Drama Notebook with Janea Dahl

I was recently given the opportunity, through the Art of Ed, to interview Janea Dahl about her Drama Notebook website. It is a great site that shares a plethora of ways to bring Drama into your classroom–whether you teach Art, English, Science, or anything else. I asked her about a lot of activities specific to teaching art–figure drawing, emotional portraits, and still life drawing included–and how I might be able to use them in my own classroom. The article and condensed interview can be read on AOE here, but if you are interested in the full interview, you can read it below:

TIM: I spend a significant amount of time building community among the students in my classroom, starting on day one. What are some of your favorite get-to-know you activities both when introducing yourself, and also once you know a little about your classmates?

JANEA: I’m glad that you spend time doing that in your classroom. Often, students are reluctant to share their creativity when they do not feel trusting of the group as a whole. In theatre, we call this “building ensemble.” It is essential for actors to feel truly supported by one another before they can become vulnerable enough to deliver a strong performance.

I have two personal favorite ‘bonding games’ that work well together.

The Truth About Me

Have all students stand on one side of the room. One at a time, a person walks to the other side of the room states their name and says, “The truth about me is _____________________.” It can be anything, but encourage students to share something personal. Lead by example by sharing something interesting about yourself that most people don’t know. “I’m Mr. Bogatz and the truth about me is that I love to sing, but I only sing when I’m by myself,” is better than “The truth about me is that I like pizza.” Next, have anyone else who shares that same truth, walk to the other side of the room and join that person. Ask students to notice who else shares their true thing, then repeat the process with a new player. Play until each person has had a chance to go.

The next game is a great follow-up to the group game above.

Story of Your Name

One at a time in a circle, or small groups if the class is large, have players take turns telling the stories of their names. Instruct players that it can be a first name, a last name, a middle name or a nickname. If a player does not know the story, or if it is something they do not wish to share, let them know that they can lie! After the player has told his/her story, let the group vote on whether or not they think it is true.

Or try this!

Story of your pet’s name.

Story of your online name or gamer name.

What you would want to name your children and why?

TIM: A lot of art teachers do portraits that deal with emotions. However, I know many of us have trouble with students posing and showing these emotions in a realistic way. What would you suggest to help students tap into (and then demonstrate) these emotions as they are posing for portraits? 

JANEA: In acting, when an actor makes a stereotypical face, this is called ‘indicating.’ All actors work to overcome this practice and become authentic. This also makes for great art!

For example, if a scene calls for one person to be very angry, the actor may raise his voice and shake his fist at the other character to show that he is angry. Not only might this feel inauthentic, it may be the wrong choice for his character. Many people show anger by lowering their voices or by distancing themselves. This concept goes beyond emotions to the five senses. People react differently to various tastes, temperatures, etc. You may wish to give a brief explanation of this concept before starting any practice activities.

Here are two practice exercises that will help your students become more realistic when portraying emotions:

The Many Faces of Mad

Have students mill about the room-or find their own space in the room if space is limited. (Walking in-between the prompts serves as a re-set before a new emotion is called.) You may wish to play music during this activity.

Explain that you are going to call out certain emotions or situations, and that when that happens, students must stop walking and react the way they would in real life. Tell students that they don’t need to emote or move into a pose right away; stress that it’s more important to be “real” than it is to be fast. Let them know that it’s okay to imagine the situation for a moment before reacting. You may wish to start by engaging students in their senses and then move on to emotions. Here are some examples of what to say when introducing the senses/emotions.

“Many Faces of Mad” Prompts:

HOT- It is the hottest day of the summer. There is no breeze and no air conditioning. You are extremely hot! How do you show people that you are too hot? What does your body do? How do you stand? Do you attempt to cool yourself? How?

COLD-The weatherman was wrong. You are waiting at the bus stop without a coat and you are extremely cold. What do you do when you are this cold? Do you hop from foot to foot? Do you dig your hands deep into your pockets, or do you stand very still, shivering?

SOUR-Think of something that is very sour and imagine tasting it. What does it feel like on your tongue? How does your face react? Do you feel the ‘sour’ affect other parts of your body? Where?

