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How to Begin Playmaking with Teens on the Spectrum

OR, How I Learned to Love "The Bremen Town Musicians"

For this first post I felt as if I should write some sort of huge three- or five-year plan for ACT Workshop, but “THE PLAY’s THE THING!”  and I want this blog to be about  playmaking and theater games with this special and diverse group of actors with autism spectrum disorder.

Today I want to talk about how we  are starting our scene work for The Breman Town Musicians.

Do you remember that tale? A donkey, dog, cat and rooster all set off on the road to Bremen town to play music. They meet some robbers, scare them away and . . . never make it to Bremen Town to play music.

Now, I never really liked Bremen Town as a folktale. In all my 20+ years of teaching, I think I read it to kids once and it landed flat.  The main characters are old, tired animals whose owners wanted to starve, beat, drown or cook them –  too depressing! In addition, except for the beginning, it didn’t have the rhythm of most folktales: it was neither cumulative (like Hennny Penny or Gingerbread Boy) or repetitive (like Goldilocks or Hansel and Gretal).

Then,  once the donkey, dog, cat & rooster are in the woods, there is this appearance of robbers in a house. Where did they come from? Who did they rob? Seemed like an arbitrary add-on, inserted just to create a second act. The robbers don’t even present a problem for the main characters! In fact, the donkey, dog, cat, rooster scare the robbers, eat the robbers’ food and end up attacking one of robbers, almost scaring him to death!


So, when I started to think about folktales to present to this acting company of 6 boys, ages 12-17, needless to say, Bremen Town Musicians never entered my mind. But then, as I mentally crossed off all of my favorites as being either too simple or too “young” or needing girls (which we still hope to get a few of!) I became stuck.

I turned to a recommended book: “Stories to Dramatize” by Winifred Ward written in the 1950’s. It’s a collection of stories gathered for creative drama. I thought folk tales were out of the question because of my all-male cast but then I saw Bremen Town Musicians in the contents.  I thought, “Okay, I’ll see how Ms. Ward spins the tale.”

Through her retelling of Bremen Town, the magic of folktales for playmaking rose up:

  • simple character traits (good/bad, poor/rich, friendly/mean)

  • the journey: rags to riches or how the unfortunate triumph

  • the woods – where life is altered

And the musicians on their way to Bremen could easily be all male!

So I quickly set out and

  1. gathered 3 different versions of the tale from my local library (for a picture walk before the story telling) 

  2. practiced my storytelling skills so I could tell the story, rather than read it from the text. (That way you can make better eye contact with the listeners, lean in, grab them, linger)

  3. had the actors sit in their “audience seats”and I sat facing them.

After reading we immediately got up and had the actors line up offstage, and laid down the dots in the form of a large “S” on the floor (spaced about 18 inches apart).

“This is the road to Bremen Town!”

I told them. A Supporting Player  modeled entering the “stage” and following the dots and exiting opposite side.

One by one the actors entered the stage, followed the dots (some with side-coaching: gestural prompts) and exited.

The adults in the audience applauded once the last actor made his exit.

The actors returned to their offstage position and this time, I showed a picture of Jack Kent’s dog:

“How does the dog feel?” I asked.

“Tired,” one of the actors replied. So they each entered the path again showing they were tired through body posture, expression, speed of their walk (no, of course not right away –  these are the goals that modelling and side-coaching will help the actors attain: the “show, don’t tell,” that Viola Spolin speaks of repeatedly in “Theater Games for the Classroom.”

Lastly, the third time they do this exercise, each actor will stop on the red dot (placed center stage) and, facing the audience, make some BIG gesture to show exactly how they feel (most actors copied the modelled yawn and stretch – perfect!) and then, continue on their path and exit. 

So, what’s accomplished by this seemingly simple activity?

Actors are learning to embody character.

Actors are learning to follow stage directions including how to:

  • enter on cue

  • follow the path

  • hit a mark center stage,

  • stop

  • make a big gesture (to reveal character) 

  • continue along the path and 

Not bad for one day!  Of course, the key to success is repetition of this entire process, adding different elements: a set piece to pivot around, a prop, a piece of costume . . . leading to that first stage encounter of the donkey and the dog: a moment of “seeing the other” — that’s the moment it’s all about —  not just for these teens on the spectrum but for theater . . . for life.

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