using artworks in drama

This post is written by Lexi Earl, on her visit to West Derby School in Liverpool.

As most readers of this blog will have gathered by now, I spend most of my time visiting the different schools that are involved in this project. Generally, I know what to expect from my visit. If the school has a partnership with the RSC, I spend my time with either Drama or English departments (and sometimes both). If the school has a partnership with the Tate, I am in an Art department, talking to students doing Fine Art, Photography, Textiles and the like. But one school in this project has broken this mould. At West Derby School in Liverpool, the partnership is with the Tate but the partnership is held by the Drama teacher, Kate Forrest. As I discovered when I visited, this means that Kate uses exhibitions at the Tate as stimuli for Drama projects and performances.

During my visit I had the opportunity to talk to two Year 13 Drama students who had visited the Tate Liverpool to see Tracey Emin’s My Bed (1998) when it was on display. The students then used this artwork as a stimulus for a play that they wrote and then performed. Their play dealt with sexual abuse.

They explained how the artwork was about more than just a messy bed, and how this had helped them develop their play.

See, Tracey Emin’s bed in the Tate, when you come in and look at the bed, people go ‘oh that’s just a messed up bed. I could do that on a Monday morning’. But when you look at it and what is around the bed, and what it symbolises, knowing her backstory, you realise that all of her life has unfolded in that art piece. She had a picture of her ex who she was completely in love with who left her, cigarettes, alcohol bottles and a bed just torn to pieces. That, in a way, shows her mental state, and we wanted to adhere to that and show the mental state of our characters. Hopefully that will connect to whomever we perform to.

Most people look at the art in a literal sense and say this art is just a bed. It is less about the bed itself and more about the person behind.

The students then explained how this artwork created a stimulus for them to leap from, to engage in difficult and complex ideas, and how it inspired their work on mental health and the links to sexual abuse.

I think the bed as an actual stimulus was what really pushed it for me because recognising that the bed wasn’t just a bed, it was the actual mental state so connecting that up to making a play about your mental state was really interesting for me. I could create bonds between our own production and the bed. When we first wanted to do it, we thought it would be more interesting if we included the bed – at least in the background. We had a bed onstage, messed up maybe so giving that sense of bad mental state. I’m not sure if you’ve read this but they say your mental state can be represented by your bedroom and the state it is in. It reflects what you feel inside which is really interesting. So we wanted to get that across but at the same time we didn’t want to confuse the audience so by the end of it we decided not to [include the bed]. We worried they’d be focused too much on the bed rather than the actual acting that was happening on stage. So we went for a minimalistic vibe rather than focusing on props, lighting, shadow, we wanted to focus on the actors. The only prop we used was a block to emphasise character stance.

I asked the students what the value to them was of being able to visit the Tate and use an artwork as a stimulus for a piece.

It helps build on your own ideas. We’re told in the media about these kinds of people, about mental health, and to just get down on the ground and see someone’s own mental health displayed really helps build upon what you want to do, how you want to present it.

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One of the students highlighted how Drama, through working with complex issues that form part of our world, can change your world view.

Most things when you come to Drama are confidence, you boost your confidence. But in fact, when doing this, it not only boosts your confidence on stage but going into the big world, meeting other people, you have got that confidence for it. When we were performing and exploring into it [the play], you realise the society that we live in and the society that the news feeds, that the government says it is, it is not. It is completely different to how it is. It changes your views on the world. You realise eventually who to go with, stay away from, what type of person they’ve built you into society and that is what Drama is pretty good for. 

The opportunity for these Drama students to visit Tate Liverpool, and use one of the artworks for an in-depth exploration of complicated mental states influenced their work. It was an interesting reminder that art can be used in different ways, with many subjects.

 

 

learning through trying again, and again…and again.

Last November, I visited Barcelona. During my visit I went to the Picasso Museum. One of the paintings I saw was Picasso’s Las Meninas. The painting itself was fascinating, intriguing, based on Velasquez’s work of the same title. But it was the way the painting was displayed that interested me most. In the rooms surrounding the main work, studies and sketches of Picasso’s work towards the final piece were displayed. It was evidence of the process of making an art piece, but I felt it was also evidence of experimentation, trying things out, looking at what worked, what did not, and trying again until the artist had achieved what he was after. I was reminded of this process of art making, the trying and failing and trying again, that is so necessary in making, during my visit to Childwall Sports and Science Academy in Liverpool.

