Aspects of Drama

Aspects of Drama Part 3: Cultures, Periods, and Styles

The videos in this section of the Drama Arts Toolkit include performances, documentary segments, and interviews spotlighting drama from a wide array of cultures, historical time periods, and styles.

West African: Anansi’s Rescue from the River

In certain West African cultures, Anansi the spider is said to be the owner of all the stories in the world. He is the central character of this “why” story, retold by Mama Yaa (Gloria Bivens), from the Ashanti people of Ghana. It tells the story of how the moon came to be in the night sky: While on a journey deep in the forest, Anansi is eaten by a great fish, and his six sons, who each possess a special power, come to his rescue. Anansi wants to reward them with the gift of a great light, but the sons’ bickering over who is most deserving of the gift leads Anansi to make a different decision.

Suggested Uses:
Use to discuss similarities/differences between storytelling and acting.
Show as an example of a “why” story. Compare it to another “why” story in the Drama Arts Toolkit, “The Buzzard and the Monkey.”
Use this story as a prompt for encouraging students to write their own “why” stories.
Use in conjunction with the video segments “Gospel Train,” “Go Rabbit,” and “Rosebud Trinidad” from Old Music for New Ears and “Little Johnny Brown” from the KET series Dancing Threads to explore how music, dance, and drama help define specific groups and reflect unique histories, situations, and perspectives.
Have students research/read other Anansi stories and compare them.

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Japan: Bunraku

This pair of excerpts introduces an apprentice studying to be a puppeteer at Bunraku Theater in Osaka, give some background on the history of this Japanese art form, and show Bunraku puppets in action.

Suggested Uses:
Show to introduce a lesson or unit on Bunraku, Japanese culture, or puppetry.
Show along with segments from the DVD/PBS LearningMedia collection.
After viewing the segment, assign or have students choose various other cultures that also have puppetry traditions and have them research those traditions and present their findings to the class. (Many other puppetry arts are discussed in the “Periods and Styles” section of the Drama binder.)

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Greek Theater: Oedipus

Sophocles’ tragedy Oedipus Rex, or Oedipus the King, is considered to be the epitome of Greek tragedy. Sophocles made his first appearance as a competitor at the City Festival of Dionysia in 486 BCE at the age of about 28, winning out against Aeschylus in the first of what would be 18 victories at the competition. Despite its acclaim today, Oedipus Rex was not among Sophocles’ winning entries at the festival. The play begins as the young king Oedipus learns that his predecessor, King Laius, had been murdered years ago. He vows to avenge the king and bring prosperity back to the kingdom. However, his pride makes him ignore the warnings of his brother-in-law, Creon, and the blind sage, Teiresias. Oedipus fails to see that he, in fact, mistakenly killed the former king. In the scene featured in this reader’s theater presentation, Oedipus argues with Teiresias about Laius’ murder. The scene features Carmen Geraci and Sidney Shaw; director Robert Pickering introduces the action with contextual information.

Suggested Uses:
Show to introduce a lesson or unit on Greek theater.
Show along with the “Introduction to Greek Theater” segment from video segment from the About Drama DVD/PBS LearningMedia collection .
Have students give their own reader’s theater performances of this and other scenes from Greek drama.
Have students explore tragedy and the idea of the tragic flaw.

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Medieval: Everyman

Everyman, the best example of a morality play, is presented in reader’s theater format in this video segment. Popular during the Middle Ages, morality plays used allegory to illustrate moral struggles. The characters in a morality play were personifications of good and evil and were usually involved in a struggle for a man’s soul. In Everyman, which was written around 1500, the complacent Everyman is informed by Death of his approaching end. He can persuade none of his companions—including Strength, Knowledge, Discretion, and Beauty—to go with him. Only Good Deeds will accompany him in death, pointing out the reality that we can take with us nothing from this world that we have received—only what we have given. Director Robert Pickering introduces the scene with contextual information; Everyman is portrayed by Spencer Christiansen.

Suggested Uses:
Show to introduce a lesson or unit on medieval drama or history.
Show along with the “Mummer’s Play” video excerpt to demonstrate allegory.
Have students give their own reader’s theater performances of this and other scenes from medieval drama.
Discuss how this play might be staged using a contemporary setting and characters.
Have students write and perform their own allegories using contemporary characters.
Have students brainstorm costume design ideas for the allegorical characters in the play.

