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We are a group of friends/parents that run a not-for-profit cultural association in Spain.
This is our (bilingual!) blog about our theatre workshops for kids...

jueves, 1 de marzo de 2012

Soap Operas - an improvisation activity for small to large groups

This is an adaptation of an activity I developed for the ESL classroom that lends itself brilliantly to the drama classroom. It's great for small to larger groups of adolescents or adults and can be extended over a various classes (in fact, if it goes well, it can run and run). 
In terms of basic materials, you need a variety of photos of faces (lots of contrast needed!) plus other images (houses, cars, furniture) as the activity develops. 
It's a way to work on character development and practise improvisation techniques. And if you go into more depth, of exploring concepts like conflict, dramatic tension, suspense etc.

To construct a kind of 'collective soap opera' that will unfold spontaneously (and rather unpredictably!) as the characters develop and interact. 
Stage 1:

Present the group with lots of photos of all sorts of faces, taken from magazines, Google images, family albums (!) etc. This requires a bit effort on the part of the group leader but it's well worth going to the trouble of finding as wide a range (in terms of age, race, 'beauty' etc) as possible. The rest of the activity will practically run itself so all the hard work now will pay off later.

1. As a group, discuss some of the photos and the 'first impressions' you get from them. Begin to explore how we use physical appearance to build a character but in broad 'brushstrokes'; without going into too much detail.
  • Do they seem like a good person? A bad one? Friendly? Grumpy?
  • Do first impressions count? Can you judge a 'book' by its 'cover'?
  • Lead into a discussion of physical appearance and the role played in a play or film. What do 'baddies' look like, for example? And romantic leads?
  • Discuss the photos: who looks most like... a young heartthrob; an evil stepmother; a wise teacher etc. etc?
2. As a group, make a selection of photos to work with.
This can be done in any number of ways: each student chooses 2 or 3 that stand out for them. Or one they like and one they don't etc. Try to avoid the students identifying too much with a particular photo at this stage (which is why they need to choose more than one). Eventually, they will select a photo to develop into a character but the activity is more rewarding (and educational) if the selection process is slower. So at this stage, it's just about gradually reducing the photo pool.

Next, in pairs or as individuals, get the group to come up with a short, basic description of their various 'characters':
  • What's their name?
  • How old are they?
  • Have they had a hard life or a privileged one?
  • Do they work? What do they do?
  • And above all, what is their personality like? Are they grumpy? an optimist? cautious? anxious? happy-go-lucky?
As group leader, it's important to establish before they get going that we're talking about the strictly personal aspects of each character. We don't want to know, for example, who they live with or whether they have kids. We're not interested in their relationship with the world around them. Or at least not at this moment in time.

3. Bring the group together. Essentially they are going to briefly 'introduce' all the new characters and share the information they have developed about them. However, explain that if at any time another member of the group feels they have a character that might  in some way be related to the particular character being introduced (a partner, relative, friend, enemy maybe... or just a feeling that they 'go together ' in some way) they should stick their hands up and explain to the group a little bit about their character and why they think he or she might be linked in some way to the original character. If the 'owner' of the original character agrees, they sit together.

As we're not talking only in terms of sentimental relationships (it's not about pairing them all off into couples!), you can have a group of 3 or 4 characters together. And just like real life, some characters will be popular and some will be loners and have few (or no) social links  Don't worry if you don't manage to introduce every character - feel free to discard a few - but it's worth holding onto a a few of the loners for later on (a few 'social misfits' are a great dramatic tool - they can be unpredictable and enter the fray when least expected, so they are a great way to spice things up).

This exercise is a chance to start exploring the idea of physical attraction (and the idea that opposites attract etc) but encourage the group not to get too hung up on relationship 'labels' at this moment. Try to get them to consider the idea of attraction (and it's opposite!) in a wider concept (beyond the purely romantic) -  as a dynamic that is also at play (at some level) between friends, workmates, neighbours etc. In some contexts, we will define it as (sexual) chemistry and in others, as a sense of 'having something in common'. The aim is to explore the undercurrents that underpin all our relationships (and apply this when it comes to character development).

