Using theater as a teaching tool integrates social, emotional, and cognitive development while meeting academic benchmarks. Let’s say you’re teaching a classic novel. Performing literature—either directly from the book as readers’ theater or with a script adaptation—allows students to express themselves authentically in a virtual space.
Start by reading a text or script through, trading off so that as many students as possible get a chance to read the main parts. Engage students in a short discussion about broad themes, and brainstorm ideas on problem-solving technical challenges and design opportunities. For instance, you might ask: Is there a fight? Flying? Disappearing? A dragon? How will we transfer these to the “stage”? Don’t solve anything just yet; the goal at this point is just to open the door to possibilities.
Cast the show by inviting students to write down three roles they’d like to play and one role they’d rather not. Invite students to share their reasoning (“I really want a character who dies” or “I don’t want a lot of lines”). This is powerful information for you—who they choose and how they express those desires can give you insights into your students that extend far beyond the play itself. For instance, a highly capable student might request “not a lot of lines,” and a very quiet, shy, nice student might want to play a flamboyantly evil villain. Uncovering these fears of failure to meet expectations, unexpressed large emotions, and other insights can help you understand the student in academic settings.
Look and listen for the places where students are just reciting lines. Stop and ask if they understand what a line means and how they can communicate that to an audience. Talk about behavior, not just emotion. For instance, student actors tend to want to act sad, for example, instead of thinking about how their character would express sadness—fighting back tears, pretending to be happy, gasping for breath trying to process bad news, etc.
Tips for Transferring Practices to Virtual Spaces
In rehearsals, you want to create the Zoom equivalent of pushing the desks back and rearranging the classroom into a neutral space full of new possibilities. Try using a simple, short acting warm-up for this. Find an exercise you feel comfortable leading, such as a shakeout or a tongue twister, and stick with it. I like keeping everyone on mic, because it completely confuses Zoom and adds to the sense of getting a little messy.
Use your whole instrument and play with the “audience,” the camera. Even if your whole body isn’t visible, what’s happening in your body translates to what’s expressed in your eyes and voice.
Digging Deeper With Students
After students have had a few rehearsals, open doors to inquiry from inside the story. You might ask: How does the story connect to our lives? How can we take those questions and insights and use them to make our play even stronger?
Empower students with creative responsibility to develop design themes and create theatrical moments. Ask: What kind of music will we use? Are the costumes realistic or fantastical? Is there one central metaphor—a clock, a tree, a pack of cards—that we focus on visually?
After a short group discussion, you can split the class into design teams and send them into breakout rooms. Have them return with specific objectives, such as three or four background music cues and three or four sound effects, Pinterest costume boards for each character, or a virtual background image for each scene. Keep in mind that whether you can utilize these in a final performance isn’t as important as having the students explore and explain their choices.
Teaching with the performing arts is about creating community and intentionally leading students toward empathy, teamwork, active listening, and shared values. Your choice of material matters. Try picking a script with no clear lead role, or with a central role that is surrounded by equally vibrant, complex, interesting characters; you might also divide the lead role using an artistic concept relating to the piece’s theme.
Explain to students that your job is not to pick the best people for roles but to leverage the power of the ensemble to tell the story. Challenge your own desire to cast the “best” or obvious choices, and remember that your goal is not to impress parents, but rather to spark curiosity and discovery. Keep in mind that unexpected casting choices spark that for you as well and could demonstrate to your students what norm-challenging or out-of-the-box thinking looks like.
Embracing Uncertainty and Fostering Resilience
Practice never makes perfect in the performing arts. Rather, it leads to better preparation—and often opens the doors to more questions and more things to practice. If you are engaging in an evaluation process for students, create metrics beyond lines learned and volume achieved. What challenge has each student met individually? How have they contributed to the growth of the whole ensemble?
Work with students to predict things that could go wrong in performance, like what to do if you forget a line or your internet connection freezes. Navigating these hiccups is part of what makes live performance so valuable and resonant. When educators and parents frame these moments with joy in the students’ ability, students build resilience and pride in overcoming obstacles, along with a keener understanding of how narratives work.