part 1 of 2
By Emma Wright
Whether you’re new to teaching drama or you’re an old pro, it can be good from time to time to give your toolkit a refresher. Drama games are a fantastic inclusion in a lesson plan and can be suitable for all ages. You may include them for a warm up or cool down, for breaking the ice and encouraging collaboration and teamwork, to lift your class’ focus or energy levels, or just for a bit of fun (with positive skills-based side-effects!). I tend to start a day off with some games, throw a few more in after breaks, and then I’ll have a few up my sleeve for when the class get restless or if I’m wanting to introduce a new area of focus in a fun, engaging way.
It’s important that when you’re running a game your instructions are clear and concise. With older students make sure to include a few words on the learning outcomes of the game. Elimination based games can be tricky for younger students and we don’t want them feeling excluded or lose interest in the class, so try to ensure there’s a few non-elimination ones also in the mix. This article will take you through a few categories of drama games that form part of my tried and tested toolbox, and explain a little how I use them in structuring my lessons. There are many resources on this topic. It’s ultimately a matter of trial and error, and working in a way that works for you. Drama games come in many variations and with different names, and this article will describe them as I’ve learnt or evolved them.
Getting to Know You
I love to start work with a younger class with a game I call Adjective, Name & Gesture. I find this a great ice breaker and way to learn names. Start by sitting in a circle. Then work clockwise around the circle, each student introducing themselves with an adjective, followed by their name, accompanied by a gesture. Simple stuff. Once you’ve worked your way around the circle once or twice, the game begins. A student starts with their adjective/name/gesture (e.g. “Hungry Emma” with a belly-rubbing gesture), and follows it with someone else’s (e.g. “Hungry Emma” with belly-rubbing, “Sleepy Michael” with an overheard arm stretching gesture). And so the game goes, passing the pattern around the circle, the student’s slowly learning each of their classmates’ name, adjective, and movement. Sometimes I ask the students to choose an adjective that starts with the first letter of their name, for extra fun.
For slightly older students, I love a game of Zombie Tag, which is super popular with both students and teachers. A student is selected to start the game as the ‘Zombie’. The Zombie cannot run and must move through the space arms outstretched, making their best Zombie noise. It should always be clear which student is the Zombie. The Zombie’s job is to ‘tag’ their classmates, and can only target one person at a time. The person being pursued can only stop the Zombie from chasing them by calling the name of another student, who then becomes the Zombie, releasing whoever was Zombified before them. If a Zombie effectively tags someone, they are out, and the Zombie chooses a new target to pursue and remains ‘it’ until someone else’s name is called. You can make the game more difficult by reducing the space the students can move around in. I also tell my students that no one is ever allowed to stand still, and if I catch them not moving they will also be out.
Other favorites of mine include Change Places If…, Introduce a Partner and Syllables of Your Name. In Change Places If… students sit in a circle, one standing in the middle, and the student in the middle makes a statement “Change places if…” and fills in the blank e.g. “Change places if you have brown hair” and all students with brown hair must stand and find a new seat in the circle, and whoever is left standing becomes the new person in the middle. For Introduce a Partner, I simply send students off in pairs, or groups of three, and give them a maximum of ten minutes together to learn and memorise as many facts as possible about their partner/s. When the time is are up, we come back together and students introduce their partner to the class with all the facts that they remember. Syllables of Your Name involves coming up with a gesture for each syllable of your name, and the class repeating it, so that you can go around in a circle and essentially dance out each other’s names. All ages love this.
If I’m wanting to lift a class’ focus levels, my go-tos are Me, You, Zombie Chair and Group Count.
Me, You is super simple. Students stand in a circle and someone starts by pointing to themselves and saying “Me”, then points at someone else in the circle and says “You”, then moves across the circle to take their place. The pattern continues. This is all about giving and receiving offers and connection, so make sure students don’t move until their offer of “You” has been received. Once comfortable with that, I ask students to drop the dialogue and just use the gesture. Then, lose both dialogue and gesture and work only with eye contact, which requires total focus.
Zombie Chair requires setting out chairs randomly in the space, one chair for every student. One student is then given the role of the Zombie and starts the game in one corner of the room. The game is conducted in complete silence. Like in Zombie Tag, the Zombie cannot run, and their job is to make their way to and sit down in an empty chair. The class must work together to stop the Zombie from sitting down on a chair. What makes this tricky is that students must communicate in silence, and once they get out of a chair, they cannot return to it.
Group count is great for older students, though a simple concept. Standing in a circle, ask the students to close their eyes or focus on a point on the floor in the center of the circle. Ask the students to focus on relaxation, sensing the group’s energy and syncing their breathing. The group must then count, starting at one, as high as they can without ever having more than one person speak at once. If for example two students say or go to say “thirteen” at the same time, you must restart the count. This is all about connecting as an ensemble, tuning in to a group and its impulses, relaxation and resisting the urge to rush.
Working in Pairs and Groups of Three
At some point in running your drama games you’ll likely want to do some work in small groups. I use a few classics here, including Mirror Image and Sculptor and Statue.
For Mirror Image, students are paired up and stand facing one another, and take it in turns playing the ‘leader’ and the ‘mirror’. This is another silent game, and it’s all about observation and teamwork. The students should work slowly, always facing each other, the leader leading the movement and the mirror copying precisely. In Sculptor and Statue, one student assumes the role of the ‘sculptor’, the other the ‘statue’. The teacher calls out an image they want ‘sculpting’, and the sculptor must move their partners body through verbal instructions into a pose that reflects it.
