Creative Drama for The Classroom: Acting Through Animals

This acting exercise gets students focused on doing rather than thinking. This is useful and fun for every age, from pre-school through college.

Get out of your head and into your body!

As an acting teacher, one of the biggest challenges in the classroom is finding an exercise that can help enable students to trust themselves. No matter what age group, students face various physical challenges: Some students may have trouble calming their bodies down and being still, while others feel constrained or trapped. While some kids cannot stop moving, others may be afraid to move!
A good point to start off with is asking your students, “How boring would it be if you saw your favorite actor doing the same thing in every role, no matter what different characters they play?” Give some examples, act it out for them. Make the lesson entertaining by making the kids laugh– Do the voice of an elderly person but then have a young physicality to contrast. This will set a positive tone for the rest of the lesson, because what you are going to ask the students to do may be a little outside their comfort zone.

Picking your animal

For the first step of this activity, you can do one of a few things: If you are reading a play in your classroom, you could have the students pick a character from the play. If you are not reading a play, you can have the student think of a character they know from a play, book, movie, television program, etc. Or, have the student pick a person they know. Sometimes, with a particularly introverted group, it can be eye-opening to have the students even pick themselves as the subject. Next, write down or verbally list off the personality traits of the character or person. It can be extremely beneficial to talk about your own with the student. I might tell them, “I like to help people, I am fairly smart, but I know I can be kind of moody at times.” Never call this a “negative trait,” but perhaps “our less favorable” trait, or “something we try to work on.” This keeps it honest but in a positive light. By coming clean with your own “less favorable” trait, students will feel less threatened to discuss their own.

Next, figure out what animal matches those traits! You could ask the students, “have you ever looked at someone and thought they looked bird-like, or maybe were so hyper they were just like an excited golden retriever puppy?” Some students will say yes, while others will say no, which is all okay. Give them a little time to brainstorm, then compare and contrast. It is okay if it does not match exactly, but maybe some of the most important traits are replicated.

Get moving

Time to act like animals in the classroom! First, tell them to start walking around and start shaping into their animals. Do not force any students to go on all fours if it is too difficult, as you do not want anyone to get hurt! You may want to start out as your own animal if they initially feel uncomfortable. While you walk around as your animal, verbally guide them to help them become theirs. Discuss as many features as possible. Some things you may want to cover:

• How is your animal shaped? Think about the curve in its back. How does that effect the way it moves?
• Does your animal have fins, hooves, paws, or hands?
• Does your animal have a tail?
• Does your animal have fur, feathers, scales? Is its skin smooth, bumpy, hot or cold? Think about how its skin feels.
• What is the shape of your animals ears? How about its nose? Does it have a snout? What about its mouth? Do the shape of its nose and mouth making eating and drinking easier or more difficult? Where are its eyes located? Do they face front or are they farther on the sides of its face?

Be sure to offer plenty of positive feedback and constructive help. Encourage your students to stay as the animal and try not to break character.

The tasks

Once your kids become more comfortable just moving and walking around the room as their animal, have them perform various tasks. Here’s a basic dialogue:

• “Look over there! Spot it. It’s food. Show me how your animal gets food. What is the food? Did it hunt it, find it, gather it, or was the food given to the animal? Think about how it tastes. Does your animal dip its head down to eat the food, or does it use its hands or paws to manipulate movement? Does the shape of its nose or mouth make it easier or harder to eat?”
• “Mmmm, that was tasty. Now continue moving as your animal. Think about the environment your animal lives in. Is it indoors or outdoors? Is it cold, hot, dry, or humid? Is there sand, water, grass, dirt, trees or bushes? What does the environment smell like?”
• “Look over there! Spot it. It’s water. Show me how your animal gets water. Is it from a stream, puddle, bowl? Think about how your animal has to drink it.”
• “Mmmm, that was refreshing. Now continue moving as your animal in its environment. Think about how your animal plays. Does it swim, jump, fly, skip, hop, leap, run, roll? Your animal must do something for fun, how does it keep itself entertained and going? Find your animals playful side and just enjoy it all!”
• “Then suddenly…” (At this point, I usually take my attendance binder and smack it on the table) “Your animal senses danger. Show me how your animal runs and hides from danger. Find a hiding spot. Stay still and quiet– Keep a look out though!” (Wait for them to be very still and quiet) “Take a look– The coast is clear, your animal is safe, so come on out, and keep exploring your environment as you were.”
• “Now, your animal has had a long day of eating, drinking, playing, and hiding from danger, so now it’s time for your animal to go to sleep. So show me how your animal takes a nap at the end of the day.”

Talk it out

As a drama teacher, it is so important to talk to your kids after the exercise. Ask them why they thought you had them do the activity, and discuss their answers. Ask them what they felt during the exercise, and how it could be used to improve their acting. Assure them that your classroom is a “safe zone” where they will not be judge by their acting, that taking a chance no matter how big or small is an awesome thing. I tell my kids, “don’t be afraid about looking stupid when you’re acting. You only look that way if you hold back and worry about it. Just let go and have fun!”

Additional tips for teachers

It is up to you if you want to allow them to make sounds as their animals or interact with other animals. The issue with making sound is they may get too loud that they cannot hear your guidance through the activity. Also, if they are young actors, you do not want them to hurt their voices if their animal has a particularly abrasive sound. With interaction, if you are able to do the activity a second time, perhaps wait until the second time and before the nap to interact. Some students become more tempted to break character if they are asked to interact with classmates (possibly friends) as animals, so that is why I suggest leaving that as a later option.

This is a great theatre activity to help students explore the limits of their bodies and physical movement, as well as take on different personas (having them act as a fish and then a tiger will undoubtedly help their versatility). This is not about “pushing” your young actors, but rather allowing them to push themselves at their own paces, which is why this works for both the extroverts and introverts. This activity can be modified for just about any age, from pre-school to even college students! Aside from the technical reasons, this also allows your actors to simply learn to have fun exploring different characterizations– because having fun is what creative drama is all about.

Exercise Contributed by Anna Smith:

Anna is a graduate of Plymouth State University with a Theatre Arts degree concentrating in Acting & Dramatic Writing. She is currently a teacher at the Bedford Youth Performing Company (BYPC) a non-profit 501c small business company. At BYPC, she currently teaches acting classes, film makers classes, directs spring shows, directs summer camp shows, and participates actively in the “Circle of Giving” program. Circle of Giving is the community outreach service provided by BYPC that helps bring theatre, music and dance to children (and elderly) who may not otherwise have the opportunity.