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Allegory: Mummer’s Play

The tradition of mumming involved troupes of actors and minstrels who performed allegorical plays for neighbors and the community during the holiday or winter season in exchange for food, drink, and tips. The script was usually transmitted by oral tradition. Mumming came to Appalachia from England as “breaking up Christmas,” the tradition of musicians, storytellers, and revelers holding a dance party at a home in the community, usually between Christmas Day and January 6. This performance was created by Joy D’Elia and Tommy Bledsoe and features a cast of musicians and actors.

Suggested Uses:
Show along with the reading from Everyman to demonstrate allegory.
Have students write and perform their own allegories using contemporary characters.
Have students research mumming and look for examples that survive today.

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Neo-Classicism: Tartuffe 1

Satire, which reached a high point in Europe during the 17th and 18th centuries, aimed to expose the follies of everything from individuals and the aristocracy to institutions like the church. French playwright Molière (1622-1673) showed his mastery of the genre with Tartuffe, a comedy that ridicules religious hypocrisy and pokes fun at the willingness of certain individuals to be manipulated by charm rather than substance. Tartuffe is a religious hypocrite who has ingratiated himself with Orgon, the head of an aristocratic house, in an attempt to win both Orgon’s daughter and, ultimately, his wealth. In this reader’s theater presentation of a scene from the play, Dorine tries to make her mistress Mariane (Orgon’s daughter) see that she can fight her father’s decision to have her wed Tartuffe when she loves another. Director Robert Pickering introduces the scene with contextual information.

Suggested Uses:
Show as an example of satire.
Have students present reader’s theater performances of other scenes from the play.
Have students plan the technical elements for a performance of this play. Encourage them to research the time period and strive for historical accuracy or set the play in another time period, indicating the era through costumes and set.
Compare this scene to the scene from Heartbreak House by George Bernard Shaw.
Have students look for examples of satire in today’s world (advertising, film, etc.).

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Neo-Classicism: Tartuffe 2

Satire, which reached a high point in Europe during the 17th and 18th centuries, aimed to expose the follies of everything from individuals and the aristocracy to institutions like the church. French playwright Molière (1622-1673) showed his mastery of the genre with Tartuffe, a comedy that ridicules religious hypocrisy and pokes fun at the willingness of certain individuals to be manipulated by charm rather than substance. Tartuffe is a religious hypocrite who has ingratiated himself with Orgon, the head of an aristocratic house, in an attempt to win both Orgon’s daughter and, ultimately, his wealth. In this reader’s theater presentation of a scene from the play, Cleante, Orgon’s brother-in-law, confronts Tartuffe, who has managed to convince Orgon to disown his son Damis and hand over Damis’ property to him. Director Robert Pickering introduces the scene with contextual information.

Suggested Uses:
Show as an example of satire.
Have students present reader’s theater performances of other scenes from the play.
Have students plan the technical elements for a performance of this play. Encourage them to research the time period and strive for historical accuracy or set the play in another time period, indicating the era through costumes and set.
Compare this scene to the scene from Heartbreak House by George Bernard Shaw.
Have students look for examples of satire in today’s world (advertising, film, etc.).

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Melodrama: Uncle Tom’s Cabin

This reader’s theater performance spotlights a scene from George Aiken’s 19th-century dramatization of the novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin. The book, written by Harriett Beecher Stowe, was the best-selling novel of the 19th century and was both praised for its anti-slavery stance and criticized for perpetuating racial stereotypes. In this scene, escaped slave Eliza reunites with her husband, George, and their friend Phineas. She recounts how she crossed the Ohio River with her child while fleeing from slave hunters. The scene shows the exaggerated language and performance typical of melodramas, the popular theater style of the time. Director Robert Pickering provides contextual information.

Suggested Uses:
Show to initiate a discussion of melodrama.
Show and compare to the novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin.
Have students write and perform melodramatic scenes based on books they have read.
Have students research the origins of the character of Uncle Tom, said to be based on Josiah Henson of Henderson, KY.
Have students discuss how melodrama exists today (in soap operas, etc.).