ANGER-Your parents have just punished you for something you didn’t do. They won’t listen and don’t believe you. You are so mad you feel as though you could burst. What does your face look like when you are mad? Do you frown? Stare at the other person? Do you squint your eyes? What does your body look like when you are mad? How do your muscles feel? Which ones tense up?

SADNESS-Today is the day that your family has to take your favorite pet to be put down. It’s the right thing to do, but this pet has been with you your whole life. Your life feels empty knowing that your pet will soon be gone. What does your face look like when you are sad? How do your eyes feel? Where else in your body do you feel the sadness?

EXCITEMENT-You just won tickets to a concert with your favorite band. Not only that, you get to go backstage and meet the musicians. You are so excited that it almost doesn’t seem real! What happens when you get really excited? Does it only show on your face, or do you feel it somewhere else in your body? Do you move, or stand still?

BOREDOM-You have been home sick for two weeks. You have totally run out of things to do. You are even considering playing with your little brother. You’ve never been this bored in your life. How about when you are bored? When you are bored, do you feel like moping around on the couch, or do you get up and try to find something to do?

FEAR- You just moved in to a new house that has a creepy vibe. One night, the power goes out and you leave your room to find your parents. No one answers when you call out and as you move down the hallway, you swear that someone is right behind you, but there is no one there. What happens in your body when you are afraid? Do you feel like running, or do you just stand there frozen in place? Where in your body do you feel fear the most?


Did you feel successful at making each emotion real for you?

Which ones were the hardest?

What did you notice about the group as a whole?

Did everyone look the same or different in each scenario?
Why do you think there was such a variety?

How can we use this activity to be better subjects?

How can we use this activity to become better artists?

TIM: On a related note, would you have any suggestions on ways in which we could change appearances for portraits to make them more interesting? This could be a literal or a figurative change.

JANEA: Ask students to think of someone they have strong feelings about and ask them to imagine that the person is sitting right in front of them. Or, ask students to imagine becoming that person!

TIM: I was looking at your “Change Three Things” activity where students change things about themselves which others must notice. I was thinking about incorporating this with drawing people or even with drawing a still life. Which do you think would be better, and why? Would you have suggestions for other ways to turn that exercise into a drawing activity?

JANEA-Okay, here’s one off the top of my head. Have students play the game, “Change Three Things” in class. Have them practice really noticing one another. Next, as homework, ask them to come prepared to play again the next class, this time, changing three things that heighten or showcase their personality. They can bring props or clothing items, or simply hold a specific impression. Have each student go up in front of the class and have the other class members answer questions about them.


What has this person changed/added?

What does that tell us about him/her?

How can we make this useful in our art?

For still life, try this one:

Random Still Life

Have students bring three things to class that absolutely have nothing to do with one another. Next, place all of the objects on a table and let students take turns choosing one item at a time until everyone has three. Ask students to think about why they chose those three items and then ask them to find a connection between all three and paint/draw something that expresses how they are connected.

TIM: My students, when posing for gesture drawings, need to do multiple poses that can be held for 20-30 seconds (sometimes more). What might be a good activity to make these poses more interesting to view and draw?

JANEA: In theatre, we often experiment with levels-both levels of the stage and levels of our bodies. Invite subject students to use high and low spaces in the room as well as a complete range of body positions from lying prone on the ground to reaching for the sky. Instruct subject students that they must incorporate at least one lying position, one sitting or crouching position and one full standing position.

If you are concerned about gestures specifically, you could have a ready-made list of prompts to give to students that you can cut apart and put in a hat. Students LOVE picking from a hat! When giving the prompt, ask students to make a specific choice. For example, if they pulled, “wiping away a tear,” ask them to think about what had made them cry. If they are hailing a cab, ask them to imagine their precise location and circumstance.

Suggestions could include:


Wiping away a tear

Scratching an itch

Holding a butterfly on your hand

Blowing a kiss

Hailing a cab

Blowing warm air into your cold hands

Wiping your brow

Pointing a ‘naughty’ finger at someone

TIM: When beginning the class, we sometimes do exercises to stretch our hands, wrists, and arms before we draw. Is there a good Drama equivalent to this that we could incorporate?

