Apart from their use of tools, humans are distinguished from other mammals by their ability to tell stories. Developmentally, the infant’s earliest stories are found in the soundscapes of the parent’s comforting voice and lullabies resonating deep within the child. Over time, the growing child imitates the cadences of sound and then the words themselves, so that a single sound soon transforms itself into elaborate tales of self and spirit. Rudolf Steiner acknowledged this essential element of human development. In his outline for the first Waldorf school, he recommended that speech, movement and drama be significant parts of the curriculum.
Imagine the two-year-old child on the lap of her parent during the Parent-Child Class. First a hand-clap verse, then a song about spring breezes with the parent gently moving the child from side to side. A year or two later, the same child is in the Early Childhood morning circle: “This is how the farmer sows his seeds,” the teacher sings as she gestures the casting of seeds onto the ground. Children follow and soon sing too. In the First Grade, fairy tales are told and re-told each day of the week; language, rhyme, rhythm, and word meanings are taking hold. A play is born! The children can now stand together and recite the words to a story together, using gestures to express themselves. Students also develop the confidence to stand before their classmates to present projects, recite individual verses, or read compositions. Parents attending the seasonal assemblies see these gradual changes and recognize the increasing self-assurance and skill with which the students perform.
Each grade presents a class play every year. The presentations become more complex as the children can handle longer verses and separate parts. By the upper grades, the children are capable of complex and sophisticated plays including lots of memorization and more elaborate costumes, props, blocking, choreography, singing. They are story-telling as they once did in the Early Childhood class, but now they are experiencing richer language and a deeper understanding and appreciation of pathos, comedy, tragedy, and other dramatic elements. They are also feeling deeply the great words and stories which can have a profoundly healing effect on their soul life, whether from an ancient Greek Chorus, the tradition of Commedia Dell'Arte, an original drama written by their class teacher, or a Shakespeare play in the Eighth Grade.
How does the teacher mount a play? This week, the Seventh Grade, under the guidance of class teacher Leslie Lew, presented its play, Eleanor the Queen. During rehearsals, Mrs. Lew took some time to discuss the Waldorf approach and how she builds the adventure:
Q: How do you select a play for your class?
Mrs. Lew: In thinking and planning the year’s curriculum, often an idea for a play will come to mind. What will meet this group of students? What do they need this year? These are the questions I ask when seeking a play. The play must resonate within the teacher so that it does the same with the students. Often a teacher will choose to write a play that meets his/her class, or compile a play out of a few that s/he has found. The play reflects the curriculum of that year, but also has a deeper meaning for the students. A play of the life of Saint Francis can transform the story of that particular individual for Second Graders. A Fourth Grade play that illustrates the rowdy, boisterous nature of the ice giants from the Norse Myths (and the Fourth Graders themselves!) may be what that group of students need. It is an important process for the teacher to take time in choosing a play that will meet the group of students s/he is teaching.
Q: Is every play staged?
Mrs. Lew: In the lower grades, the play is incorporated into the recitation portion of Main Lesson. Reciting the play together in the morning works on the children’s memory forces and their ability to speak clearly. As the students grow older, parts are assigned earlier in the process, and the class still rehearses as a group; in the upper grades, students work from a script and memorize their lines at home, and the class works on the play section by section.
Q: How long is your play?
Mrs. Lew: Hard to know. At some points, it seems about four hours long, according to our rehearsals!
Q: How do you assign parts?
Mrs. Lew: I often imagine a certain student as a character in the play before I have assigned the parts. This, however, does not always unfold in the way that I thought. I have had older students request a part I hadn’t thought they’d want, and not want a part I thought they would enjoy playing. I find these instances reflect what is happening beyond the text of the play, and I must listen to that. I find it fascinating to observe that at some point, once the students are off script, their character comes to life during the rehearsals. For some, finding their voice on stage is monumental. Each play is a mark in time, where the class comes together to illustrate a window into the Waldorf curriculum.
This dramatic experience, in addition to many musical performances and language assemblies (which often involve drama) presented over the years, not only fosters an appreciation of dramatic arts that may last a lifetime. More importantly, it develops a sense of solid confidence–not just for future public speaking or acting opportunities, but also in personal expression, everyday interactions, attitudes toward high school and beyond, job interviews, and so on. This confidence–a sense of feeling comfortable in one’s skin and in the world, and interested in life–is one of the key characteristics of Waldorf graduates, noticed by their later teachers and classmates, and ultimately by the professional world.
Photos from Eleanor the Queen