Mirror Mirror

This is not really one lesson, but several activities all stemming from the idea of mirroring.  I introduce mirrors with my very youngest students as a control device--see "Mirrors!" below--and by the second grade we are doing fairly elaborate activities and games with mirrors--see "Who Began?" or "Mirror Canon" below.  Yet I continue to use even the "Basic Mirrors" exercise with older children and even adults.  Mirroring is a way of developing concentration skills, and of honing those skills.  It can be used to help cast members bond, and develop that instant communication so necessary for really fine theatre.  It teaches careful observation skills, which serve students well not only in the Theatre, where it helps them to develop accurate and believable characterizations, but in all aspects of their increasingly complex life.  Plus, it's a lot of fun!


Basic Mirrors  |  Mirrors! Circle Mirror Who Began?  |  Mirror Canon


Movement Telephone  | Fun House Mirrors  |  Emotion Mirrors


Basic Mirrors

You are probably familiar with this activity.  Everyone takes a partner.  (If there is an odd number, the teacher pairs with someone.)  Partners stand facing each other, about three feet apart.  One is the leader, the other, the "mirror."  Moving only from the waist up, the leader begins to make simple gestures or movements.  The "mirror" duplicates the leader's movements exactly--just as a mirror would.  (Some students have trouble with the right-left shift.  If the leader raises her right hand, the "mirror" should raise her left, just as the figure in a real mirror would.  When they fail to do this, I tell students they are being a "video" instead of a mirror.)


Most students will want to make this harder than they should.  The goal is to mirror the partner perfectly.  I tell my students that if they are doing a good job, I will not be able to tell who is the leader and who is the "mirror."  I coach them to use smooth, continuous movements, because abrupt movements almost always catch the "mirror" lagging.  I coach them to look into each others' eyes, rather than at their hands, because this facilitates more precise communication.  I try to keep them from using their lower bodies until they have really mastered the arms-and-face mirroring.


I challenge my students to really focus on the process.  I point out that it is the leader's job, as much as the "mirror's" to see that the exercise works.  The leader does not try to trick his partner--on the contrary, he works very hard not to trick him.  It is the leader's responsibility to perform movements that the "mirror" can follow precisely.  I remind the leaders that they should be looking right at their partners, because their partners must look at them, and therefore the only way the mirror illusion can be perfect is if the leader also looks at the partner.  (If the leader looks away, and the "mirror" duplicates this movement, the "mirror" can no longer see the leader to mirror him.)


Once you've got all the students concentrating on mirroring, have them switch roles a few times.  At first, every time they switch roles they'll have to start over, but they should reach the point where they can switch in mid-stream, without interrupting the smooth flow of movement.  If the group is older and advanced enough, see if they can switch leaders without communicating ahead of time.  (When the "mirror" feels it is time to take over, he simply takes over, and the original leader is sensitive enough to perceive it and become the "mirror.")


Eventually this exercise can grow to involve the whole body, and even movement in space (locomotion), but be wary of beginning this too soon.  I usually don't do it at all except with my older students.  It's too difficult.  I use the metaphor of model building.  Some people buy the biggest, most elaborate model kit they can find, and take pleasure in building something really complicated.  But others take their pleasure out of making a simpler model absolutely perfect in every detail.  The second attitude is the one it is necessary to apply to mirrors if their full value is to be had.


Mirrors can be very powerful.  One of the most astonishing exercises I ever saw took place during a rehearsal for a production of Anigone, for which I composed the music, at the University of Texas at Austin.  Much of the blocking for the production--particularly that of the chorus--was created collaboratively and improvisationally by the cast.  In what was essentially a combination warmup and bonding exercise, the choreographer had the cast sit crosslegged on the floor with a leader at the front, and begin mirroring the leader's upper body movements.  After a few minutes, other cast members were asked to take over the leader role (without stopping the flow of movement), and eventually the role was passed from person to person randomly without communication--someone would just seize the leadership and the group followed.  Throughout this, even during transitions, I doubt an outsider would have been able to tell who was the leader at any particular time.  But it's what came next that still haunts me.  The choreographer asked the cast to shut their eyes.  With their eyes closed (and I'm pretty sure no one was cheating), the cast continued to smoothly mirror one another's movements for several minutes.  It may have been my imagination, but I could swear they even changed leaders a few times.  I'd never seen anything like it.