Another fun game to run in pairs is A Conversation in Questions, which is exactly what it sounds like. Two students stand in the space and have a conversation, the rule being that every sentence must be a question. For example, person A could start with “What are you doing today?”, person B may reply “Do you think the weather is suitable for swimming?”, to which person A responds with “Do you like swimming when it’s raining?” and so on. Obviously the conversation gets trickier the further you get into it, but it’s a great one for getting students thinking fast on their feet.
Some fun games for groups of three I like to run include Tell A Story in Tableau and Ten Second Objects. In Tell A Story in Tableau, I ask my students to tell me a story in three poses, so one student is responsible for a pose telling us the beginning of the story, the second the middle, and the third the end. This is a fun way to explore story structure and telling stories in frozen pictures. You may choose to give them a theme, a setting, a genre or a character type to base this around. Ten Second Objects can be run in groups of three or more, and simply involves calling out an object and giving the group ten seconds to create that object with just their bodies working together in the space. It’s about working quickly as a team, and saying “yes, and…” to the ideas of your peers.
To focus on developing improvisation skills and for perhaps getting into a headspace for devising, there are a number of great drama games you can run.
First up there’s the classic Bus Stop. This involves a student sitting at a bus stop, an empty seat beside them, and a second student joining the ‘scene’ and creating a reason for the original bus-stop-sitter to leave. This is all about creating characters, working with objectives, and is good for teaching students about ‘blocking’ (when an offer is essentially rejected by a scene partner, causing the scene to fall flat or struggle to move forward). A fun variation on bus stop is ATM, which is essentially the same game, but gives the person starting in the scene a physical activity to involve themselves in.
Job Interview and What Are You Doing? are two other favorites of mine. Job Interview can be run in pairs or small groups, with one or more students playing the role of ‘interviewer’, and one or more students playing the role of ‘interviewee’. I usually ask my class to collectively decide on the job that is being interviewed for, and from there it’s pretty self-explanatory. The interviewee enters the space, greets the interviewer, and the interviewer commences the interview. At some point I’ll chime in and ask the interviewer to wrap up the interview and let their interviewee know whether or not they have been successful in their job hunt. What Are You Doing? is great for younger students, and is somewhat a simplified version of Space Jump. One student starts in the middle of the circle doing a physical activity (e.g. baking a cake). A second student enters the circle and asks the question “What are you doing?”. The first student must reply “I’m…” but say something different to the activity they were doing. The two students then take a moment to act out the activity together, and the first student then exits the circle, allowing the second to take over.
Other great improvisation games include Introduce A Prop (as something it isn’t), One Word/Sentence Story and Word Association. Introduce A Prop (as something it isn’t) is exactly what the name suggests. It’s an independent activity which involves students picking a prop and then introducing said prop to the class as something it isn’t (e.g. a pencil becomes a memory eraser aka the tool in Men In Black), selling it like they’re filming an infomercial. One Word/Sentence Story is a game to run with the whole class, who stand or sit in a circle and tell a story one word or sentence at a time, and Word Association is a game to play in pairs or small groups. A student speaks aloud the first word that comes to mind, and students then take turns responding to the last word said with whatever first comes to their minds. This game is about listening and responding instinctively without blocking or filtering impulses or pre-planning what to say next.
For building characters I like to use A Day In The Life and Character Hot Seat. Note that these probably fall more under the category of exercises rather than games.
A Day In The Life was taught to me by Abbie-Lee Lewis and Lucy Clements (shoutout to them both). After having a conversation and a brainstorm about character archetypes and what characters we’d like to play with for the exercise, I ask students to lie down on the floor and close their eyes. I ask them to slip into their character in their mind, to visualize them and imagine they are fast asleep, preparing them to walk through a regular day in this character’s life, all in their mind’s eye.
This game is all about prompting questions, so I ask them to think about what kind of bed they’re sleeping in, how light or heavy their sleep is, whether they have vivid dreams or nightmares. I then ask them to wake up, and to begin their morning routine. What time is it? What’s the first thing they do when they wake up? Do they eat breakfast? Do they live alone? Do they interact with anyone? Ask as many questions as you feel will stimulate your students, and then ask them to leave their house and to explore one of their character’s daily activities. This could be going grocery shopping, walking to school, whatever fits the character. Give them time to explore this activity, and then ask them to fast forward to lunch. What do they eat? Do they socialize? You may then want to ask them to complete another daily activity as their character, or fast-forward to their journey home. How long does it take them to get home? Do they walk, catch public transport, do they fly? Then have your character’s act out their evening routine. Do they eat dinner? Do they watch television? Do they have a hot bath or a cold shower? And finish by asking your students to go back to bed, and explore what it’s like for their character to go to sleep.
Character Hot Seat involves students taking turns to sit in front of the class in the ‘hot seat’, and take and answer the class’ questions as their character. I tend to precede this with a quick brainstorm of some questions we should think about when we are building a character from scratch, and advise students to ask some of those in the exercise, but the game is improvisational. This is a great way to get students thinking and speaking not as themselves but as their character, and being able to add details and make spontaneous choices.