Sarah J. Fabian, MFA, takes students behind the scenes to show them the amount of work and skill that goes into a play.
Managing Artistic Director, Stage Center Theatre, Northeastern Illinois University, Chicago
MFA in Stage Design–Scenic Design, BA in Theatre, minor in Studio Art–Oil Painting
Teaching introductory theatre may seem simple enough: Assign your class the plays of William Shakespeare, Maya Angelou, Eve Ensler, and Arthur Miller … and let the words, characters, and emotions sink in. But for a class of students from widely diverse backgrounds—most of whom do not intend to major in theatre—this is unlikely to play out well.
That is why Sarah J. Fabian, MFA, takes a more dynamic approach to help her students see how stage drama can shape their minds and lift their spirits. In her Introduction to Theatre class, Fabian uses the simple, time-honored formula of “learning by doing” to help students develop an appreciation of this medium.
Through a series of dramatic exercises and hands-on activities, Fabian takes her students behind the scenes to explore the mechanics of play production. Then, armed with a newfound appreciation for the medium, her students ultimately produce their own eight-minute play, often one that examines the depth and breadth of their varied life experiences.
“It’s about giving them the building blocks of what theatre is,” says Fabian, “and trying to break down that barrier and make it more accessible to them.”
To some, theatre seems like an elite art form
A majority of Fabian’s students are looking to enter professions far from the world of theatre. They come from a variety of racial and cultural backgrounds, with many of her students being first-generation college students, and most are simply taking her class to satisfy a general education requirement. Fabian says most have never seen a live play performance.
“A lot of students come into the course not really knowing what theatre is, or they don’t have any experience with it,” she says. “They think of theatre as an elite art form that isn’t for them.”
Turn students into theatrical producers
Fabian breaks down students’ misconceptions and inhibitions by giving them the chance to see theatre from the inside out. Her students write, design, and produce their own shows, both to gain appreciation for the artistic endeavor and to get a street-level sense of how much work and skill goes into organizing a production.
“It gives them that foundational sense of theatre as art, but also as a business with structure to it,” Fabian says. “This makes theatre much more accessible.”
“This course encourages and creates a sense of appreciation for the theatre arts and how intricate the process is. It reinforces that theatre is more about process than it is about product. If you have a good process, you should have a good product. It also reminds the more scientific students that theatre is essentially a science, because we test out all these different hypotheses and go through a process to see if they work or not.”— Sarah J. Fabian, MFA
Course: CMTT-130 Introduction to Theatre
Course description: Survey of the components of theatrical experience and the function of the various contributors to theatrical production. Attendance at selected theatrical productions is required.
See resources shared by Sarah J. Fabian, MFASee materials
How Fabian sets the scene for playwriting
Fabian helps prepare her students for the final playwriting project by explaining the hard work that goes on behind the curtain. “We spend a lot of time front-loading the class with information about theatre as an organization—the structure, the hierarchy, what all the different design areas contribute, as well as other roles, like producer, director, and playwright,” she says.
Noting that the diversity of her class can contribute to feelings of discomfort (and a reluctance to speak up) in the first weeks of her class, Fabian conducts several bonding exercises familiar to theatre folks the world over.
One exercise—often called the Human Knot—breaks the ice by first dividing students into several large groups. Ideally Fabian starts with five to seven students per group, but then she ramps it up to larger groups, which makes the task more complicated and requires even more collaboration. “Then everyone has to grab two other people’s hands, but not the hands next to them,” Fabian says. (And not two hands of the same person.) “Then they have to talk to one another as they try to undo the knot without anyone letting go.”
Another exercise—an improv game called “Big Booty”—involves arranging the entire class in a circle and assigning each student a number. The students elect the person who will be number one, aka “Big Booty,” and then count off either to the left or right of that person. Big Booty begins the chant and calls out the number of another student; if that student does not immediately call out the number of a third (different) student, they are out.
“They laugh when they mess up, and I think that’s important in theatre, because a lot of students have learned over the years to be concerned about doing things ‘right,’” Fabian says. “The point of this game is to get them outside their comfort zone and teach them that vulnerability is OK—not only in the classroom but in all aspects of life.”