As Becky Parry wrote about her own research visit here, the murals and art displayed all around the school is incredibly inspiring and impressive. There is a riot of colour, murals connected to subject themes, and student work on a variety of topics. The students I spoke with identified these public displays of art as proof that their school values the arts. It also meant that their own, older works were on display for other people to see, something they were not necessarily that comfortable with. The students explained that they didn’t necessarily enjoy seeing their work up (although it did make them proud), because they were now doing better work; work that they could see showed their progress as artists. They were therefore inadvertently able to see progress clearly because their older work is on display.

Students were also aware that the process of making progress in art allowed them to experience failure in a way that was not necessarily negative (or not necessarily failure) and contrasted strongly with other subjects where there is often a ‘right’ way of doing things.

In a conversation I had with Year 12s, the students explained:

 “It teaches you not to be afraid to fail. You have to fail to get better.”

“They [the teachers] encourage it. They want to see you do something wrong than you always get it right and never improve.”

I thought these ideas summarized what is so great about art in school, and is what we often forget when we look at art in a gallery. I found myself thinking about my conversation with the Year 12s at Childwall while I wandered through the Roy Lichtenstein rooms currently open at Tate Liverpool. Art teaches students that it is okay to fail, to not get things totally correct the first time, and to have the courage to start again. Later, when I looked properly at the flyer I had picked up from the Tate I laughed. The flyer is designed as a comic and on the front sat a frustrated Lichtenstein with the caption, “It’s not good. I need some inspiration.” This, I felt, was the crux of my discussion with the Year 12s at Childwall: art requires frustration and perceived failure on the part of the artist in order to improve, to achieve the vision that they have. Even great artists try multiple things, creating studies in different colours or techniques, before they create their final piece (the one we inevitably see in the gallery). Art teaches you that this process is okay.

Surely we should be encouraging more people to take arts subjects rather than less, so that we mould resilient young people, comfortable with failure, ready to navigate our complex world? This was certainly the approach I saw at Childwall. It is something to aspire to, I think.

when numbers turn into meaning…

This post is written by Dr Corinna Geppert.

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As somebody who is involved into “number crunching”, doing statistics, I often wonder: What story will these numbers tell me? What sort of patterns, correlations or differences between groups of people will emerge? And then I start, do the first steps of analysis and realize that there are really exciting results.

I am delighted that the WAVE 1 survey report is now launched. It includes data on over 2300 students in TALE schools all over the country and it is meant to give a first overview on the survey findings, without too much interpretation at this stage.

Some of the highlights are:

  1. Encouragement from school and family has an important impact on students’ engagement in the arts.
  2. Students draw a clear distinction between the arts and other academic subjects. They report that their academic workload often prevents them from becoming more deeply involved in the arts.
  3. Many students report that the arts promote well-being by helping them to express themselves and alleviate stress.
  4. The majority of students surveyed regularly participate in film and music activities.
  5. About a quarter of the surveyed students report that they are planning to study an arts subject in the future, but only a fifth are considering an arts-related career.
  6. Arts activities are important for students with a physical disability – many were active participants in the arts, felt supported, would like to do more and were planning to participate in the arts in the future.

These findings are encouraging because they show that the arts have a meaning to students, but that they sometimes need support to get engaged.

To support these findings and to put them on stable grounds, we collected more data from schools in autumn 2017. I’m looking forward to analysing the data and see how robust our findings are. A report including the WAVE 1 and WAVE 2 findings will be available in summer 2018 and will show us once again that numbers can turn into meaning.

 

Download the Wave 1 Survey report here.

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walk with me: social media, theatre companies, and young people

This post is written by Lexi Earl, on her visit to Treviglas Community College.

