The Act Wild! Concept An Approach to Purposeful Classroom Chaos
Henry Doorly Zoo, Omaha NE
Act Wild is a concept for an extremely flexible class based on creating a theatrical experience related in some way to animals. I use the term “theatrical experience” so that no one holds me too closely to what comes out of an Act Wild class, but it is in fact a performance of a play. The HDZ education staff came up with the idea for Act Wild as a way of channeling some of my more bizarre educational notions and keeping me out of everyone’s hair. So the Act Wild classes are where I have developed a lot of “Act Wild” ideas that I use in other, more traditional classes as well, after they have been proven not to cause structural damage to the education complex. It is my Laboratory, with a capital L and a Frankenstein accent. Welcome and wear protective clothing.
In theory, Act Wild is an approach to acknowledging some of the things we as docents know best about the natural tendencies of children:
Children want to move, sing, dance, crow, and roar.
Children want to fight.
Children want to be in charge.
Children want to have fun.
Children want to be loud.
Children want to be funny, beautiful, scary, and gross.
It seems to me that if I incorporate these tendencies into my class plan, I save myself a lot of aspirin and Miss Clairol. Because, in point of fact, children know how to learn better than I know how to teach. You’d be surprised. My idea is to give them the keys, put them in the driver’s seat and then do a minimal amount of advising or shrieking from the back seat.
I want to stress, that the Act Wild approach is not for Real Teachers or Real Classrooms. It works for a couple of hours a couple of days in a row. Any more than that and you’d end up in an institution. But I do think there are a few ideas that you can take advantage of in Act Wild to liven up a traditional classroom. In this paper I will talk mostly about the Act Wild class, but I’ll include a couple of ideas I have slid under the door into some of the other classes that I teach and I’m sure you’ll think of more as you experiment on your own.
An Act Wild class is really a series of short play rehearsals, so the first thing you need is a script. Children’s play scripts are available everywhere but I write my own, because it has to be incredibly flexible in terms of number and type of children and because my basic goal is to teach something about animals. Also I think it has to have a lot of humor. I watch cartoons a lot for ideas or just one-liners. You may not think you can write a play for kids but you can. Just promise someone you will and let them sign up forty kids for the class. You’ll be surprised at what you can do on your lunch hour.
For flexibility, I write plays with lots of small scenes that can be cut without disrupting the story line. Sometimes I have chosen characters they are already familiar with – it helps when you are talking about character interpretation, because they already have an idea who the character is. With a smaller group, you can play around with this a little.
I loved the kid who played my Grasshopper in the Ant and the Grasshopper as a juvenile delinquent and he loved it too, but amazingly he had never heard of the fable.
I also write a lot of non-speaking parts. One of the basic precepts is that every kid has to participate in whatever way they are comfortable and some kids, believe or not, have no idea of becoming Shakespearean actors. Luckily we’re always in the animal theme, so you can write herd scenes for the especially young OR shy. Note, that age is no indication of acting skill you have to figure this one out in the first five minutes of the class more on that later in the Introduction and Casting sections.
For every scene you should make some suggestions about what the kids should be doing. Some docents who will work with the scene groups will be able to give the kids some movement, but a lot won’t know what to do. Try to put in some physical humor everybody loves a pratfall. You don’t want a bunch of kids standing in a row reciting they won’t enjoy that at all.
I try to write it so the kids will understand it and think its funny. I’m careful to use “kid dialogue” and I check with my kids to make sure that I’ve written something that makes sense for kids to say. I’ll usually write in one or two more challenging roles because there’s always one kid in the group that will really want to sink their teeth into something.
Here is the most important thing: Use a Narrator. I learned this in my last class and it works like a charm. Each scene has a narrator. The scene is written for the narrator to read almost the entire thing because you don’t want the kids to have to memorize a lot of lines OR read their lines from a script. However, if you have a kid that wants to go home and study the lines, the scene should be able to shift from the narrator to the actor easily. You’ll be surprised how many kids will do this if they know they don’t have to. For the performance, the Narrator is one person, but for rehearsals each scene’s Narrator is also the Director, or Docent in Charge.
Finally, I always tell the kids that the script is not cast in stone. I don’t want them to completely rewrite the story, but if they have an idea, I usually listen to it, because they’re more likely to remember their own words.
Wow, having said all this it looks like a tremendous undertaking and I myself, would never attempt it, but really its not at all that hard and when you read my scripts undoubtedly you will be inspired to come up with something better.
