understanding complex moral debates through drama

This post is written by Lexi Earl. 

During my visit to Sacred Heart School in Newcastle, I observed part of a Year 8 drama class. The class were studying a scheme of work based on Brecht’s The Caucasian Chalk Circle. The play the girls were studying revolves around a boy who is left abandoned by his mother, the queen, as she flees a country following the death of her husband, the king. He is raised by a servant for 10 years. The focus of the class was for the girls to decide whether the servant should return Michael (the boy) to the Queen or whether she should keep him.

In order to help the girls come to a decision about this tough choice, their teacher Rachel Burgess, led them through a series of challenging statements that they had to respond to. The hall space where the class took place was divided into three categories: agree to the far left, disagree to the far right and unsure, in the centre of the hall.

To start off, Rachel asks the class, “the king and queen were right to charge taxes”. The girls move into various positions around the hall. Rachel asks the girls to justify their choices. Then she asks, “were the king and queen morally okay to spend the money and not give it to those in need?” Now the girls’ justification and reasoning becomes more complex. The class is now much more divided across the spectrum and they debate about how public money should be spent and who should be able to spend this money. They bring up some interesting ideas about the money young people have to spend, and how they should be able to spend their parents’ money. The class also talk about how you need money to keep yourself afloat – you cannot give everything you have away.

Rachel then says, “people who are incredibly rich should pay higher taxes”. This is also controversial. One of the students says, “if they worked hard to earn that, they shouldn’t but if they’re born into it, they should. Like they didn’t do anything to get it”. “They don’t need all that money themselves. You should get taxed a percentage of what you earn”, another girl argues. “If you’re not being totally honest about how you’re earning your money, then you should pay more tax. If you give loads away then you shouldn’t,” another student argues. The girls’ positions change as they debate their initial responses. Some move from agree to disagree, others become more or less ‘on the fence’.

Rachel tells the class to think about the context of the play. The king died and the queen fled following an uprising and conflict. She says that the story is still relevant today. The class discuss the use of violence to change a government. They agree that the people of the town should have rebelled, but they should’ve tried peaceful methods first. Violence isn’t the way to voice your opinion. Rachel tells them, “there is a cost to rebellion.” One of the girls responds, “it depends on the type of rebellion. If it is against a government, if the government is unjust, I can understand why they would do that. If it was a chemical attack on a place, that’s just cruel. I don’t understand that”. [This lesson takes place in the same week as Donald Trump’s airstrikes on Syria, following the use of chemical weapons on civilians].

Rachel uses the example of Malala to talk about rebellion. She asks if she was right to rebel. She highlights that there are always two sides to every story or situation – it is about perspective.

The last statement that Rachel poses to her class is, “was the servant right to take the baby Michael?” One of the girls answers, “if she left the baby, he would’ve died” and Rachel offers, “she would’ve had that on her conscious”. Another student contemplates this dilemma: “I’m in the middle. It is hard work to look after a baby. She doesn’t have the money but he would’ve died otherwise”.

After these contemplations finish, the class work on performances that explain the missing years – those years when the servant was raising the baby. They can choose to explain them in whichever way they like – so perhaps the servant girl married and the family is well set-up, or perhaps the boy was treated harshly, or perhaps his real identity is a secret and the servant has never told him the truth of his own story.

A lot of students I talk to say that drama is often perceived as a subject where you pretend to be a tree, or where you just play games. In this class it is possible to see how complex moral questions can be debated and understood within the context of a drama lesson. The girls’ performances of the missing years were influenced by this discussion, and it furthered their understandings of the complex choices we sometimes have to make in our lives.

using masks to convey emotions

This post is written by Lexi Earl. 

On my trip to Ricards Lodge High School in Wimbledon, I sat in on a Year 11 drama class with teacher Jack Ralton. Upon entering the drama studio I was surprised to see the picture of Suffiyah Khan standing up to an EDL member at a march in Birmingham, which had been doing the rounds in the newspapers only the week before. The picture was labeled ‘the stimulus’ and Jack was using the complicated story as part of the Year 11’s work on narration. The girls had already spent time looking at the incident, and exploring the subject of narration in drama. The purpose of narration, as the class discussed, is for the performance to be ‘narrated’ by someone, while the actors act out the scene. The actors do not have any lines in this type of performance.

