Commitment, Cosai, and Character


It's always surprising to me when I see middle school-aged children running around outside, yelling and laughing...who come in to play a game and are suddenly silent. I imagine it's because many of them have learned that the classroom is not an appropriate place for unbridled self-expression, for silliness. This dearth of enthusiasm is what also leads to passive learning--one of the evils in existence in education today.

Let's change that up a bit, shall we? At certain times, I'm here to encourage kids (and to encourage you to nudge them) to YELL. To be silly. To truly commit to the work--to the play--of improvisation and learning.

Types of Commitment
Commit to your character.
Really feel what it's like to be that person (who is not you). Show your fellow players--and show the audience--what s/he is feeling, what s/he wants. Be bold. Show your character.

Commit to playing and connecting with each member of your ensemble. Make eye contact. Laugh. Pass the ball to someone who hasn't yet played.

Be loud. Adjusting one's volume is a great little shortcut for increasing commitment.

Students get this part. They quickly make the conceptual leap between committing to a character or game to putting their best effort into their work or being present as a member of a group. Applying this principle of improv is one of my students' top goals for themselves.

Any game or activity (including scenework) will work for applying the principle of Commitment. You can focus on it for Ball, for I Am a Tree, Sound Ball...whatever. I went for it with "Cosai" yesterday morning.

- Cosai: This is a whole group focusing/energizing game. Energy is passed around the circle using hand motions, words/sounds, and eye contact. Introduce each of the following, one at a time, in order...
*Woosh (with a little "wooshy" hand motion)--pass to the next person in the circle, who passes it to the next, and so on.
*Baaa (hands up in a claw-like fashion)--turns the passing the opposite direction. The next person "wooshes" the other way. It's kind of like a Reverse card in Uno.
*Psaw (pointing to someone)--the player may pass the energy to anyone in the circle by saying "psaw" in a high-pitched voice and pointing at them. Encourage "pick me" eyes and eye contact.

After a while...encourage animated expressions, louder voices, etc. And then...
*Freak-a (hands up, waving wildly)--everyone yells and runs around waving their hands above their heads. The group then re-forms the circle in a different order. The player who called "freak-a" starts the woosh in either direction s/he chooses.

My class is working on understanding elements of narrative and authors' strategies in building stories. I believe the most important thing to understand about storytelling is character. We can't expect anyone to care about our story (or our scene) if they don't understand and care about the characters.

To help players understand characters, I led them through some simple exercises to help them find a variety of new characters within themselves. This took about ten minutes.
Guided Character Work--One Method to Explore
- Have everyone find their own "personal bubble" and spread out around the room.
- Keep the group silent except for when you ask them to vocalize or interact in a certain way. They need to be able to easily hear your voice as you coach them through this work.
Have them stand in "neutral position": arms unfolded and out of pockets, shoulders rolled back with a comfortable, upright posture. Ask all players to close their eyes.
- Explore finding a character through figuring out which part of the body is a character's "center". Ask all players to imagine their character's center is in the very center of their body--in their stomach or chest. Encourage them to imagine how this character is feeling, what s/he fears, what s/he values, etc.--while their eyes are still closed. Ask them to create a facial expression to match that character and open their eyes when they've done so. Then, have everyone walk around the room in character, avoiding interacting with other characters.
- Experiment with a few different character centers: tip of the nose, top of the head, bottom of the feet, knees... At certain points, have players verbally greet each other in character. Have them yell out what they hope for, what their favorite place is, what they would say if they found out they had just received a new get the idea.

- Now, have half of the class become audience players and be ready to watch the rest of the group. The performers should spread out in your stage area and find a neutral position. Ask them to choose a musical instrument in their mind...and to develop a human character based on that instrument. Guide them through exploring that character's emotional state, their vocal style, etc. Then, introduce a group scene (a school dance, a family reunion...) and have all of the players interact in character.
- Switch...and have the other half of the group find a character inspired by an animal.

Applications Beyond the Stage
So many! I asked my students to do some further analysis of characters from literature using these metaphoric analysis strategies. They also applied these methods to creating their own characters in original fictional picture books using greater depth. This afternoon, I asked my students to consider this as a journal prompt: Who are YOU as a character? Where is your center? What animal or musical instrument best represents you? Why? Are there different parts of yourself that are represented in different ways?

What are some ideas y'all have for applying character creation?

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