What do you think of when you think of a theatre company? Do you think literally of a theatre? Of performers? Of stage design, sound and lighting? Of plays you have seen that have stayed with you? I certainly do. But while I was visiting Treviglas College in Newquay, Cornwall, I was shown how narrow my understanding is of what theatre companies potentially might do. On the Friday of my visit, Sam Colborne, the Head of Drama, was also hosting the Kneehigh Theatre Company – a world-renowned theatre company from Cornwall. But Kneehigh were not there to deliver a performance, or a workshop on acting or directing. They were there to record stories for their new app, and to provide the young people with a workshop on social media, and its use in a performing arts company.

The app Kneehigh have developed is called “Walk with Me”. It provides visitors to Cornwall with a walking tour of a local area – so far the company has done walks for Megavissey and St Austell, with the students from Treviglas actively involved in the development of a walk for Newquay. There is a walk for Bodmin underway too. While you walk around the area, following the map, you can listen to local stories, legends and myths. In the case of the Newquay walk, this is narrated by the students and staff at Treviglas College (alongside performers from Kneehigh). As well as recording the various stories throughout the day, the students and Kneehigh talked about the purpose and use of social media from a theatre company perspective.

Charlotte Bond, the General Manager and Director of Rambles, explained to the students that marketing and communications are hugely important for performers, because people need to know about, and share in your show. If you’ve rehearsed and have your performance ‘super polished’, she explained, but then no one comes, that’s it. You’ve lost your opportunity. It is not like a piece of fine art that you can display and then leave. “The performance happens there and then, in the moment,” she told the group. Dann Carroll, the Communications Assistant, led the workshop and explained how the marketing for the app would work. He explained that one of his main jobs is social media and so they the focus of the workshop was on how Kneehigh use social media. He ran through the various platforms and asked what platforms the students made use of. Kneehigh mainly focus on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and YouTube. He told the students that you should focus on one to three platforms for engaging with the audiences. “Once you have an audience, you have to keep that audience”, he explained. The company want to keep people engaged in the app.

Dann explained about posting; selling; and creating engaging contact, including posting items specifically for ‘friends’. He showed students the Kneehigh marketing plan for the year, with the show deadlines on. Then he showed them the social media plan. “This spread sheet organizes the platforms, shows how often you’re posting, and what is being posted. To keep the audience engaged, you don’t want to keep posting the same things. It is really important to plan what to put on social media,” he told the students. Dann talked about knowing the Facebook algorithm and understanding what is being championed at any particular moment. So, for example, Facebook doesn’t like links in posts. Dann explained that he doesn’t look for likes on Instagram. Rather, he is looking at what people are saying and the comments they leave on a post.

The idea with the app then is for people to share their own stories while doing the walk; for example, taking photos on the walk, and then uploading it to a platform with a specific hashtag. Dann explained that you need to consider paid social media because it is cheap and can have big engagement rewards. Kneehigh use paid advertising for shows to target specific audiences. For example, they have used paid advertising to target an audience for their ‘Friends’ scheme.

The group then moved on to discussing things that do not work on social media – blurry pictures, or not posting enough, before they began to build an audience profile for the app. They thought about how to describe the app [innovative, different, clever, compelling] before talking about the type of person who might download and then use the app. They needed to create a character that they could then design their marketing campaign around.

This was a most unusual and innovative collaboration between the school, the students, and the theatre company. The experience of observing the workshop between Kneehigh and the students has stayed with me while I’ve been thinking about the place of arts education in England. It provides a great example of how theatre companies are innovators, forward thinkers of how they might contribute to their local communities and to their local economies. Companies like Kneehigh prove how theatre is not just about acting and performing.

‘If I ran the country…’

This post is written by Lexi Earl on her trip to Sacred Heart Catholic School for Girls.

As I was walking to catch a train at Newcastle central station, I started to listen to an episode of Desert Island Discs. I’m not sure about you but I find Desert Island Discs very comforting, the combination of music and life stories is soothing. This particular episode was a conversation with Paul Greengrass, director of (amongst other things) The Bourne series of films. In her opening monologue, Kirsty Young (the show’s host) quotes Paul as saying, “I don’t want people watching from the outside, I want them to be participants. Drama can take you there in a way that the facts can’t”. Paul went on to explain that it is the immersion in cinema that transports you to a particular place, and lets you into people’s lives, and (I think) allows you to empathise with them.