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Realism: A Doll’s House

This reader’s theater segment presents a scene from A Doll’s House, written in 1879 by Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen. Considered the father of realism, Ibsen examined the values and norms of Victorian society, family, and marriage. A Doll’s House is a scathing criticism of these values and norms as seen in the marriage of Nora and Torvald Helmer. Before this scene, Krogstad, a former employee of Torvald’s, has threatened to blackmail Nora with the knowledge that she forged a loan application to pay for a trip. In the featured scene, we see that Torvald treats Nora like a plaything or a doll and has no idea where her distress and preoccupation stem from. It is also evident from Torvald’s speech that Nora feels she cannot be truthful with him. By the end of the play, Torvald does learn Nora’s secret, and though he forgives her, she sees him for his true self. Director Robert Pickering introduces the scene with contextual information.

Suggested Uses:
Show as an example of realism.
Show to initiate a discussion of the purposes of drama/social commentary.
Use in conjunction with a unit exploring the status of women.
Have students predict the outcome of the play and write a concluding scene between Nora and Torvald.

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American Musical Theater: The Glass Christmas Tree

The Glass Christmas Tree, a holiday musical by Billy Edd Wheeler and Ewel Cornett, focuses on children who work in a glass factory and a photographer named Lewis Hine who uses the images captured by his camera to help them. In this scene, the children sneak into the factory at night and encounter Hine, who explains why he is there. The children sing “Pitiful.” The segment is taken from a co-production of KET and the Kentucky Center for the Performing Arts and is performed by Stage One, Louisville’s young people’s theater.

Suggested Uses:
Show as an example of a musical. Discuss how the music and acting are combined.
Analyze in terms of the dramatic elements.
Have students discuss or work in groups to plan how a story or book they have read might be adapted as a musical.
This musical deals with child labor. Have students research the history of child labor and the conditions that young workers like those depicted in the play had to withstand.
Lewis Hine was a real person. Have students research Hine and discuss the impact he and his work had on the development of child labor laws.

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Contemporary American Theater: The Ryan Interview

The short play The Ryan Interview was written by Arthur Miller, one of the foremost playwrights of the 20th century. KET produced the work for television, in a 35-minute presentation shot on location in Kentucky, as part of the American Shorts series. Ashley Judd stars as a journalist assigned to interview Mr. Ryan, played by Eddie Bracken, on the occasion of his 100th birthday. Expecting the article to be a mere curiosity piece, the young reporter is surprised when she finds Ryan to be a rich source of stories from a vanishing world.

Suggested Uses:
Show as an example of contemporary theater.
Show as an example of a duet.
Show and compare to another work by Miller; e.g., The Crucible or Death of a Salesman.
Show and analyze in terms of the elements of drama.
Discuss how this scene might be different if performed onstage instead of on video.

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Contemporary American Theater: Interviews with Miller, Judd, and Bracken

In this interview segment, Arthur Miller discusses the ideas behind the writing of The Ryan Interview, including the human need to connect to a past, the rapidly changing American countryside and culture, and the importance of valuing older people. He also talks about who the characters were based on. Actors Ashley Judd and Eddie Bracken comment on the importance of listening.

Suggested Uses:
Show with the performance segment from The Ryan Interview.
Show along with the interview segment with Marsha Norman on About Drama and compare the two playwrights’ descriptions of where they get their ideas.
Show this segment and the performance segment before having students interview older people in the community.

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The State of Contemporary American Theater: Interview with Arthur Miller

Preeminent playwright Arthur Miller discusses the state of American theater and the difficulties of getting a serious play produced on Broadway.

Suggested Uses:
Show in conjunction with the performance segment from Miller’s play The Ryan Interview.
Show as a prelude to student research about the economic and financial challenges faced by arts organizations in their community, their state, and the nation.

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The State of Contemporary American Theater: The Importance of Regional Theater

Actors Theatre of Louisville, a major force in contemporary theater, commissioned Arthur Miller’s The Ryan Interview in 1993. This documentary segment profiles ATL’s Humana Festival of New American Plays and includes comments by several playwrights and members of the ATL staff.

Suggested Uses:
Show in conjunction with the Arthur Miller interview and have students explore the state of theater in contemporary America.
Show in advance of reading The Gin Game, viewing Crimes of the Heart, or exploring other contemporary works.
Show in advance of the current year’s Humana Festival.
Show before taking students to see a production at Actors Theatre.

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