JANEA: In my opinion, drawing is a whole-body, whole mind activity. Why not start each session with a relaxing and simple warm-up routine set to music? Here is a simple outline:

Sample Physical Warm-up Routine

Bending Stretch

Stand with your feet apart. Hang your trunk and arms down from your waist. Gently bend over, stretching your fingers to touch the floor if possible. Slowly stand back up.


Repeat, but this time, sway your arms gently from side to side, as you bend down and touch the ground. Slowly stand back up.


Stretch each arm up over your head, lean to one side, then the other. Let your arms hang loosely at your sides. Clench your fists for ten seconds, then relax.


Clench your feet, arching them as much as possible. Release them. Rest.


Lock your knees back. Release them. Rest.


Round your shoulders, keeping your arms loose. Release them. Rest.


Hang your head. Gently roll it to the right and the left. Let it roll backwards. Roll it gently to the right and left again. Let it fall to your chest.


Scrunch up all of your face muscles and then relax them. Repeat. Close your eyes tightly, relax them and then let them open. Open your eyes as wide as possible, wrinkle your brow and then relax. Smile as wide as you can, then relax your mouth.


Bounce a little on your feet, swing your arms lightly, move your head easily. Feel your balance and posture. Your head should be erect, comfortable poised atop your neck.

TIM: Do you have any other ideas, games, or activities that would work well in an art classroom? What are some of your favorite activities that translate well outside your own classroom?

JANEA: I literally have hundreds more ideas on Drama Notebook, many of which can easily be adapted for use in an art classroom. For instance, here is an excellent activity to offer as a pre-cursor to an abstract art unit:

Hide in Plain Sight

Instruct students that in a minute they are going to play ‘hide and seek,’ only there is a catch: instead of hiding behind, in or under something, they must hide in plain sight. Give the example of the chameleon that blends into its environment making it hard to see at first glance. Tell the group to consider shapes of things, colors, and spatial relationships in their hiding decision.

Send one person out of the room, and give the group a few minutes to ‘hide.’ Once they are hidden, ask them to imagine being one with their environment. Say, “Imagine that you are not visible to the naked eye.” Let the outside student back into class. Tell him that he must choose the person who is the most successful at blending into his environment. The student chosen will be IT for the next round.

This game can be especially challenging when working in an empty space, or a confined space. The students have to rely mostly on mental imagery and abstract thinking in order to blend in. As always, there are no ‘right’ or ‘wrong answers.’

Time permitting, ask for volunteers to explain their choices and then relate their answers to the concepts of abstract art.

The applied arts are similar to dramatic arts in that skill and discipline matter, but more important is the ability to express an individual, very unique viewpoint through the medium. This requires a personal risk and a level of vulnerability that many find hard to achieve. Incorporating dramatic concepts such as building ensemble, movement and ‘character’ development into the process can help students feel more comfortable with taking risks and sharing their true selves.

TIM: Any other thoughts you would like to add or share?

JANEA: I would like to thank the amazing art teachers who are dedicating themselves to helping kids embrace their creativity.

I believe that one very powerful way to heal our world is to inspire the younger generation to imagine and create a different future—a future where each person is safe, loved, seen and nourished. I know that sounds idealistic. But every day, I work to make my contribution to that vision. I send out my creativity and love to young people through their amazing teachers who are doing what I believe to be one of the most important jobs in the world.

Thank you for letting me share with you and your readers, and thank you for all you do.


Janea Dahl Bio

Janea is the author of Drama Notebook-the world’s largest collection of drama games and activities for kids and teens. She was the founder of the largest drama outreach organization in her state, and was the lead drama trainer for Portland Public Schools before creating the site. She is also the drama curriculum developer and trainer for Kaplan Early Learning. Janea is dedicated to uplifting the younger generation through imaginative play and performance. You may visit her website at http://www.dramanotebook.com .

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  1. Help Your Students Dig Deeper with Drama Notebook | The Art of Ed

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