Developing the Creative Imagination Through Play

How one director & teaching artist views play, daydreaming, & games as a crucial part to the acting process.

No matter what genre or style, as actors our ultimate goal is to live, realistically and honestly, within imaginary circumstances. One of the greatest ways to step into these fictional circumstances is with the phrase, “what if...?” Sure, that’s easy to think, but how do we get the most out of that open-ended question?

As a director, I believe that in order to build our theatrical imagination (our capacity to consider, “what if…?”) all artists must create a personal foundation based on discipline, awareness, and the ability to play.

I love teaching ATC’s Fall & Winter class, the Power of “IF.” The goal of that class, geared towards teen actors, is to develop the creative imagination:

a process absolutely essential to constructing sound character development and committing to the given circumstances of any script.

We begin with traditional theatre games and exercises, then move to games drawn out of in-class conversations that explore given circumstances, objectives, obstacles, and tactics. These exercises build confidence in the ability to approach any character living in an imagined reality.

Because the spirit of the class is rooted in exploration and investigation - it goes to the heart of what I believe all theatre and film acting should be: play. It is a playful environment which makes the journey of choice exploration worthwhile.

The accomplishment achieved through structured play is that addictive sensation which draws all actors to performance.

But one cannot give themselves over to constructive play with no awareness of goals or expectations. I make sure all my acting students are away with some basics:

  • Discipline comes out of creating a healthy regimen of activities and then sticking to it.

  • Awareness comes out of allowing time and space to get to know oneself and how we respond to the world around us.

  • Self-awareness leads directly to the ability to play onstage or in front of the camera. This allows performers access to an ever-evolving series of personal choices and experiences which can be used to create characters and respond to imaginary circumstances.

Scene work is not the primary focus. Sometimes an actor merely needs to focus on how to make believe. Through play, we begin to uncover our personal foundations. The foundation upon which, eventually, every character we play will be built.

“How?” You ask:

  1. By establishing a regimen based on warm ups and creative exploration.

  2. Theatrically investigating likes and dislikes.

  3. Improvisation.

  4. Experimenting with various styles of movement.

  5. Telling stories (verbally and non-verbally)

  6. Daydreaming...yes, daydreaming...

Out of all the “hows” listed, numbers 2 and 6 are my favorite...

In my acting classes, like the Power of “IF”, once we begin having conversations regarding the actors’ interests, activities, favorite and least favorite songs, foods, etc. and you start to see how these realizations of self can forge the connection to a character and/or relation to an imaginary world.

Daydreaming, theatrically speaking, is a direct line to generating ideas and expanding scenarios into full scenes with characters and given circumstances.

It’s an exercise into the how and the why behind the ways that imaginary world might operate and/or how you might approach existing in that reality. It is crucial that actors - young and old alike - discover that which is already within them so that they can then use what they uncover creatively.

To do this requires a non-judgmental environment where students can develop their whole creative selves. Atmosphere is everything. It is important to begin immediately creating a supportive space where creativity can thrive. A space in which the wants, needs, and goals of an actor cannot help but be a connection to their ensemble. You have to be willing to fail. Remaining open to failure is as essential as it is frightening. It is actually freeing.

Improvisation is key to this development by exploring pace, weight, levels, breathing, walking, dancing, skipping, crawling, etc. These games allow actors to take risks by diving into imaginary unknowns.

Improv games encourage actors to make creative choices without being aware of it and create conversations revolving around empathy, patience, and compassion.

Acting classes help actors discover that unmet expectations are okay. Embracing what, in the traditional sense, might be considered a failure - they learn that there is no failure because there is no right or wrong way to engage in these creative exercises. It’s a phenomenal process to witness and one of the reasons I will seek to teach -- so long as the Actors Training Center will have me.

-Jerrell Henderson, Director & Teaching Artist

Based on your interest in this article, make sure you check out these ATC CLASS SUGGESTIONS:

  • Actors Boot Camp - Learn the imperative & challenging art of working honestly & fearlessly in all mediums of acting! This boot camp prepares our young actors for the next step - through monologue, improv, on-camera, scene study, & more! For 6th-8th Graders. Register HERE.

  • Comedy Lab - Physical comedy, stand-up, & comedic parody songs - all critical skills to foster a unique point of view in comedy writing & performing. This class caps off with fully written sketches to be performed for friends & family.  For 7th-12th Graders. Register HERE.

  • Professional Summer Intensive - Get inside the business with a curriculum that pushes you to an industry level of professionalism: study monologue, accents & dialects, on camera, & more. Conclude the program with an audition-ready monologue, headshot, & a showcase for family, friends, & invited Chicago professionals. For 9th-12th Graders. By audition only. Schedule your audition HERE.

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