All kids are at least a little bit nervous to perform in front of others, even if they don’t want to admit it. Our best actors were once newbies, and shy ones at that! We have come up with a few strategies to help students overcome their fears through directing and teaching techniques.
One of your biggest priorities, whether it's in rehearsal or regular class, is to build strong relationships with your students. As educators, we know that some students are more lovable than others, but we must break through their wall and get to know them. Try to learn their names as soon as possible. Call them by name when you see them in the hall. Learn what's going on in their life outside of the school….basically, make that kid feel special. The more trust they have in you, the more willing they will be to open up on stage and really push themselves in their role.
While our job as directors is to give constructive criticism so that kids can continue to improve, it is so important when you are first building a relationship, to brag on them, show them that you know they are working hard, and give them credit when you see a light at the end of the tunnel.
Use the sandwich formula: Compliment + criticism + compliment.
Kids will respond so much better to criticism and judgment later on if you have bragged on them beforehand. If you're in a really sticky situation with a student, you might not have anything to specifically compliment them on. Here's where I turn to my list of ''evergreen compliments." I keep these in my back pocket for just this instance. They range from "Your stage presence is powerful" to "I love the way you did that". Seriously, get that general if you need to just to boost the kid's confidence.
Sandwich Intensive Rehearsals
This uses the same approach as above: put a student that needs lots of work between two who are doing well. While this may seem counterintuitive, here's why it works: By doing consecutive, in-depth sessions with multiple students, you set a kid up to know a big critique is coming.
Let's say student A is my lead actor. He's bright, creative and easy to direct. We'll spend 20 minutes focusing in on student A's monologue, picking it apart and zoning in on tiny details. Then we move onto student B. He has a secondary part and has been struggling with his character. Because you already set the standard for an intensive rehearsal session, this kid won't be so terrified to get his critique. Follow it up with student C, the female lead that is doing well, but needs a few notes. Finish up this whole chunk of rehearsal time with general notes for everyone.
See how that works? You've just got three great, intensive acting sessions in with your team and allowed that sweet, shy kid a chance to grow without feeling shamed by his mistakes. Try to plan a strategy like this into rehearsals every once in a while. You'll see an improvement in your strong players as well as the confidence in your more hesitant students soar.
Establish a judgment free zone the first day of class. Explain to them that theatre people are some of the most accepting people there are and that by accepting all types of people, we will become a family that strives to help each other become better. I always tell these kids that it doesn't matter if you've won an award at state or you're a brand new freshman; everyone in this theatre has room to grow. Whatever mistakes are made in the theatre are just a part of the process and not to be used as ammunition against each other. Not only will they become an accepting family within themselves, but kids will begin to have empathy toward other people and use this in their character development.
Every once in a while, I like to make my actors fill out a self assessment form. Get the one I use here. This is one of my favorite ways to start a dialogue with my students about how they feel they're doing. Because they fill this out on their own, they can get really honest. This type of self-reflection helps them grow as a person and an actor. When they turn these in, I skim over the submissions and find a couple common themes. These then become the points we focus on in our next rehearsal.
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At the end of the day, all these little strategies really help build trust between me, my students and our entire theatre department. By creating an inclusive, positive environment to be creative and experimental in their acting, what might begin as a sweet, terrified kid can blossom into my most powerful actors.
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