Thursday, December 11, 2008

Mime Spoken Here: Awesome book on Mime (yes mime!), Aritstry, and Drama Education

While I'm in the academic mode, a few more thoughts on another book I recently read:Mime Spoken Here : The Performer's Portable Workshop.Read more about acclaimed mime and author, Tony Montanaro.

As a teaching artist (with little mime training) who is looking to transition to a full-time teacher who incorporates and utilizes drama as a way of learning in the elementary classroom, I came across several unexpected connections in Montanaro’s Mime Spoken Here. To me, the book not only encouraged an understanding and appreciation of mime work on an introductory level, but also inspired an understanding of Montanaro’s goals and work as an educator—knowledge that translates directly to those practicing drama in education.

Montanaro’s insights into premise, character, and improvisation can be applied throughout the acting world, and also further into understanding oneself and one’s work (in whatever field). Montanaro’s exercises in premise stress that the premise or motive will change how one does something. He notes that the ability of the actor to believe in the motivation will enhance and create credibility, even in the simplest of exercises. Montanaro points out that mime, at its foundation, is about understanding life and its physical forces--a beautiful idea. Montanaro notes, “It is important to remember that mime is a reflection of life, and that life is much more than the outward appearance of a living thing.” 

Connections: Montanaro and Dorothy Heathcote
Montanaro’s work led me to make connections between his insights and drama in the classroom—particularly, process drama work. His chapter on improvisation offers several connections to process drama. The dictionary definition of improvise includes the phrase “without preparation,” but Montanaro argues, “whether you can predict the future or not, you’re always prepared for it. Each moment is informed by the moment that precedes it. Everything that happens has been set up; it is prepared to happen." 

This thinking mirrors the approach that Dorothy Heathcote takes with a new class with whom she is working on a process drama. She often walks into a classroom and says, “What would you like to do a play about today?” While this question seems to require no preparation or prediction of the future, Heathcote prepares both beforehand and during by using her previous experiences and the connections that she can make between themes, history, and experience, what Betty Jane Wagner names “the brotherhood” (making connections to all of those who have been in similar situation) and “segmenting” strategies in her book, Dorothy Heathcote: Drama as a Learning Medium.

Montanaro’s “Rules for Improvisation” are applicable for all teachers and specifically, teachers engaging in process drama in the classroom:
  1. Read what is coming at you from all directions.
  2. Listen to what the present moment is “suggesting” to you.
  3. Follow your impulses dispassionately and faithfully.
Sadly, much of the curriculum mandates in our current educational system leave little room for improvisation. But “good” teachers look for student reactions and understanding in order to work in the moment; they follow impulses by recognizing teachable moments. Facilitators of process drama would find these rules to be applicable and similar to those encouraged by Heathcote.

Another of Montanaro’s statements that applies to the realm of drama in education is: “Some people believe that improvisations are field days for the uninhibited.” As Montanaro suggests, this can repel “the more serene and complacent types.” It is important that teachers and students alike interested in drama in education understand that they need not be haphazard, wild, or outspoken. He notes, “Improvisation, approached correctly, teaches acuity, perceptiveness, and presence-of-mind.”

In continuing to learn about the area of process drama and its use in the school classroom, Montanaro’s recommendations and insights into improvisation are all the more useful. The teacher engaging a classroom in process drama needs to have a grasp of improvisation, as well as an understanding that improvisation can still allow the teacher to maintain structure. Perhaps the most applicable portion of Montanaro’s writing on this topic is this:
The improvisers come equipped with a certain repertoire of skills and tricks, and they look for opportunities to showcase these skills. Some improvisers bring their own ‘safety nets’ with them—backup plans just in case something goes “wrong.”
These improvisers are expecting something from their improvisation; they are planning its future. If the improvisation happens to take them into an area of ‘weakness,’ they break the improvisation and follow Plan B—the safe route.
Montanaro stresses the importance of working with what is happening in the improvisation, “Nothing should be thrown away or ignored simply because it doesn’t meet your expectations or accentuate your strengths." This is similar to Heathcote’s notion of accepting and working with what the students suggest to her, without judgment, knowing that we can always uncover universal meaning in the way we work with and reflect on the topic students have chosen for the drama.

Broader Implications
In his section on premise, Montanaro explicitly makes connections from his own classroom to the broader education system. In outlining the importance of premise work, Montanaro warns against learning by rote. He stresses that teachers must understand why they are directing the students to do something—going even further to say, “if the motives are not noble, the teacher should rethink his/her approach.”

Premise is a crucial topic—not just for mimes and actors. It is a critical subject for educators and students of all kinds to better understand and reflect upon. Montanaro concludes his chapter on premise by hoping and predicting that educating systems will incorporate the importance of premise work. “When students’ attention is constantly turned away from effects and back to cause, they discover better and better reasons for doing what they’re doing. They discover the inspiration to try new things and the courage to become mavericks.”

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