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Arts in the Schools


After graduating from the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts and acting in plays and the soap opera "From These Roots," Ursula Karelsen taught drama to elementary school children at the Ethical Culture School in New York. She shares her experiences in this interview with Creative

Q: You've been an actress, a mother and a teacher. Are there any similarities between those roles?

A: There are a lot of similarities between being an actress and a teacher. Both involve role playing. As a teacher I thought of the best teacher I ever had and tried to imitate her. She had a dignity and authority that I felt I didn't have, so I tried to imbue myself with the essence of that quality. I remembered how she affected us as students and knew this was the way I liked to be taught. She never raised her voice. I learned the power of silence. When the children became obstreperous, I just stopped. The kids would get unsettled. They'd look at each other and then at me. It was very effective. Basically, I had a huge advantage, in that almost all children like-- love drama.

As a mother I couldn't role play. Being a mother was such a powerful, emotional experience. I was too caught up in it to detach myself. Sometimes I might have been a better mother, if I could have role played!

Q: How did you go about teaching drama to elementary school children?

A: We started off with exercises, theater games and skits. After many months of theater games and skits, we would put on a big play. In the skits I would divide the students into groups of four and have them focus on a theme.

Q: Where there differences in how kids responded?

A: Yes. I was an advocate for the shy child, trying to bring him or her into the group. Other kids wanted to organize and lead, sometimes this was fine, but some became bullies. On occasion a kid's negative feelings would show it self in drama. Other times there were kids who acted out in the classroom, but who were sparkling in drama class. Drama is a safe way for kids to work out their anger and fears.

Q: What age groups did you like working with?

A: Fourth grade was my favorite age. The kids were most open at age 9 and 10.

Q: What were some of the theater games and exercises you did?

A: I had the kids make a machine, a very good exercise. I would divide the class into two groups and they would take turns being the audience. I wanted them to see that the audience was as important as the actors. To make the machine the first person would go to the middle of an empty space and do a repetitive movement and sound. Then each member of the group, one at a time, would enter. Each did his/her own sound and reoccurring movement. They would work close together; interact, but were told not to touch.

Q: Why do you think it was so successful an exercise?

A: It was teamwork, but individual as well; very liberating. Nobody judged the kids.They were part of something larger. They were each making up something new and different. It also made them think visually and three-dimensionally and got them using their bodies. The audience was always delighted.

Q: What other activities did you use?

A: At the first session of the year, I'd have the children sit in a circle and say their first name three times, using a different emotion each time. I tried to get them to use their voices to express themselves. At the end, I would tell them that they had been acting!

Q: Are there other games or exercises that worked well?

A: One was for a pair of kids to practice saying "Please" and "no" in three different ways. Then they would change roles. Working with a partner showed them they were important to one another.

Q: In the era of "Just Say No" practicing saying "no" and takes on a whole different meaning. What kinds of skits did you work on?

A: The skits involved 4 people, per skit and we started off with something simple. For instance, in a grab bag skit I'd bring in different objects --a hat, glasses, a gravy ladle, a cloth etc.The kids would fish around without looking and pick an item.They then had 10 minutes to come up with a skit using the items. Every item had to have a meaning in the skit and obviously, each child had a part. There were usually twelve children in my classes. That meant that three groups of four would be working in different corners of the room simultaneously. It was not always a success; it was very noisy, but the concentration was amazing.

I also gave the kids a relaxation exercise they really liked. They would lie on the floor and I would turn down the lights and tell the kids to think of themselves as relaxed as limp spaghetti. They could make up a peaceful place --lying on a raft or the beach or on a raft on a pond; somewhere they loved to be. Later we would sit in a circle and the kids would share where they'd been and what they'd felt or imagined. Some chose not to tell. It was voluntary.

Q: What were some of the most rewarding experiences you had teaching drama?

A: There were many, but one memorable one was discovering that a boy in my class who had always been able to speak smoothly and easily when he acted had a stammar outside of drama class. When he played a role he had no stammar and he worked on building on his drama class experience by doing a reading where he was able to get past the stammar.

Another was trying to get a very, very shy girl to say a line to the audience rather than to the corner of the room. Drama was a chance for kids to transcend their personal fears and sometimes make use of their kinks and ideosyncracies.

Q: What plays did you perform at the end of the year?

A: We did Charlotte's Web -- with 3 Charlottes and 3 Wilburs to make it more fair since there were 65 children in the grade. We also adapted the Wizard of Oz, The Wind in the Willows, The Trumpet of the Swan. I wrote a play called "GoGo's Travels" about the history of man from amoeba to arrival on the moon. GoGo went from being an amoeba to a dinosaur to a caveman to an astronaut.

Q: What about your own experience acting?

A: My stage name was Ursula Stevens and I studied at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts. We had incredible training in voice and articulation. I still remember one of the tongue twisters --"Two toads totally tired trotting together to Tewkesbury."

Every three months we did scenes from plays -- Shakespeare something by a modern playwright -- Pirandello, Inge, Tennessee Williams. At RADA there was a class called "stage techniques" where we were taught such things as laughing, screaming, and falling down. It was hard work!

My most fulfilling role was in an off-Broadway play by the post Elizabethan playwright, John Ford. I played the lead for six months at the Orpheum Theater. The title of the play was "'Tis a pity She's a Whore" and in 1958 the theater wouldn't put the word "Whore" on the marquee.

Q :What was it like being in a popular TV drama?

A: I was on a soap opera called "From These Roots." Television was live in those days and I had sleepless nights trying to learn the lines. Later I discovered that most people didn't bother to learn their lines but read them off a teleprompter.

I was also an understudy in a hodge-podge of a play taken from a novella by Colette, where I sat in the audience through all the rehearsals , learned the lines and then played scrabble backstage while the play was on. I played the part two times, when the actress I was covering, lost her voice. I was very nervous, having rehearsed so little, but I was "word perfect."

Q: I've never heard "word perfect" used like that. I wonder if the computer term came from acting. What drew you to acting as a profession?

A: I always loved imitating people and getting dressed up. As a kid I put on plays with my brother. My parents were amused and would invite their friends. There is nothing more fun than pretending. It helps us, young and old alike to cope with whatever comes along. Acting is therapeutic and so much fun!

Please contact us. Tell us about your experiences with drama in school.

Copyright© 2002 Dr. Istar Schwager
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