This is my principle control device with my younger students.  An instructor of mine had a tambourine he carried with him.  The sound of the tamborine was a signal for everyone to freeze and be silent.  Others use a hand signal, a whistle (ugh) or switching off the lights.  In Drama class you really need some such control device, because you are frequently setting the students loose to process all at once, and you need a way to bring everyone back to earth.  "I use Mirrors!"  All of my students, from pre-kindergarten up, learn that whenever the teacher calls out, "Mirrors!" they are to drop what they're doing and become mirrors of the teacher.  We discuss the fact that mirrors do not talk, but move just like the person looking in the mirror.  This is an extremely effective control device because it takes real concentration to mirror accurately, so the students not only stop, but stay stopped.  We practice this in the first few classes every year ("Okay, let's all get a little crazy. . .Mirrors!").  It works.  And since I nearly always begin my movements with a characteristic gesture, it works even when the noise in the room has grown too loud for me to be heard.  (Many music teachers use an auditory version of this device.  Whenever they clap a rhythm, their students stop what they're doing and echo the rhythm.  It's the same basic concept, and it's effective for most of the same reasons.)


Circle Mirror

This is really only a way of practicing for the game, "Who Began?"  The class stands in a circle, about arms' length apart.  (The easiest way to make such a circle is to join hands, extend the circle out as far as it will stretch, then drop arms.)  The leader performs simple arm movements, and everyone in the circle "mirrors."  Immediately the problem of left/right rears its head.  Those opposite the leader in the circle will instinctively reverse them, like a mirror, but those next to or nearly next to the leader in the circle will want to do same-side movements.  Those half way in between will be torn.  Usually I tell my students that for this exercise, left and right don't matter.  Plus I usually do movements with both arms together.  This is a good way of working with a class whose members are having difficulty focusing in pairs.  Since the teacher's eye is on everyone--circles are nice that way--sometimes such students are better able to concentrate.


Who Began?

This is a game I have seen under a number of different names.  It is a natural outgrowth of the "Circle Mirror," and can be used as a motivational tool for getting students to take mirrors more seriously.  (Because competition always motivates--sad, perhaps, but there it is.)


Begin with a circle just like in "Circle Mirror."  Practice making very smooth, rhythmic movements.  The best kind of movements for this game are ones that repeat in rhythm, and gradually change.  (A true pattern won't work--it is essential that changes happen.)  Once the group is good at this kind of movement, someone is chosen to be "it."  That person then leaves the room or turns his back, and the teacher chooses someone in the circle to be the leader.  The leader begins to move, and the rest of the class to mirror.  "It" is invited back into the circle, and must try to guess who the leader is.  The more perfect the mirroring, the more difficult this will be, until, theoretically, it becomes impossible.  I usually give "it" three guesses before I declare the thing a draw.  A new "it" is chosen and the game is repeated.  As the game is played, I coach the leader as necessary to vary the movement, or to make it more smooth, or whatever, but always addressing him as "leader," and never looking at him.


I usually don't introduce strategy until we have played a few times.  I like the students to come up with the strategies, rather than having them handed to them.  But there are some basic strategies that make the game harder for "it" to win:


Don't all look at the leader. At first this seems like a contradiction, but the students eventually realize that as long as some people--probably the ones opposite the leader in the circle--are looking at the leader, the rest can look at those people.  Usually the best thing is for everyone to "mirror" someone opposite them in the circle.  This means "it" cannot pick the leader by following everyone's eyes.


Leader look at someone. The leader is the only person in the circle who is not compelled to look at someone else.  If he allows his eyes to wander, "it" can easily pick him out this way.


Don't make noise.  Any movement--such as clapping, snapping or slapping--that makes a sound will give the leader away, since he will probably be slightly ahead of everyone else.


Again, rather than telling my students these "rules" I coach them to figure them out for themselves.


Mirror Canon

This can be very beautiful when it works.  It can also be used as a tie-in with a music curriculum, because the canon form is very important in music.


Everyone stands in a circle.  Everyone turns to the left (or right, as long as everyone turns the same way) so that they are looking at the back of the next person.  One person is chosen to be the leader, and begins to make simple movements.  (The leader must be careful not to bring her arms fully in front of her body, or they become invisible to the person behind her.)  The person behind the leader mirrors her, but with a "delay" of about a second.  The third person mirrors the second, again with a one-second delay, and so on around the circle.  Eventually the leader will see her own movements recreated in the person in front of her--but delayed by many seconds.  The effect for someone standing in the middle of the circle is of a "wave" of movement making its way around the circle.  For the leader, the reward is seeing that movement come back to her.