Jack explained that the class were going to use masks in their performances so that they did not need to think about their facial expressions. They could focus on their gestures. Each girl already had a character and had written a backstory for that character. This lesson, they were going to work in groups to perform their stories using masks, working on the change over of story from character to character, and ending at the scene in the ‘stimulus’ photograph.

Jack spent some time explaining how the masks should be used in the performance. He said, “you’re creating the illusion of a different character so don’t put your mask on facing the audience. When you turn around, be totally in character. Your gestures change, your physicality changes”. “Try not to have too much side profile. Try to be really face on to the audience”, he advised. He then told the students not to touch the mask with their hands too often as this looks alien to an audience. It is odd to see a real hand against a fake mask.

The girls divided into pairs to practice putting on and removing the masks. They then got together in their performance groups to work out transitions, taking masks on and off, and sorting out the acting. While the girls rehearsed, Jack moved around the room watching, making suggestions and advising. “It is about quality, not quantity”, he said.

We then came back together as a group to watch the two different performances. The girls had all chosen masks based on their character. There were four girls in each group: two EDL characters, one policeman, and the character of Suffiyah. Jack told the class that while they watch they should be thinking about:

  • What is different and engaging about it?
  • What is it about wearing the masks that makes it different?
  • What do you enjoy?

We watched the first performance. I found the way the masks added to the performance fascinating. The girls used exaggerated gestures that fitted well with their mask’s ‘expression’. They had also thought of complex backstories for their individual characters – the policeman’s narration in the first performance mentions the police budget cuts and in the piece the policeman has to take the bus to the protest. There was a scene with each character that explained how they ended up at the march and in that particular scene (‘the stimulus photograph’). After the performance we discussed it as a group.

Jack complimented the performers. “An excellent piece of work. I really like the over exaggerated gestures. They add to the comedy”. He then asked girls and a second teacher what they thought. “There is a comedy element, which is an interesting stylistic element,” the second teacher commented. “The flow went really well,” said one student. “The police officer had really low status, that was a good mask choice,” said another. The class talked about how the police only have power because we, as a society, give it to them.

Then we watched the second group perform. This group also had interesting narratives for their characters, as well as comedic elements. The comedy in these stories is particularly intriguing because at first glance, the stimulus picture is serious, and deals with a lot of complicated issues around identity, ethnicity, and race. The class discussed this performance. “They had a good choice of masks,” one student said. “The police character looked worried, nervous,” commented another. “When you do actions that contradict the mask face, that creates comedy,” the second teacher advised the class. “It highlights political issues, it shows the powerful choices people have to make,” noted a third. “It was done really well.”

The class then moved on to examining ‘chair duets’ performed by Frantic Assembly, which would form their next task, still based on their current characters. The girls’ deliberation of their characters backstory was incredibly fascinating to watch. They approached these complicated backgrounds with maturity and thought, not letting their personal opinions get in the way of their dramatic performance. It was inspiring stuff.

understanding theatre as collaboration

This post is written by Lexi Earl, on her visit to The Bridge School in London.

When I visited The Bridge School (a special school for children with severe, profound and complex learning difficulties), I had an unexpected opportunity to accompany the 6th form to the theatre. On the day that I visited, they had been invited to attend a matinee performance of Ghost at the Lilian Baylis Studio. The production was put on in collaboration with people from the Daylight Daycentre and the Samuel Rhodes School – these were performers with various disabilities, acting on stage with others.

The performance was wonderful to watch. There were fantastic costumes. People came on holding colourful lights that then designated the space they danced in. The scene where Sam, the main male character, is shot and dying in the hospital (and realises he has become a ghost), was made much lighter by a fabulous dance routine of surgeons and nurses in scrubs. There was a live band on stage, who sometimes helped fill the silence if someone was late on or forgot their lines briefly.

