Mythic Transformation Through Dramatic Play

Posted on March 26, 2017

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I love teaching Mythology. It is an interdisciplinary, international, and inter-textual experience. I might even describe it as epic.

From Creation myths to Hero Quests, I lead my students on their own “mythic journey,” one fantastic tale at a time. I like to joke during my introduction to the course that “successful completion of the course will elevate students to deity status,” but on the other hand, they, like the deities, create new worlds through engaging in the process of the coursework and performance assessments: live, dramatic performances of the stories.

Each trimester, I begin the course with Creation Myths. I hand out a table with eight spaces where students take a few notes about characters, summarize the creating process, and hypothesize about the values of the ancient people who created the stories.  I share a number of stories, through reading aloud and showing videos, from around the world, and throughout all of human history.

I begin with a story from the African Zulu people, who imagined that all beings came from a single seed. After we watch the video, I ask, “Can anyone think of why I might have started with an African story?”

Some students will know that the reason I start in Africa is because human beings originated in Africa. Sometimes they can impress me by briefly summarizing the geographic history of the breakup of Pangea, all the way to homo sapiens. In any case, I follow the discussion of the myth with a review our common lineage and history as a species, and I get to indulge my passion for science.

From Africa, we go to the Babylonian story of war between older and newer deities, in which Tiamat, the mother goddess, is dismembered to create life on earth. After this story, we consider the idea that it is one of the oldest written texts on earth, and we think about all of the history that had to occur for early humans to develop first of all, language, then the oral tradition, and finally, the technology of writing. We begin to think about the timeline of world cultures, their beginnings and endings. When we’ve learned some Egyptian, Greek, Norse, Australian Aboriginal, Ojibwe, and Hebrew creation myths, we make a sharp turn: the second unit is End of the World stories.

One moment I take particular delight in as we dive into the work is the transformation that occurs over the course of the first unit. On day one, I explain that I assess learning by asking students perform skits. As I say this, I look around the room. I see heads shaking, arms crossing, and a lot of shifting uncomfortably in their seats. Someone usually says, “No way….”

Three days later, they’ve learned how to create skits through breaking stories into scenes, staging action and movement, then adding dialogue, to give an audience a satisfying experience. Transformation is aided by my “costume tub,” a hodge podge of multi-colored dance scarves, shawls, swaths of fabric, paper towel tubes, and a couple of old hats that allow students to get into character as deities, animals, and humans.

I teach play-making by dividing the class into two teams who are competing for a low stakes prize, five points extra credit. We go to a space where I can have one team on each side, coaching and encouraging, commenting about the quality of the work as they discuss, try, run through, revise, and try again. After a day or two of working on their plays, it’s SHOW TIME!

Back in the classroom, we assemble in our seats, and I explain that now we must give our full attention to the people “on stage,” and I remind everyone that we applaud to show appreciation for the performance, not to get attention on ourselves, because this is high school, and that’s a thing. Finally, we are silent, and the show begins. The two teams perform the story of “Bumba’s Illness,” wherein the creator gets a stomachache and vomits a world. The students have transformed themselves into deities, leopards, birds, fish, and lightning…and from “skit skeptics” into “skit believers.” They impress me, they impress each other, and they impress themselves. They are delighted.

It is inevitable. As soon as the applause ends, I’ll hear an excited teen voice shout, “ms. eddy, when do we get to do skits again?”

I just can’t help myself. I absolutely have to take a second to remind the students that when I went over the course syllabus–two or three days ago–“You said you didn’t want to do skits, and you scowled and crossed your arms about it!” Then I laugh, and say, “Now.” Then I review their “Bumba” performances and talk about what I want to see more of and what I want to see less of in their work, and I clarify the expectations for their performances. I declare the winners of the extra credit, and they cheer and gloat. The other team vows to earn it next time.

I then show the class their new, randomly selected teams: they will perform four stories, and the best performance wins the extra credit! The teams decide which lobbies they’ll go to to create their play, and in twenty to forty minutes, they’ll perform it.

Over the course of a trimester, we explore myths about creation, end of the world, nature, death, love, and the hero quest in this way, learning and then performing stories in a caring circle of friends with much joy, laughter, and cheer.

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Cooperative group mural: realms of the dead.

The final exam of the course is solo storytelling of a hero quest. By then, students have come to understand what I mean on that first day–that “course completion results in being transformed into a deity.” They know that I mean that each of us is on our own hero quest, that each of us has all of the gods, goddesses, heroes, villains–all the archetypes–in our imaginations, and that each of us has the ability to consciously decide how to respond to the challenges we face on our own, epic, life journeys.

Through story and dramatic play, each student is transformed, and when the final bell of the trimester rings, I watch them leave the room, going out to take their places among the immortals.

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