Stage Craft: Backdrops, Costuming, The Prop Shop
Now that you have a script, you’ll want to gather some materials for the technical aspects of the performance. Don’t prepare too much, this is a great area for kids to be in charge and solve their own problems. Our giraffes needed to get up on a table to get the right height not a problem, just use an adult spotter behind them. Again, try to stay in the back seat. Let the kids rummage through your biofact room for set pieces. Bring lots of paper, paints, cardboard, and fabric for them to build a few piece of background. Our teenager volunteer group is a great resource for this kind of class, particularly in the area of helping the kids build set pieces and in face painting.
Puppets are great fun for the kids to work with and build and make a nice break from line rehearsals. For our production of the Lion King, one of the staffers worked with a tiny nine-year-old girl to create a huge stick puppet for her to play A Wise Old Elephant. My idea was that an adult would hold the puppet up and she would stand underneath and speak the lines, but we couldn’t have prised that thing out of her hands with a crowbar. She made it work somehow.
Costumes are difficult and the best solution I have found is very elaborate face paint. This has to be good and artistic, because I ask the kids to work like professionals, and they don’t want to look amateurish. Don’t go so much with trying to look exactly like a particular animal just suggest a characteristic and then go very exotic with the eyes. I draw a big thick sweeping line from the inside of the eye, above the eyebrow to the temple and sometimes feather the end of it a bit be careful it doesn’t look like fake eyelashes and draw a similar bold sweeping line under the eye, across the cheekbone and out to the side of the head. I will fill in this eye area, which is now about a quarter of the child’s face, with browns and yellows and tip the edge with white. This really makes the child eye visible and it looks pretty cool too. Be careful about cheesy whiskers. I suggest whiskers with very delicate brown lines. I almost always do the lips in dark browns or blacks.
You’ll find that a lot of antelope-like animals come out looking the same, but you can vary the colors and the eye shape. I look at the picture of the animal and then try to pick one or two features to copy. Black triangles over the
tip of the nose with a line down to the mouth and around the top lip works for many cats. Use a lot of high quality face paints, some tiny brushes and sponges. Colors should be accurate but cover the face lightly -you need a variety of oranges, browns, yellows, and blacks as well as some brighter colors for birds or lizards.
You need to be able to face paint the entire group quickly before and between brush-up rehearsals on the second day so you will need a lot of face painters. I understand that some children have an allergy to face paint and they are really depressed about not being able to participate in that aspect. Find this out early and work out some amazing puppet or mask. I used to think that it would be hard to convince kids to do the face painting, but when they see how really cool it looks they are right in line.
It seems like I have really emphasized the face painting heavily, but this is an opportunity to talk Real science with the kids. I always have a lot of pictures of the animals around and we talk about how their characteristics as part of the process. I try to use animals in the play that the kids may not know about dik diks, for example.
Organizing the Class
This class works best as a two hour, two day class. I’ll walk you through the schedule, but flexibility is the name of the game. Your job as head teacher is to walk around and watch every one else work, be an audience, deal with problems, suggest blocking, and make sure that nobody is getting stuck in a particular part of the process. Later you will be buying rounds or desserts for the docents who really did the hard work.
I should also mention that you need a pretty good-sized space for this class because each scene group needs to be able to rehearse simultaneously. I first tried working the play sequentially and it was a terrible idea. Kids only got to go through their scene once and they were bored to tears watching other kids rehearse. The name of the game is stay busy.
Docent count. This class requires a lot of volunteers. You need a docent for every scene, so that’s about one per four or five kids. That’s a lot of docents, but there is no way to rehearse a scene without a narrator. Also the docent has to give the kids some ideas about physical movement, or blocking if you happen to be an old board treader like myself. This is pretty important to the kids who don’t want to do lines and its also a great place to introduce Real Science, such as talking about herd behavior, or predatory movement. I like to give the docents the script early and hope they’ll be thinking about how to get the kids started, how to get them on and off the stage smoothly. One good thing is that most of the docents really enjoy this class and you can usually conscript the teen volunteers to help too.
Check in. Parents check kids in when the drop them off and we give them a sticky-back name badge. I let someone else check the kids in and as they come in, I talk to them a little bit to try to guess what kind of a kid they are. I’m watching for the kids that are withdrawn or nervous (definite herd candidates), watch for the confident, well-adjusted potential predator, looking for a class clown for the funny bits. I watch for girl clutching two girls or three who will be hysterical if separated and can be counted on if kept together (I hate to be sexist, but whenever I see a covey of these girls, I know they’ll help me make sure the after party gets set up and I make a note of it). I’m particularly watchful of the boys above the age of eight or nine, who may have to be wooed a bit with a physically challenging part. I find out who is familiar with the story line, who has never been to a play before, who has any special talents I could work in somewhere. You have about five minutes to size everybody up.
