Theatre of the Absurd Workshop Series

Since my honest post a couple of months ago I have been very grateful for the many positive comments and messages of support for the blog. So, thank you very much. I am timidly returning to regular blogging and share this with you today.

I often receive emails of support, encouragement and requests for resources.

One of the most viewed sections on the blog is the lesson ideas for teaching the Theatre of the Absurd. It’s a tricky theatrical style to break down and teach. Over the years I’ve scaffolded and scaffolded so that finally I have a workshop series that seems to capture the essence of Absurdism. I often end up emailing this to various people who message me with resource requests which is quite often. So, to make it a little easier on me and you, I’ve added it to this blog post today or you can find it on my Resources page (click on the link in the left hand tool bar). It should be used in conjunction with these suggested teaching strategies: Absurdism 1 and Absurdism 2.

I’ve recorded a short video to explain how to read the table. You can check it out below but it is also available at my YouTube channel.

Here is the Workshop Series – The Theatre of the Absurd PDF referenced in the instructional video.

A little reminder: These resources are not designed for assignments or assessments for University students. If you wish to use these resources for this purpose please send me an email requesting permission.


More Theatre of the Absurd Teaching Ideas

One of the posts that seems to get a lot of views here on the blog is the one on suggestions for teaching the Theatre of the Absurd. I taught it again this year and I made a few alterations to my program and tried a few new things. You might like to use these in your class.

1. Focus on Being a Director

I’ve posted previously about how I spent several lessons scaffolding how to write a Director’s Concept. I wanted the students focus to look at the play as directors rather than as students.  I spent a lot more time than I have in the past building a strong understanding of the concepts behind the Theatre of the Absurd in order to more effectively work through into the practical aspects.

2. Workshops that Provoke Insight

I went on some PD last year that suggested a pedagogy of teaching that involved a different structure  to drama lessons so as to ensure experiential learning could be more easily transferred to the written essay. It suggested this idea of workshops that centered around key questions that required the students to have insights based on their practical experience as well as an ability to reflect on these. I structured mine over four lessons and found that they worked really well in being able to better convey these concepts to students. Here is a link to a PDF version of what I gave my students in a booklet: Workshop Series – The Theatre of the Absurd I also gave the students a Workshop Reflection Template to fill in on each of the workshops. The one in the link above is for Workshop 1. I would use the same template for the other three but replace the question as per the Workshop Series worksheet.

3. Devising an Original Absurdist Piece

I revised the assessment task and had the students form pairs. They had two tasks. The first was to write a Director’s Concept for their original Absurdist piece, which was the second part. The piece was to be created using dialogue from Waiting for Godot by Samuel Beckett. It could be used in any order and from any section as long as the sentences were as per the scripted play. The piece also had to demonstrate an understanding of the aspects looked at in the workshops. Some of the pieces that the students came up with were highly engaging.

I’m really pleased with how I taught this unit and think I really delved into the students higher order thinking and insight. I really enjoyed teaching it.

What strategies do you use with your class to teach The Theatre of the Absurd?

52 Plays in 52 Weeks: Week 6

The Zoo Story by Edward Albee

Recommended by Laurence C, Rowena M, Karen B

I had the pleasure of watching a rather exceptional student perform “The Story of Jerry and His Dog”earlier in the year and I have to say I was blown away by his skill. I didn’t realise at the time that the piece was from The Zoo Story. I’ve taught Absurdism before (for teaching suggestions check this post out) but I’ve always taught Waiting for Godot rather than The Zoo Story. It was nice to finally give myself some time to sit down and read the entire play.

It’s short and captures Absurdism beautifully (which I get and totally love). Jerry is truly the focus of the play as he is the one with the most dialogue and who drives the story. He needs to play off Peter however so Peter’s role is vitally important, particularly towards the end. So not only is The Zoo Story brilliant for a male student looking to present a monologue but also as a text to study in a unit on The Theatre of the Absurd. You could also use parts of it for short scene work when looking at the elements of drama and also direction and staging. Not a lot of specifics were given as to where Jerry should move around the stage so it would be interesting to see how student’s interpret particular moments.

I really connected with Jerry. I fell in love with his desire to simply want to have someone to talk to. He seemed geeky, a little annoying but I could see that he just wanted to chat. His retelling of the incident with the dog is beautiful and his interactions with Peter made me wish that all conversations could be like that sometimes. This is why the ending of The Zoo Story is so shocking and very unexpected. I can’t say I’ve ever had a play move me to tears but this one came pretty damn close.

I think Absurdism would have to be one of my most favoured theatrical styles. Absolutely brilliant.

You Tube has a stack of clips from both The Zoo Story & “The Story of Jerry and the Dog.” I didn’t want to pick one in particular (because I so enjoyed the student’s performance that I saw) so simply search either The Zoo Story, The Story of Jerry and the Dog or The Zoo Story Monologue and something should pop up.