Exercises like these also prepare the students to work in groups for their script-writing and production project, by helping them get to know one another better.
Lesson: Get nonmajors excited about theatre with an 8-minute play
To give her students the full hands-on producing experience, Fabian divides them into groups of four to six and tasks each group with the creation of an eight-minute theatrical work. This work begins around week eight out of a sixteen-week semester. All it takes, she says, are four clear-cut steps:
1. Scout the production elements
First, Fabian introduces her students to basic principles of lighting by engaging in short exercises using flashlights to illustrate how shading, spotlighting, and even darkness help build dramatic tension.
She also takes students on tours of full-scale shows currently in production at the university to show how quarter-inch scale models are used to help set designers create props and scenic design.
Finally, Fabian invites her students to visit the university costume shop to see how complex and specific wardrobe choices can enhance each character, making them more easily identifiable by the audience. “It’s sort of like giving them this fun little window into all the theatrical areas you can participate in if you’re not someone who likes the limelight of performance,” she says.
2. Have them identify a mission and theme
Before beginning to write a script, each group must assign its “theatre company” a name and define its mission and values. This helps students focus more keenly on what subjects might work best for the “playlet” each group will create.
Fabian supervises each group’s internal discussions to help them home in on themes that spring from their personal or cultural experiences. Recent themes have included police brutality, teen suicide, and the struggles unique to same-sex relationships.
“I want them to find themes that are challenging, while they often want their plays to be funny,” she says. “They struggle to add moments of levity. It’s fascinating to watch them learn the process of tackling a serious subject in a way that makes it lighter so it’s bearable.”
3. Use freewriting to flesh out dialogue
To get the script flowing, Fabian has students engage in stream-of-consciousness brainstorming. To do this, they draw from monologues they wrote about themselves early in the semester, with each person contributing ideas and lines. “The point is to get your ideas on the page,” Fabian says. “Once they’re on the page, you can start organizing your thoughts more.”
Later, Fabian assists each group with mapping out all of their individual ideas, using them to create characters and lines that will result in a final script. “Even if they are writing about their unique, individual experiences, they’re always thinking about the characters in terms of the relationships they set up with their group members,” Fabian says. For example, one student group decided to tackle the idea of arranged marriages as well as same-sex relationships. Two of the students in the group were in a relationship together, and they wanted to bring their personal experience to the table; another in the group was struggling with the parental pressures of an arranged marriage.
4. Take the page to the stage
Each group member is involved in all aspects of the play’s production—acting, directing, designing, and stage-managing. Fabian asks the students to research the costumes, set designs, and lighting elements that might match the themes of their plays. Each group then does a “design element presentation” to preview lighting, sound, set, and costume choices. Students are permitted to use Google Image search, resources at the library, Pinterest, etc., as long as they provide complete citations.
The plays are then staged during regular class time, often with university faculty on hand to enjoy and celebrate their work. And while Fabian videotapes each show for grading purposes, she is quick to put her students at ease. “Don’t worry about your grade. Just have fun,” she tells them. “If you’re having fun, the work will come to life in its own way.”
While Fabian realizes that many of her students may never participate in a theatre production after leaving her class, she sees the play-producing experience as a way to build the kind of risk-taking confidence that can lead to other interesting pursuits in the future, both in the arts and in business.
“I remind them that school is the perfect environment to screw up,” she says. “This is the place to do it, because it’s a protected environment, and this is the place where you learn to fail and learn to grow through that failure.”
And when her students succeed at creating something that they can call their own, she is able to see their sense of satisfaction extending beyond the fun of working as a collaborative group.
“You may not realize how much you’re learning, but when you get done, you’re like, ‘Oh my god, I created this eight-minute play with a group!’ And that’s something important for them to walk away with,” says Fabian. “Yeah, it takes a lot of blood, sweat, and tears to make this happen, but in the end, they get a little taste of what a theatre ‘high’ feels like. It’s just magical.”