Introduction or Making the Children Accomplices. I tell the kids that my classes are experimental (true), that they’re new (true) and that I’m still working the kinks out (painfully obvious). I tell them that I expect them to participate in the class but also to be thinking all the time about how to improve it for the next group and at the end, I will ask for their ideas and record them. Kids really respond to this approach and now you have an excuse for anything that goes drastically wrong.
Then I give the actors’ speech. This is about how everyone in the room is now expected to behave just like a professional actor. Everyone is responsible for their part and their properties in their scene. If you touch it, it’s yours and you need to make sure its where you need it. If something doesn’t work, fix it. If you have a problem, solve it. I tell them that each scene has a docent/director and they are there to help out, but the play is theirs and it will be what they make it. I emphasize that there will be no memorization, and I explain about the narrator. I tell them that we have just three total hours before an audience will appear and in that time, they have to learn their scene, figure out any properties, build any set pieces and have time for snacks. I’m very clear about the schedule of events. So there is very little time to mess around if they want to be good. I cannot emphasize how important it is not to talk down to these kids. Talk to them like they were adults with an enormous project and a short deadline and they will get in there and worry just like any other grownup and not have time to climb the walls.
Also start now telling them that they have to shout. I know, normally we tell kids to be quiet, but if you don’t start them shouting, no one in the audience will hear a word of the play. We end the introduction by yelling “Hey wazzup??!!!” about ten times in our Outdoor Voices and I tell them they need to rehearse at that level. (Don’t worry, they never will). This makes a little bit of pandemonium with six or seven scenes rehearsing at the same time, but kids have an amazing ability to concentrate when they want to.
Casting. This is the chancy bit I’ll be truthful, I’ve had breakdowns here before where I’ve overestimated a kids’ understanding of the class and had him burst into tears when he was handed a part. If a kid backs down, change your mind, but let everyone know that that was your first choice and if he feels up to the part later, its still his. Do this quickly, handing out parts (only their own scene) and split the kids into scene groups. Don’t give them time to worry about their part, in other words. Make sure every kid understands absolutely what scene they are in because that is how they will be organized for the next two days. Only cast kids in multiple scenes that really look like they have a lot on the ball usually the oldest ones. Introduce them to their Narrator, dismiss them to rehearse and you can go have a cup of coffee for the next fifteen minutes while the Narrators sort out the scene, the blocking, the lines,
Rehearsal. The Narrators will take each scene and talk to the kids about what happens, what the movement should be, what properties might work, etc. They will go through the scene about five times before the kids learn it and get bored. The blocking is the hardest part and if the kids help to think up their own movement, they’ll remember it better. This is the best fun of the first day, walking around and listening to the kids figuring out how to approach their scene, how to get the timing right on the jokes, how to do the movement without killing each other, what kinds of things they might use to suggest the setting. Keep yelling “Hey wazzup??!!!” periodically to remind them to use those Outdoor Voices. Go around and be an audience member for each scene and laugh hysterically at the jokes. That way, they know they have to pause for laughter and they get some early positive feedback. I never have any trouble laughing at my own jokes anyway and parents will laugh at anything. Try to spur the creative process with a few suggestions here’s where you can use the ideas you were afraid to put in until you could tell whether or not the kid could handle it. Remember that the script is very soft and you can change anything to adjust for the kids you have.
Construction. After the kids have rehearsed for about half an hour (you should be forty-five minutes or so into your first hour), they can start to work on set pieces and properties. For the Lion King, we built the Elephant Head and a large tree. There are unlimited ideas for this period, depending on the play you are doing, but it doesn’t hurt to have a few things prepared early and some that are half-way done that the kids can finish without taking too much time.
One thing each scene group makes is a scene sign because the smallest kid can walk across the stage and announce the scene.
First Run Through. After everyone is familiar with their parts and has a pretty good idea of what properties they’re going to use, set up for a run through. All of the kids sit in the audience in their scene groups. Each scene group comes up, sets their scene, announces it, plays it, and clears it away. This is the first time the kids get to see the whole play and understand where they fit in it. This helps them know when their turn is, because the play will really die if it takes five minutes to get each group of actors in place. They should each have assigned responsibilities and the kid who carries the scene card should have no other job. The idea here is speed.