If you like Absurdism too Sydney Theatre Company will be presenting Waiting for Godot next year featuring Hugo Weaving and Richard Roxburgh.

Image Credit: Bench / Ville Miettinen / CC BY-NC 2.0

Lesson Lovenotes: The Theatre of the Absurd, Teaching Suggestions and Resources

I recently posted some teaching and learning activities for the teaching of Dada Performance Art in the classroom. I mentioned in the post that Dada is an excellent pre-cursor to teaching The Theatre of the Absurd. Here are some of the strategies I like to use in the classroom when teaching The Theatre of the Absurd to my students.

Introduction to The Theatre of the Absurd

There are two main concepts students need to understand in order to start to understand the basic ideas behind The Theatre of the Absurd:

  1. The random, lack of connection between actions, objects and words.
  2. The playfulness between the actors in being able to convey this randomness.

The first point links to the social, cultural, historical and philosophical viewpoint of Absurdists. The second links to the execution of this philosophy by the Absurdists.

Remembering that drama is a visual medium, it is important to understand the viewpoints of the Absurdists. However, the intricacies of the execution with which they manifest their beliefs through their plays is what is of real interest. You want your students to be able to identify these, interpret and perform them in new and existing ways and to also be critical of them and review and appreciate the process of making an Absurdist performance.

There are two activities I always like to use in the classroom to convey this.

1. A Non-Sensical Scene: Place a number of random objects around the room. Have each student line up at the entrance to the classroom. Each student must take a turn at entering the space, picking up an object and using it in a way that it would not normally be used. Secondly, students pair up. The first of the pair enters the room and picks a different random object and uses it in a way it wouldn’t normally be used. As they are doing this the second of the pair comes into the space and whispers a line of dialogue into their partner’s ear. It should have nothing to do with the object or what the person is doing with the object. The person then says it aloud. It is important at this point to have the students discuss their experiences of the exercise. Use questions that engage them with the idea and the connection that what appears on stage is not literally what is intended. Often something different may be meant.

2. Watch Clips of Absurdist Scenes: In the years since Beckett, Albee and Ionesco many have treaded the boards of Absurdism. These include the Marx Brother’s, Abbott and Costello and of course Monty Python’s Flying Circus. There are several excellent clips on YouTube that show what an Absurdist piece can look like but the key concept to be drawn from these clips at this point in the students learning is that commonly, not always, but commonly, Absurdist plays featured two main, male characters who were seemingly clown-like.

Before viewing these clips may I also suggest rather than watching the clips straight from YouTube you consider downloading them and saving them permanently on your computer. I have written a post about this previously that you may be interested in to help you with this.

The Marx Brother’s – A Day at the Races

Monty Python’s Flying Circus – The Dead Parrot

Abbott and Costello – Who’s on First?

Working Through the Concepts

There are some pretty heavy concepts dealt with in the Theatre of the Absurd. In particular, their philosophical viewpoint, the idea of existentialism. Consider starting your theoretical study of Absurdism with a discussion about this. Link to the Wikipedia page or perhaps consider the use of another video to get the students thinking about what it is. Essentially what they must understand is that Absurdists believed life had no purpose or meaning and only till you experienced anything could you place meaning onto it and what it means to you may be different to someone else.

Other things to consider in your theoretical study include:

  • The historical context: Absurdism was a creation born out of WWII. Get students to consider the effect the war had on people at the time and why some people may have felt it necessary to create theatre like this.
  • The social/cultural context: Absurdism was not well received by theatre audiences. Have students consider (and perhaps research) what kinds of plays people had been watching up until then and the kinds of expectations they had of an evening at the theatre and why this (Absurdist Theatre) was so outrageous at the time.

Acting It Out

Next comes the fun part 🙂 The experiential learning. Students need to be up and actively engaging with the texts language and stage directions in order to fully understand the purpose and dramatic meaning of the text. Most of the suggestions below are based around Waiting for Godot but can certainly be adapted to suit any of the other texts available for study. Consider the following:

1. Pick a play: There are heaps to choose from including most famously Waiting for Godot by Samuel Beckett (notice my tree reference in the image above), The Zoo Story by Edward Albee, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead by Tom Stoppard. I prefer to use Waiting for Godot because there is a lot of material available on this play both online and in books. Ensure also that you are able to study the play chosen because certain syllabi have text lists and texts are not be studied across more than one curriculum area.

2. Moved Reading + Video: Have the students perform a moved reading of the script. Alternate students playing each of the parts at different times during the play and alternate students to also read the stage directions (these prove very important later on in the experiential study of the plays). If you can source a video of the play, watch it after the moved reading. Personally, I prefer to watch the film at the end of the unit because I like to see how the kids interpret the dialogue and stage directions without the films impressions in their minds but that is a decision best left to you, the teacher.

