 

A note about directing: In many schools, the school play is directed by a volunteer faculty member with no formal training, whose only qualification, if any, is that they "did some Theatre" in school. This is a bad thing. The same people would never dream of volunteering to, say, conduct the orchestra on the basis of having played clarinet in High School. Directing Theatre is every bit as specialized a skill as conducting an orchestra, but for some reason nearly everyone who has ever acted in a play assumes they know how to do it. I know that many schools do not have the budget to hire a Drama teacher, and I applaud the enthusiasm of those who volunteer to create an extracurricular Drama experience for their students. But this enthusiasm can be misapplied. I am going to make an extreme statement: In many (certainly not all) cases, doing no school play at all would be better than doing a really poorly directed one.  If you are going to direct the school (or any) play, at the very least get a good directing manual and study hard. I believe a substantial percentage of the adults in the world who say they "hate the Theatre" were involved in unhappy experiences with Theatre as kids. Administrators might also consider hiring a freelance director to direct the school play. It's much cheaper than hiring a full-time drama teacher, and if one or more interested faculty volunteers work closely with her/him, they may be able to take over after a year or two. (I did this kind of work for several years before returning to Grad School and a full-time teaching position.)

 

THEATRE IN EDUCATION, or TIE

This is a British form gradually appearing in the U.S.--mostly from Canada. TIE is sort of a hybrid of Theatre and Creative Drama. It is usually a complex program involving some formal performance by professional actor-teachers, some classroom Creative Drama work, and an opportunity for all the participants to interact with the professional performers IN ROLE. Usually the outcome is not predetermined, and in well constructed TIE, the actor-teachers will go ANYWHERE the children take them--they are not constrained by a limited number of "versions."  A classic British TIE project put school children in role as miners and owners on both sides of a labor dispute and had REAL debates. If the miners decided to strike, they struck.  If the owners decided to bring in scabs, the company accommodated them.  TIE is very complex, but very effective if done well. (I really don't know a lot about this form, although the company I performed with at the Philadelphia Zoo for several years does it in a limited way. I'd love to hear from folks who are doing this kind of work or who would like to take a stab at writing a more comprehensive discussion of it.)

 

SIDE COACHING

The technique of giving hints, instruction or guidance to students while they are engaged in an activity without stopping the activity.  Drama teachers do a lot of this, especially when many small groups are working independently on a project.  Teachers side coach to keep students on track, to resolve conflict, to make suggestions, etc.