Sac H drama board

But it was the line ‘drama can take you there in a way that the facts can’t’ that stuck with me on my journey home. I had just spent two days at Sacred Heart Catholic School for Girls, talking to drama students and drama teachers. The girls I spoke to were very aware of the power of drama to explain events, or alter people’s lives, or teach them skills that they couldn’t necessarily learn in other classes.

In our conversation, some of the Year 12 girls explained the importance they felt Drama had beyond the standard curriculum.

“If I ran the country […] I would make Drama compulsory. I don’t know if I’d put it at the same standard as Maths and English because not everyone likes Drama, but the skills you get from it are so important. And people undermine Drama and say it is a soft subject. But everyone who does Drama knows the amount of work and stress. I hate it when people say that [it’s easy]. It’s horrible sometimes. But when you’re little and you’re shy, Drama is the only way you can break out your shell. […] And in fact not everyone is good at Maths and English and Science. And the only thing they’re good at is the arts, and people tend to neglect those kids who only can do the arts.”

The girls identified skills that Drama had helped them learn; that they thought would be valuable in their future lives.

“The skills that you use like team work. That will help you in your career because there are a lot of skills you need.”

“Public speaking. You learn so much about diction and volume. The speed you’re meant to go at so people can understand you. And if you don’t do Drama you’ve missed out.”

The students I spoke to at Sacred Heart understood that Drama was not just about learning plays, or acting scenes. Drama gave them skills that they could then apply to later life. While this may not have been what Greengrass meant when he said ‘drama can take you there in a way that the facts can’t’, his comment helped me see the importance of Drama as more than simply a subject at school. Drama has ‘real world’ value. The girls at Sacred Heart knew that.

a wall, a lion and a moon

I have been immersed in Shakespeare for the past few weeks. Many of the schools I have visited as part of our Year 3 research visits have been RSC partnership schools and so I have been watching students learn sword-fighting, talking to young people about their participation in productions of The Tempest, or observing them devise stage directions for particular scenes. This is all fairly usual daily work.

A few weeks ago, while visiting Towers School in Kent, I had the opportunity to watch several groups of students perform scenes from different plays as part of their last English lessons before half-term. Becca Gardner, an English teacher and leader of the RSC work at the school, explained that allowing students to perform was a lovely way to end their 6-week study of a particular play.

The Year 7 classes had been studying A Midsummer Night’s Dream. This is one of my favourite plays, and they were performing one of my favourite scenes – the play within the play, put on by The Mechanicals, that can be a masterful portrayal of comedy. I have seen A Midsummer Night’s Dream performed on several occasions but watching the Year 7s understand the comical aspects of the scene and master the language was truly enthralling.

The class took place within the school hall, which has a large stage and elevated seating area for the audience. The students were not intimidated by this theatre size nor by performing in front of their peers. They were all given about 15 minutes to rehearse the scene in their groups, and were then invited to share their performance with the class.

During rehearsals, the room was full of movement, laughter, dramatic falling, negotiation, exclamations, pulling, pushing, dashing, lying on the floor… On stage, the students were a joy to watch. In one of the first performances, Wall had to be bodily carried off stage by the other actors, so heavy was his imaginary wall costume. In one group, Moonshine was pulled around the stage by an imaginary dog, interrupting other scenes as he dashed past. Then he stood enthusiastically in front of Pyramus who was trying his best to deliver his final speech as an eager Moonshine held the ‘moonlight’ in his face. Eventually Pyramus grew so frustrated that he shoved Moonshine out of the way so the audience might watch his dramatic death.

In another group, Wall spoke in a high squeaky voice and took ballerina steps off the stage (going the wrong way), much to his audience’s amusement. In this group, Thisby whispered audibly to Pyramus in the final scene, “just die already!” One group had actors wandering around looking lost, even after the Wall had started to speak, as if they weren’t quite sure whether the performance had started or not. Pyramus died, then awoke and died again, then woke again and died once more. Even as they were taking their bows, Pyramus remained in character, collapsing and dying once more. They ended with a forlorn Moonshine on a quest for his lost dog. “Seriously, though,” Moonshine asked the audience, “has anyone seen my dog?”