During the performance I noticed the audience’s reactions to the different scenes, and different actors. Some of the performers were old students from The Bridge, and the young people I was with recognised them – telling me excitingly that so-and-so was on stage. They especially seemed to enjoy the music – clapping and singing along at various points. This theatre trip formed part of the students’ Arts Award activities.

The following week I returned to The Bridge to complete my 2-day visit. I spoke to Steven Mills, the music and drama facilitator, about the importance of such theatre experiences for their students, and the purpose of completing a qualification like Arts Award.

I think what is really nice about the Arts Award is that they get something at the end of it and it is something outside of the school and it is country wide so they are getting the same award as every other student who achieves it in the country. I think that is really good.

As part of the Arts Award, the students were interviewed about their trip to the theatre. They came up with the questions as a group and then individually answered them, giving their honest opinions about the experience. One of the girls summed it up perfectly when she commented: “the show was good because it was about life”.

Arts Award forms part of a much wider approach to a creative curriculum that teachers at The Bridge follow. I spoke to Ryan McClelland, the art teacher, who explained:

[We follow a] more creative curriculum which meets the very diverse needs of our kids. So it is very student led and we do have accreditation but it isn’t as stringent as GCSE or A Level and we decided to go with the Arts Award from the Arts Council because it is a little bit more flexible and interesting. […] We are finding a lot more sensory needs coming in [to school] and I suppose my practice, as an art teacher, has evolved to meet those needs. Over the last few years I’ve dispensed with the idea of an autonomous art work and I’ve been encouraging much more group work because I think that can encourage relationship building and it shifts the emphasis onto the staff as well and I expect the staff to treat the work as their work as well and whether that is supporting a child to make the work or them modelling something. I also think that the way the world is going I think this cult of the individual is going to be superseded and there will be much more of an emphasis on group work. Especially for kids with SEN because they are always going to need some sort of support in their lives and so we need to equip them with the skills to be flexible and to work with different people. We try to promote that through art, music and drama because they are the subjects that they access best.

The theatre production illustrated how this collaborative and group art might work between people of differing abilities. It gave the young people a chance to see similar people to themselves performing on a stage, and also provided me with the perfect opportunity to understand how Ryan’s ideas of collaborative and group work might work in practice.

investing in drama and performing arts

This post is written by Lexi Earl. 

During my trip to Uxbridge High School Amy Walker, the drama teacher, was keen to show me their new performing arts building . This new space was opened in September. It features a large drama studio with long blackout curtains that has a wall of moveable windows that fold out to become an outdoor theatre, complete with lighting and sound; and a wing for music students to practice and attend lessons in. The building is aptly named the Orsino Building and features his famous quote from Twelfth Night, “if music be the food of love, play on”.

It is an impressive space indoors, where drama students can rehearse their productions, but it is even more exciting when you imagine the outdoor theatre full of people enjoying a play. Amy explained that they intend to put on a production in the space in the summer term when (hopefully) the weather will be pleasant.

I thought it was quite surprising (but very inspiring) for a school to build a space actively promoting drama and performing arts, given all the negativity nationally that surrounds arts education. I asked the students in Year 12 and 13 their thoughts about how the school values art and it was clear that they also saw the theatre and new spaces as proof that the school supported their work.

I’ve been here since Year 7 and between Year 7 and 8 there were a whole load of new drama teachers who came in and they’re the ones who teach here now, and since then I’ve noticed that drama was taken a lot more seriously and it became a more fleshed out department. Drama is taken very seriously by the department and thereby by the rest of the school because the stuff that is put on in drama like school productions; I have people who don’t take drama and have never taken drama, say that was really good, that was really amazing.

It’s the facilities as well. When I was back in Year 7 you had two little classrooms and they weren’t really good for drama at all and this building opened, the activities studio and the learning zone upstairs; and we’ve now got the Orsino Building which of course has the outside stage and the massive room in there, as well with state of the art lighting systems. It shows how keen not just of course the drama department are, but the rest of the school are to help improve not so much the facilities but also the perception of performing arts. Because if they show that the school cares then certain students are going to show that they already care and they might be more keen to get into it.

