Nonsense Word Scenes Make for a Fun Drama Class

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Learning lines is overrated. I think it’s time to get silly!

I have a super simple and pedagogically effective activity here that can be done with students of most ages and abilities. 

Nonsense Word Scenes

In pairs (ideally) or groups of 3-5, students must pick a nonsense word e.g. meow, lala. That nonsense word is the only word they can use in the scene. Using only that word, students must create a brief scene. Audience members should be able to reasonably guess what the scene is about simply from the way actors use their body, facial expression, and vocal tone.

Students can use their nonsense word as many times as they want and can change their tone of voice, pacing, and volume, but the entire scene must be communicated through body language and tone rather than a real language.

Although it is encouraged that students pick their own scenes, here are some suggestions for scene prompts (note: these would be for scenes with 3+ people):

  • A group of friends having an argument about the best sport
  • A group job interview
  • Presidential debate
  • Trying out for choir
  • Director directing a scene in a action film
  • The worst restaurant ever
  • News broadcast
  • Infomercial
  • Wedding

Background

Based in part of the principles from the Meisner technique popularized by Sanford Meisner (and used by actors such as James Gandolfini and Stephen Colbert and writer David Mamet), the goal of Meisner exercises is to get the actor “out of the head” and focusing more on how body language and gestures can communicate feelings and emotional life. Unlike Method acting, which focuses on an actor’s complete emotional identification with a particular character, Meisner challenges his students to focus on visceral, natural reactions to stimuli. There is an emphasis on improvisation and repetition in order for acting students to have a more “honest” response while in role.

The Nonsense Word Scene is a precursor to the Meisner Word Repetition Game where students would in pairs repeat only one sentence each in a scene, playing with vocal emphasis, speed, tone. With younger students there is no need to go deep into the theory or Meisner program, but if you want to try more of these activities with older students, they will certainly thank you for it if they are seriously interested in pursuing theatre in any capacity.

The exploration of expression through body language and varying voice is important both in developing student dramatic ability and also in making students more mindful of their interpersonal communication outside of the Arts. Tone of voice can completely change the meaning of a sentence and students should learn how to use this both as a dramatic technique and so they can get along better with their peers. 

I have done this activity with various classes grades 3-5 and with teacher candidates at Brock University and every time it has been loads of fun and resulted in a lot of laughter. There’s something very freeing about being able to do a scene but not actually have to improvise or memorize any lines, you just have to talk in whatever silly word your partner or group decided on! This is great for ELL students or those with short-term memory struggles as they don’t need to worry about remembering a lot of lines in English.

Here are some of the details for how the Nonsense Word Scene could link to the Ontario curriculum. It can be connected to multiple grades, but here are the grade 4 expectations here as these were the expectations I used to assess students during one of my placements:

Expectations (Grade 4 Drama)

B1.1 engage actively in drama exploration and role play, with a focus on exploring drama structures, key ideas, and pivotal moments in their own stories and stories from diverse communities, times, and places

B2.2 identify and give examples of their strengths, and areas for growth as drama participants and audience members  

This activity could be integrated with other curriculum; it would merely depend on the subject matter of the scenes. However, I think it works best in its purest form where the scenes are character-driven rather than plot-driven, so I personally would save it strictly for Drama class or when you want an activity that requires no setup or props that will get the students laughing.

If you try it out with your class, let me know how it worked for them! What what well, what didn’t, and what was your funniest scene! Comment on the post or send me a message on Twitter or Facebook.

References

Photo taken by woodleywonderworks. Retrieved from here.

 

 

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