I laughed so much during these performances that tears ran down my face and the young people in the audience looked at myself and Becca (who was also in tears of laughter) with wide, surprised eyes.

The students use of asides, gazing knowingly at the audience, physical movement, expressions, and complete immersion as The Mechanicals playing Pyramus and Thisby spoke to a deeper understanding of the play, and the power of comedy. They all really understood the humour in the scene. None were intimidated by the language. They were completed immersed in the lesson and fully willing to embrace the ridiculousness of the play.

What a wonderful way to end a six-week block of Shakespeare lessons! If anyone tells you Shakespeare is boring, or serious, or requires a lot of annotated texts to understand, I urge you to send them to Towers School, where the young people will quite happily prove you wrong.

approaches to teaching art

This post is written by Lexi Earl.

During my time on this project I have witnessed many different approaches to the teaching of art to young people. At Richard Cloudesley School in Islington, I was impressed by the various ways art teacher Lucy Pook has adapted her teaching in order to allow her students to experience art, and make art. Richard Cloudesley is a school for young people with physical disabilities and additional sensory needs. Many are only partially verbal, others use sign language and there are clever communication books students can use to explain their needs and wants to teachers, staff, and carers.

While I was at Richard Cloudesley, I got to experience just how this communication works during an art class. The class was focusing on the work of Robert Rauschenberg, and had already begun creating multi-media art works. That day the class was going to create clay figurines and then make tyre tracks to add to these particular works, in the style of Rauschenberg’s Monogram 1988-56. Lucy Pook, the school art teacher, put up a photograph of Rauschenberg’s work on the projector. She explained to the class that the idea is to get “lots and lots of layers” on the work.

After identifying their work, students and staff all gathered around the two tables in the centre of the room and Lucy provided each student with a piece of clay. Each student was tasked with choosing an animal to make from the clay. There was music playing and there were adults (teaching assistants and carers) helping and working with all the children. The atmosphere was relaxed and everyone talked easily. I worked with one student who uses a ‘pod book’ to communicate. These books are made up of rows and columns related to various themes, and each block contains a particular picture or word. You read down the column and then along the row, giving the student time to respond and say what they are thinking or want. The girl I worked with eventually told me she wanted to make a parrot, as these are her favourite. (One of the other teaching assistants warned me that sometimes she just likes to go through the book, saying no to everything, as a form of entertainment). Some of the children simply held the clay while the teachers created the creatures they’d chosen, while others shaped the clay into animal shapes, and some students got to poke eyes and other details into the clay. Everyone was involved to some degree, depending on their fine motor skills. Eventually there was a whole troop of clay figurines left to dry on the windowsill.

During my time at Richard Cloudesley, I spoke to Lucy about this collaboration-as-art I had participated in. She explained that she thinks it is important but that:

“I’m also aware that I don’t want to take the projects away from them and it is a constant challenge. Even after three years if you are working with a student who takes a long time to respond you have to rein yourself in and not do too much for them. I’m not sure how successful we are at that but we are supporting each other’s projects. My favourite bit of those projects is including the students from the other school because the work that we’ve done with them has been for big events and I think, with our students, and especially doing kinesthetic stuff where you are all moving around together, they get very enthusiastic about it”.

Lucy was clearly aware of the need for patience as part of the collaborative work the students and staff did. There was also a need for flexibility, which is how Lucy approached her planning.

“Whatever I plan to do I leave it so open so that I can see how they are responding and I’ve just realised that that is the only way that you can do it really. So within a lesson structure we have a window of time when everyone is supported and I will try and do most of the activities then. I’ve been teaching literacy a lot but I’ve also wanted to look at design and performance art and the process of performance. I’ve been trying to create projects because our groups are so mixed and we have profound and multiple learning difficulties in with some quite able students. So it is quite disparate and I try to create something that everyone can access on some level and then we’ll see what happens. I leave things to chance to some extent and that is often where the nicer things happen actually”.

Art lessons at Richard Cloudesley were therefore approached in a particular way, clearly focused on student need and interest. Lucy is able to adapt her programme of learning to meet student requirements.