(In their book, "Families And How To Survive Them" actor John Cleese y psychologist Robin Skynner describe a fascinating experiment called the “the Family Systems Exercise” which is well worth reading as it shows just how much precise and detailed information we transmit about ourselves (and can read in others) when we meet someone new (see below for the relevant section of the book). 

4. Lastly, get the smaller groups talking about the relationship between their characters. Encourage them to be imaginative when assigning roles (we also have families, friends, bosses etc as well as romantic partners). This activity can be extended into an improvisation exercise by getting students enacting the first encounters between the various characters or by improvising 'typical' conversations between a character and their boss, their friend, their neighbour etc. But for now, we'll leave it here.... To be continued....

'The Family Systems Exercise' from Families And How To Survive Them

But the most dramatic piece of evidence for it is called the Family Systems Exercise. The first time I saw this was in 1973, when some visiting American family therapists demonstrated it to us. We've now incorporated it into our training methods at the Institute of Family Therapy.
John:What's the exercise for?
Robin:its purpose is to show what lies behind the way that couples pick each other out across a crowded room! And it demonstrated to me more clearly than I'd ever realised how unconscious attractions work, and what they're about.
John:You mean it shows how we pick each other without knowing anything about each other?
Robin:Yes. The trainees do this exercise very early on - in fact ideally when they're still complete strangers. They're put together in a group and asked to choose another person from the group who either makes them think of someone in their famliy or, alternatively, gives them the feeling that they would have filled a `gap' in their family. And - here's the interesting bit - they're not allowed to speak at all while they're choosing. They just stand up and wander around looking at all the others. When they've all chosen someone, that is when they're in pairs, they are told to talk together for a time, to see if they can find out what made them pick each other. They're encouraged to compare their family backgrounds. Next, each couple is asked to choose another couple, in order to make foursomes. And then, each foursome is asked to form itself into a family of some kind, agreeing with each other what role in the family each person will take. Then they talk together about what it was in their fanidy backgrounds that led to their decisions. And finally, they report to the whole group what they've discovered.
John:Which is what?
Robin:That they've somehow, each one of them, picked out three people whose families functioned in very similar ways to their own.
John:How do you mean `functioned in very similar ways'?
Robin:Well, they'll find that all four of them are from families where there was difficulty in sharing affection; or perhaps in expressing anger, or envy; or where there had a lot of near-incestuous relationships; or where people had always been expected to be optimistic and cheerful. Or they might discover that all four of them had fathers who were away from home during the years when that mattered a lot to them; or that their families had suffered some big loss or change of a similar kind when they were all at similar ages.
John:Couldn't this just be because they are looking for things they have in common?
Robin:That's not really a good enough explanation for the number of connected similarities they always find. I know it may sound unconvincing to anyone who hasn't actually tried it, but it's quite uncanny when you experience it for yourself.
John:But what about all the `wall-flowers'? How do you explain the ones who don't get chosen?
Robin:Well, funnily enough, it was the `wall-flowers' that clinched the argument for me - finally convinced me that there was something extraordinary going on. The very first time that I was in charge of putting about twenty trainee family therapists through this exercise, I suddenly got worried that the ones who came together last would feel they were all rejects. So, when I asked the groups to report on their experiences - the family similarities they'd discovered - I put off asking the `wall-flower' group till last, as I was rather dreading what their reaction would be. But they were just as fascinated as the rest of the trainees. They had discovered that they had all been fostered, or adopted, or brought up in children's homes. They had all felt rejected early in their lives, and had somehow, in this exercise, unerringly picked each other out!
John:So every time this exercise is staged, you find the trainees choose each other because of the remarkable number of similarities in their family backgrounds - in their family histories, and in their families' attitudes.
John:So how are the reasons why they choose each other related to the reasons why we fail in love with each other?
Robin:Fundamentally. You see, there are lots of reasons for a couple getting together, but most of them are easy to understand. One of the pioneers of marital therapy in the fifties - Henry Dicks - boiled them down to three main categories. First, social pressures like class, religion and money, second, conscious personal reasons like good looks, shared interests, things you know you're picking someone for; and third, these unconscious attractions that everybody calls `chemistry'.

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