Human Statues / Tableaus

The Basics:

Small groups of students can form themselves into statues or works of art that represent a wide variety of objects or ideas.  The structure is to break players into groups of three to six players, provide them with the thing that they are to present, and give them a set amount of time to put it together.  Individual players can be people or objects.  They can become one thing or part of a whole.  Their interpretation can be concrete or abstract.  Set rules or expectations based on what will fit the needs of the class.  When time is up have each group present their statues to the rest of the class and use them to inspire class discussion.

In the Classroom:

  • This technique can be used at any level for any topic. It can be used as a team building activity were adult or kid players create household objects, and have the rest of the room try to determine what they are. Early Elementary kids can create letters or numbers. Students can represent vocabulary, lines of poetry, scenes in a story, people or events in history, holidays, scientific concepts, they sky is the limit!

  • When a teacher pulls back from this activity they will observe small groups of students actively discussing and interpreting text, working out logistical problems, bouncing ideas off of each other in order to create a unique solution that they then share with their peers. What can be a better use of class time then that?!

  • One year I had the brilliant idea of bringing in a white bed sheet and having players set up behind it so that it can be properly revealed. It adds a level of excitement and seriousness to the presentation. (And even high school kids love to be the one to hold up the curtain!)

  • Have kids hold the statue during the discussion. Have other students walk up to the statue to make their point if it will make it more clear.

  • Have fun with it! Allow yourself to be surprised by what students come up with!

Curriculum Connections:

  • Social Studies example: A seventh grade social studies class had a reading about four heroes of ancient Rome. It was a standard article, about three pages long, two or three paragraphs on each hero. Instead of doing the standard "Answer the questions at the end.." homework assignment, they were instructed to draw a cartoon depicting an event in each hero's life. The following class, students who did the assignment were broken up into groups, and given a hero to represent. They were given two minutes to come up with a statue that honored their hero. The class then discussed each hero in turn as students presented their statues. The whole activity took about 20 minutes, about as long as it would have taken to go over the homework questions.

  • English/Language Arts example: The Arts Literacy Project at Brown University (click to link) suggests many variations on this theme, one of my favorites is "Character's Journey." Here, students are given a series of lines from a story they are about to read having to do with a character in the story. They then make tableaus depicting each line, morphing from one line to the next to create the arch of the story. (See link for more detail!)

  • Vocabulary: Pick a concept! In science, just as an example: "Scientific Method," "Newton's Second Law," "Mitosis," you name it! Have each group do a different vocabulary word or if it is rich enough and it is the main focus of your lesson, have them all do the same one!

  • Another Variation: Check out the "Sculpture Garden" activity on the "ArtsLit" website! Here students are put into pairs with one student becoming the artist and the other becoming the "clay." This then creates a sculpture garden that the other "artists" in the room can walk around and admire. All the artist base their work off of the same phrase or theme provided by the teacher. Then the roles switch and a new theme is called out.


Tableaus and statues are a very common device used in theatre.  I first came across it in college working with a theater troop, and in a graduate education class.  It is also a feature in many improv activity books.

The Arts Literacy Project at Brown University took this concept to the next level.  When I had the opportunity to attend a workshop given by Kirt Wootton, I was amazed by the depth and utility that he and his colleagues had brought to this basic idea.