I recommend that the teacher not participate in this exercise, but rather watch closely to make sure it is working.  All it takes is one student not paying attention to put a stop to the "wave," and you need to be there to light a fire under any such students.  You also might like to pull a few students out of the group at a time and let them watch from inside the circle, because it is so cool.


Variation 1

Once the canon is working in the circle, you can spread the people about the room randomly.  Each person must remember who he is mirroring, and make sure he can see that person, but other than that they can be anywhere in the room.  This is much more difficult, because there is usually at least one person closer than the one we're supposed to be mirroring, and we have to concentrate on the person we're supposed to mirror while ignoring the others.  But when it works the students feel a great sense of accomplishment.


Variation 2

For advanced students.  Find an actual musical canon--something simple!--and listen to it a few times.  Two-part is probably best.  Work in pairs.  The leader improvises movements in time with the music (the first part of the canon).  The partner mirrors the movements in time with the second voice of the canon, so that music and movement work together.


Movement Telephone

I learned this from a member of the National Theatre of the Deaf.  Basically it is movement version of the child's game we used to call "Telephone" when I was a kid.  (My students in Pennsylvania called it "Whisper Down the Lane"--which I suspect is a corruption of "Whisper down the Line.")  I'm talking about the game in which children sit in a circle and whisper a message from person to person.  By the time the message gets back to its original source, it has invariably changed, usually with humorous results.  I usually play "Telephone" with my students before introducing "Movement Telephone."


Students stand in a straight line, facing the back of the room.  The teacher stands at the back of the line and taps the last person on the shoulder.  That person turns around to face the teacher.  The teacher performs a very simple series of hand movements.  Only the last person in line can see this, because the rest of the class are facing the other way.  Then that person taps the next person in line, and passes the movement on.  Eventually the movement series makes its way all the way to the front of the line.  Then the teacher shows the whole class what the original movement looked like, and everyone marvels (and laughs) at how much it has changed.


When I do this exercise with my serious acting students, we'll often try to trace the changes in the movement to their sources and discuss why they happened.  (Since the teacher has seen every student's version, and each student sees the versions that come after his, we're usually able to do this.)  This can lead to discoveries, both individual and general, about precision, body control, etc.


Sometimes when I teach this activity I use it as a jumping-off point to talk about the way that rumors and innuendo can get started.  If even in a class in which everyone is doing his best to get things exactly right, an idea can change so much in transit, is it any wonder that half-truths and even utter falsehoods can arise from honest if catty gossip?  The resulting discussions are often illuminating.


Fun House Mirrors

Everyone has seen those mirrors in fun houses that make you look taller or shorter, etc.  They are the metaphor behind the following mirroring variations.


Magnifying Mirrors

Work in pairs.  The leader tries to keep his movements "small," but the "mirror" makes all the movements "bigger."  This is lots of fun, and calls for imagination, because it is not always obvious how to make a movement "bigger."


Shrinking Mirrors

Like "Magnifying Mirrors," but in reverse.


Opposite, or Video Mirrors

The "mirror" does not reverse left and right.  This allows for some very interesting effects, because, unlike regular mirrors, it allows the partners to enter each other's space.  In regular mirrors the partners can touch, but can go no further because the point of contact becomes the imaginary glass of the mirror.  But in "Opposite Mirrors" the partners can even move around each other and change places.


Emotion Mirrors

You can do this in pairs, or with the whole class mirroring the teacher.  In unison, the leader and the "mirror"(s) speak some familiar speech.  (This could be something like the Pledge of Allegiance or the lyrics to a familiar song, or it could even be reciting the alphabet or counting.)  The leader tries to change his emotional affect frequently during the speech, and the "mirror"(s) try to duplicate the leader's emotions exactly.  No attempt is made to mirror the leader's physicality--the point is to mirror his emotions.  This is a great acting exercise for experienced and beginning actors. Here are some variations to try as well:


Enlarging or Shrinking Emotion Mirrors

Mirror the emotions of the leader, but make them "bigger."  (If the leader is mildly put out, the "mirror" is furious.) Or make them "smaller."


Opposite Emotion Mirrors

You figure it out.


Use Emotion Mirrors in a Scene

This is an interesting exercise to try with a cast who is having trouble connecting to a script.  Run through a scene, but with all the actors "mirroring" one actor's emotions.  Then try it again, "mirroring" a different actor.  Interesting discoveries here!