3. Clowning Workshop: After the students have read the play I delve into getting the students to understand and interpret the relationship between the characters. Many of the Absurdist plays, as mentioned above, tend to centre around two main, male characters. The dialogue is like a tennis ball bouncing between them and the ins and outs of their relationship are moulded by it. The clowning workshop looks at interpreting the physicality of each role. Look at facilitating certain activities such as master/servant, look at the different types of clowns, the way they dress, speak, walk, stand, show facial expressions, enact with other clowns (consider slap stick and tricks here like falls etc). Have students create their own clown character. Pair them up with another student and get them to create a short skit that demonstrates some of the elements explored in the workshop. To take the workshop one step further, have the students apply their knowledge of clowns to specific scenes from the play. Incorporate props (e.g. the bowler hats that Estragon and Vladimir wear). Have the students perform it to the class and have them discuss the effects of the performance on the audience in terms of dramatic meaning and the relationship between characters.

4. Voice/Dialogue Workshop: Similar to the clowning workshop and linking some of the elements of the voice workshop mentioned in my Dada post, choose sections of dialogue to experiment with pitch, pace, pause, tone etc. Pitch and pause are two commonly used conventions in Absurdist plays. Another one is intonation and punctuation. A fantastic example of this is Lucky’s speech towards the end of Act 1 in Waiting for Godot. There is not a single punctuation mark for over two pages. Many students will interpret it as being read in one long, fast, continuous breath. However, watching various interpretations and trying to work out what it could mean to Lucky generates some interesting interpretations and deliveries of his dialogue.

And The Rest…

In addition to all of that it’s a good idea to look at the following:

  1. Biblical Allusions: In Waiting for Godot there are many. Have the students find out what they mean and why they have been referenced.
  2. Who is Godot?: Obviously this is specific to Waiting for Godot but it is an essential question to ask. Also, whether or not he is in fact real needs discussing.
  3. Dramatic Form: The cyclical nature of the play both in Act 1 and Act 2 are relevant and link in with the Absurdist philosophy of existentialism. Explore this.
  4. Elements of Production: Minimal sets, lighting, sound and costumes are used. Have students look at pictures of past productions or use the stage directions or inferences to set pieces in the stage directions as a means of discussing the dramatic meaning for the audience.

I hope you found these suggestions helpful. Any suggestions are greatly appreciated. Please leave your feedback in the comments below.

Image Credits:

3005 Waiting for Godot, melomys, Licensed Under Creative Commons: Attribution 3.0 Unported (CC BY 3.0)

Lesson Lovenotes: Teaching Theatre History

This year I have Year 11 Drama. This term we are learning about theatrical traditions and performance styles.

I personally think it’s a good unit to start with because you can dabble 🙂 Dabble and play. Dabble in a range of different styles of performance. This works well because students can get a taste of the possibilities in Drama. Especially considering a good portion of students may not have taken Drama as an elective in Year 9-10 so it is all very new to them.

It’s often eye opening because the styles that can be explored are some of the weirdest! In the students eyes they often think acting is very much film and TV based with that very neutral, I’ve-barely-moved-my-eyebrows kind of look. A lot of posing basically. This unit really provides teachers with a platform to really get their kids working with their entire body as a form of expression.

I personally choose to look at DADA performance art and then move into the Theatre of Absurd. The ideas are very left of centre for the students. They start to think in an abstract way and they get to play and feel silly and find enjoyment and ownership in that at the same time. It builds confidence and creates a positive learning environment.

To provide some context for these theatrical traditions and performance styles I always run a theory lesson whereby we look at the development of theatre through time and how it has been influenced by politics, religion and popular culture.

I recently did a very general Google search and found a fantastic Interactive Theatre History Timeline at the Glencoe Online Learning Centre.

We were working in the library and I used the lesson as an opportunity to also introduce the students to the Year 11 Drama group that I had created in Edmodo. I have written about Edmodo before here. I uploaded a worksheet I created to Edmodo and got the kids to download it and save it onto their home directories. In doing this they could then edit and save their own material, save it to USB, email it to themselves etc.

Students had to work through the sheet, which I had broken up into particular theatrical time periods and add dates and significant theatrical events as well as any corresponding world events that were considered important and relevant in that time period.

I then got the students to compare what they saw happening in the world perspectives column with the actual theatrical event and to see if either were influencing each other.

To develop this exercise further you could then ask students to choose a particular time period or theatrical event of interest or allocate ones yourself and get the students to research them further.

Was this love note helpful? What suggestions do you have for teaching theatrical traditions and performance styles?

This is a new section of my blog where I will share some of the resources I have been using to teach with in my classroom. I like the idea of calling it a “lovenote” because it’s being sent with teacher love!…and it’s not too long of a post.

To create the screen shot above I used the Snipping Tool and added the text using MS Paint.

Image Credits:

Busra Theatre, by Hovic, Attribution – NonCommercial-No Derivs 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)