Five Tips on Exploring Transition Theatrically with Students with Disabilities

By Lisa Golda

As any actor will tell you, theatrical practice is a very powerful tool for self-transformation. The very act of embodying different roles in a cooperative context provides socially reinforced opportunities to realize the dreams and conquer the obstacles of one’s inner landscape in the physical world. Traits of characters played can, if invited, linger in the actor’s psyche long after the curtain comes down. Scripted character interactions allow opportunities to both share and assume perspectives in rehearsal for more spontaneous real-life conversations. Obstacles conquered onstage prove less problematic offstage. Here are five graduated ways to explore and empathize with the inevitable obstacles and unknowns of transition with students, teachers, and families entering life after high school routine.

1. Start small and safe. Actors simultaneously utilize literature, movement, speech, interaction, self-assertion, and physical tableau, but those elements are easy to tackle one by one while still offering effective opportunities for rehearsal of real-life skills. It’s important to build a sense of comfort and mastery into graduated assumption of the role one wishes to assume after transition from high school to adult life. It is also important to reassure parent and teacher participants that they can indeed apply theater to their own lives despite any potential lack of acting experience. Ask students and teachers to choose words they associate with transition, such as “birth” or “sunrise,” then invite them to create silent statues or ten-second tableaus of these concepts with their bodies, with a partner. This is a very non-threatening, failure-proof, and beautiful way to embody change and begin considering all that transition implies.

2. Embody and overcome metaphorical obstacles to transition before exploring interpersonal scenarios. Theatrical work can be very transformative, but most non-actors need to build trust and safety with each other before jumping into the emotional deep end of their imagined realities and relationships. Group participation in both being and navigating an obstacle course—for instance, cooperatively and safely guiding a blindfolded participant through an improvised classroom maze with vocal directions—can give the guided actor the experience of dependence, frustration, and trust. This activity also leads the guiders to an understanding of their own tendencies in helping situations: What tolerance do they have for watching their students and children struggle with obstacles? What can a student learn about their parents’ challenges by helping them navigate in the metaphorical dark?

3. Improvise an applicable interaction with secret agendas. Give two participants transition-applicable, opposing unknown agendas to explore in improvised dyad in front of the group. For instance: two teachers are partnered. One teacher is given the objective of staying out after group home curfew to see their only friend—it’s life or death stakes. Another teacher is told that they must not acknowledge the “resident’s” risky rule-breaking desire, but only repeat: You may not break curfew. In embodying this and other authentically applicable transition scenarios, participants can gain a better sense of what their students, parents, and teachers are experiencing, as well as rehearse positive potential responses and outcomes.

4. Collect and incorporate narratives to feature in a transitional showcase performance. It has been said that good acting is merely being present and listening to your scene partner with 100% focus. Foster the art of listening by having students, parents, and teachers gather narratives from each other about aspects of transition and its real, imagined, feared, and desired outcomes. Condense the narrative material into poetry, song lyrics, or simple monologues addressing the participants’ inner transitional landscapes. Then perform the original material in theatrical format. Embodying this personal source material further enriches the conscious processing and experiencing of transition.

5. Prepare and perform a relevant text, play, or book excerpt pertaining to the issue at hand. Our participants have now moved from simple frozen tableau to metaphorical obstacle mastery to perspective taking to experience sharing to the actual art of acting; that is to say, embodying an experience that is not literally one’s own, but which becomes one’s own through the art of acting. Having practiced presenting material and situations that are truly our own through gathered personal narrative, our final objective as actors is to take the perspectives of others alien to ourselves by rehearsing and performing plays. Students who choose to perform roles that may seem impossible to parents and teachers may end up embodying positive aspects of those characters in their actual lives, or successfully avoiding them, if negative.



A headshot of Lisa Golda

Lisa Golda

Lisa Golda spent seven years teaching for Chicago Arts Partnerships in Education and Chicago Opera Theatre. She is currently the Business Manager at Skylight Music Theatre in Milwaukee, WI. Her resume includes professional acting, singing, music directing, voice teaching, and arts integration consulting for orgs including Lyric Opera of Chicago, the Ravinia Festival, and the Chicago Symphony.


Lisa Golda and Michelle Parker-Katz will present “Embodying Transition: A Theatrical Approach to the Transition IEP” at the 2016 VSA Intersections: Arts and Special Education conference on Monday, August 1, 2016.


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