The first run through you can the real narrator, but the kids are probably more comfortable at this point with the docent they have been working with. I don’t usually bring in the real narrator until the second day. The important thing to watch for is volume. You are guaranteed not to be able to hear at least fifty percent of the kids. Stop them and do the Wazzup exercise. However play turns out, the parents want to be able to hear it, so you have to keep drilling the kids to shout. Remind them that there are usually a lot of crying babies in the audience that they are going to have to shout over. Really most of them have this kind of experience from home, you just have to remind them that here they won’t get in trouble for it. At the end, have all of the kids stand up for the final bow.
During the first run-through, have additional volunteers set up snack in another room. I usually try to do a pretty good-sized snack for this because the kids have worked hard and they are really wound up and don’t need more sugar, slices of apple, oranges, crackers, juice or milk. After the performance on the second day we have “themed food” for the cast party.
After the first-run through is over (and you have applauded and cheered as loudly as you could) and while the kids are having snacks, give them your Notes. These are things they need to correct in the performance and they should write them down if they can. Usually its just “hey, I can’t hear the wildebeest in scene two”, but sometimes kids will stand in front of each other or not face the audience when they’re talking. Kids love to get notes, so be generous with them. That means you were watching and paying attention.
Real Science is the segment of the class where we specifically talk about the animals in the play. I usually let one of the other docents handle this with a set of interesting biofacts, pictures, and gee whiz facts. Sometimes this discussion will spur changes in the way the kid approaches a part, sometimes not. Usually its just a lively, fact oriented discussion with a lot of participation from the kids.
Dress Rehearsal, Performance and the Cast Party
On the second day, the kids are really excited and we get them going the minute the come in the room. I ask the parents to be back in an hour for the performance. Be prepared for a large audience!
The half hour is scene rehearsal and make up. I have a big group of face painters standing by and the kids are either getting made-up or going over their scenes. Many of the kids will have gone home and rehearsed, so the docent in charge will have to make notes in the script for the performance narrator. Some of them will have brought costume pieces along there are some really creative and speedy parents out there and that’s great. All of the properties and set pieces have to be organized and ready. Walk around and remind them of any notes you’ve given them and don’t forget to yell “Wazzup!!!” periodically.
As soon as everyone is in makeup, start the dress rehearsal with the performance narrator. This is so that poor person has a clue what’s going on and the kids can get over themselves in their makeup and also remind them of the order of events. After the dress rehearsal, get the kids to set up for the audience and dismiss them to another room.
The audience of course, should not see any actor before the performance. I usually make a very short curtain speech to start with, unless I can convince one of the kids to do it. I give the name of the play, the number of scenes, and invite the audience to join us afterwards for a cast party. Then the show goes on.
During the performance, you can set up the cast party in another room. I use themed snacks gummy worms in chocolate pudding for the Lion King for example and I have a lot of them, because you end up with all the little brothers and sisters. Themed music is great too and bring back all of the biofacts from the Real Science segment, including posters, pictures, etc. You will spur a lot of Real Science discussion during the cast party this way. The kids are going to want you to watch the performance, so you will want other volunteers to set the party up, or you can pull that covey of little girls out for temporary help they’re incredibly fast and efficient. Just make sure they don’t miss curtain call.
Wrap Up and Feedback
I always try to make some time during the final day to ask the kids for their comments on the class. Sometimes I do this right before the performance as a way of collecting them in one place while the audience is being seated. By and large the comment is that the class should have more time, but sometimes kids will give you ideas for other scripts. This is a good time to congratulate them on how hard they’ve worked.
There are also feedback sheets for the parents, but they’re usually too busy juggling video cameras and pudding to fill them out. I have to say, the response is overwhelmingly positive.
Acting Wild in Traditional Classes
Now that you have survived the Act Wild experience, you can see how getting kids up and moving really makes a difference in the classroom. Living food chains (great competition to be the poop) are a great exercise for younger kids and if the kids hold hands, it doesn’t take long to really introduce some complexity. Show what happens if one animal is removed. I have used children to model a rain shed desert letting the smallest child pelt the mountains with a combination fan/spray bottle while the desert (child) stays comfortably dry. I use children to make the layers of a rainforest and then pin animal pictures to them there are any number of ways to get children up and out of their chairs, participating and learning. If you have any good ideas, I’d love to hear about them. Chaos can be a good thing