Creative Drama for the Classroom: Side Coaching Actors

Why Side Coaching?

Side coaching is the process of giving directions to actors while they are playing a scene. Acting students love side coaching, becomes it forces them to think on their toes. They have to instantly take on whatever emotion is given to them and work with it. This also enables students to explore minute choices they possess as an actor.

For instance, giving them the emotion “angry” instead of “enraged” helps them realize “mad” does not always resort to yelling. Sometimes, the more comedic (or more dramatic) moments are found when the actor either holds back the anger or perhaps chooses a different emotion entirely, rather than screaming his or her face off. Even the most emotionally sensitive people do not always resort to the most extreme intensity of these emotions, but rather those emotions become mixed with anxiety/stress or insecurity (not the emotion in its purest form). It is important for students to understand that as they advance.

Students will also realize the best comedy that occurs in an improv activity is when they do not “pre-plan” a big moment carefully, but rather when they “pull it out of nowhere” or from the moment at hand. Sometimes when one tries hard to be funny, they are not funny at all. Comedy happens in the most sincere, honest, and often unintentional moments. This does go for drama, too! Oftentimes, the most sincere, honest, and heartfelt emotions evoked are the ones that occur spontaneously, when the actors are thrown into the moment, rather than over-thinking it.

The Activity

  • Ask (or select) two students to volunteer for the side coaching acting exercise.
  • Suggest a setting. Some good ones to start off with are a therapist’s office or a breakfast table.
  • Cast the scene. For instance, if you chose to have the scene take place in a therapist’s office, cast one student as the patient and one student as the therapist. If it’s at the breakfast table one may be the husband and the other the wife.
  • Advise the student’s that the game should begin “with not a lot going on.” They should not choose some radical or extreme struggle or issue, or a strong personality. Instead, maybe the patient is talking to the therapist about some recurring dream he/she has been having. If it’s the breakfast table maybe they are talking about their upcoming day. This is important because it will prevent them from “pushing the comedy” or basically trying too hard to be funny. The goal, if comedy is the result, is that the comedy comes naturally and unplanned. We love surprises in the classroom!
  • Tell the students that you will call out an emotion, and both characters need to immediately take on the emotion, regardless of what they are saying or who’s talking at that time.
  • When you call out an emotion they should not drop their character, look at you or stop the scene. They need to react and act.
  • Start the activity as explained above.
  • Some emotions you could call out are happy, sad, angry, jealous, excited, resentful, confused, flirtatious, lethargic, furious, enraged, nostalgic, bitter, nervous, paranoid, narcissistic, in-love, etc. Note that some may seem similar, but fall under different intensities of the same emotion. This is almost like a “1-100 scale of emotion.” It is easy to say “mad” and have the students start yelling and screaming at each other. More often than not, that is not fun to watch. So being able to give a subtle range of emotions, bringing them back down and pushing them back up. allows the students to discover and use more of an emotional range.
  • Try and stop the game on a good, high note.

Side Coaching Side Note

After doing these activities, I find it beneficial to tell the students what I liked about their performance, and seek their input concerning what they liked or disliked, what they found challenging, what they discovered about his or her own acting, what they liked and discovered in their peers’ performances, and so on and so forth. The next step is to see how they can apply this to their own acting when they are working on a role. It can be fun to either assign them a monologue (or two monologues, one being comedic and the other dramatic), or to work a simple improv scene. This will undoubtedly aid them in character development as they become more in tune with their emotional selves and the subtleties that define exactly how they feel about something.

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.