I then asked them what they thought the perception of drama and performing arts was within the school.

It’s a lot more accepted than what it was, five or six years ago. I think like back in Year 7 and Year 8 when we used to go round and you didn’t want to admit it. It was just oh I do drama and I like acting, but you never admitted it, whereas now loads of people come up to me and they know I do performing arts. You can be more open if you like acting or enjoy performing arts, because the school shows they’re invested in that.

At A-level, pretty much any performance that we spend a long period of time on, we like people – our friends – to come in and watch it. That helps with the perception because people realise it’s not just hours of playing drama games or pretending to be a tree; all those stereotypes about drama, because wow!, you’ve been working on a performance for five months and it was really good. I definitely think that helps.

The school’s investment in a performing arts space has clearly sent a signal to the students about the value of drama and performing arts, and this in turn, has boosted their confidence and willingness to share their passion with others. It was reassuring to see this valuing of arts, at a time when so much of what we read about arts education is negative.

 

“we are such stuff as dreams are made of”

This post is written by Lexi Earl, on her trip to Canterbury High School in Kent.

Imagine, if you will, walking along a coastal path. The seagulls are calling above you. The sky is blue and the sun warms your back. The sea crashes nearby, giving you glimpses of blue, green, aquamarine. Then you turn a corner and there, in front of you is a woodland sprite. A small creature dressed all in black with a red and orange tutu around its waist. Then, hark!, a wigwam, from where emerges a child that reminds you wholly of a lost boy from Peter Pan. Then you stumble upon a small boat with a cloud above it. It could be the Swallow that took the children to the island. Another small child passes you in a dark cape, carrying a staff – a young Gandalf, perhaps. There are others in white with blue ribbons, some in silver dresses. What on earth is going on?

You could be mistaken for thinking you had fallen through a rabbit hole and landed in a wonder-never-land, had you come upon this scene. I certainly felt I had stumbled into another world, one filled with sprites and spirits, queens, dukes, and bears. But in fact, I was simply near the beach at Folkestone to see a production of The Tempest. This particular performance was put on by a group of local Kent primary and secondary schools, as part of a Royal Shakespeare Company sharing event.

Becky Huckle, of Canterbury High School, had invited me to come to the performance as I happened to be visiting the school in the same week. This was an event organized by Becky and Canterbury High as part of their role as a Lead Associate School in the RSC’s education programme, with support from the Marlowe Theatre.  Not only did they put on a version of The Tempest (involving 10 different schools and 10 different scenes) but they also organized workshops for students and teachers to participate in, ran rehearsals so the children could get a sense of the space on stage, and organized other productions for the children to watch. (The boat I thought might take us to the Swallows and Amazons’ island turned out to be its own stage, the cloud rained constantly upon the actor, who did his whole performance via mime).

The Tempest performance took place at the open-air amphitheatre on the coastal path. The half-moon stage was framed by the amphitheatre’s columns, the audience sat on raised seating, and was able to see ‘backstage’ because everything was open to the elements. There was grass underfoot, blue sky above and the occasional curious passer-by, who paused to watch.

Coastal amphitheatre

Each school was allocated a scene and was then given the opportunity to interpret and perform it however they wished. The whole play was performed in sequence, with schools appearing for their scene and then rejoining the audience afterwards. There were many scenes with multiple children playing the same character, other scenes where children switched roles, or echoed lines. There was clever use of ensemble so that more children could be involved in scenes with fewer characters. The children made use of very physical theatre, moving about the space in unison, using their bodies to depict the location (the sea, for example) or falling over to great comedic effect. There were clever sound effects – the sound of the wind created by spinning plastic tubes at high speed – and use of music – a flute playing or children singing. Behind us the sea crashed and swayed, transporting us to Prospero’s Island.

Becky Huckle explained that part of their choice of the amphitheatre was to give students the experience of a “non-traditional theatre location”. This choice of location really added to the atmosphere and joy of the production. One of the teachers I sat next to kept saying ‘that was brilliant’, after every scene. I have to agree. It was a truly magical experience.