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.

the play is not always the thing

 

launceston-college-inset-at-hfc_2015_steve-tasnner_159316In September 2016, over 30 lead teachers from the RSC Lead Associate Schools and theatre practitioners from Regional Theatre Partners came to Stratford-upon-Avon for the first national CPDL event of our new Associate Schools programme.

The three days were designed to:

  • Build capacity among teachers and theatre practitioners to lead the programme in their area
  • Develop participants’ understanding and teaching practice through immersion in the artistic practice of the RSC
  • Strengthen connections with other members of the Associate School community

Opportunities included: working with RSC directors, actors and musicians; seeing two productions (Cymbeline and King Lear) in the Royal Shakespeare Theatre; and working with members of the education department to share their vision and plans for the long and medium term.

I joined in as a researcher from the TALE project and, as someone whose role is predominantly to enable others to share their experiences, taking part took me outside my daily comfort zone. However, it was an immensely rich experience which helped me think afresh about the data we have been collecting from young people in each of the TALE schools.

Despite my ‘newbie’ status my peers welcomed me and inducted me into the group, showing me what to do, laughing and occasionally explaining the rules explicitly. I understood anew what the students I have been interviewing have been telling me, about being able to be brave in ways that enabled them to have confidence in their own ideas. For many of them the move from quiet and shy to having the confidence to express ideas verbally, bodily and in public is recent and fresh. As educators it was useful to remind ourselves of these feelings and reaffirm that we too have a right to speak and act with confidence and be heard.

Students from the RSC schools have made it clear that they value greatly the opportunity to develop and share their own interpretations. We know young people respond positively to intellectual challenge and they clearly don’t want to be told all the answers. It was fascinating therefore to hear at first hand how the RSC activities were introduced by Head of Professional Development, Miles Tandy. It is so much a part of the culture of education for pedagogic strategies to be shared in a recipe book, magic-bullet style. Here Miles shared his thinking about helping students grasp the main elements of the plot. He shared his doubts about the Whoosh, a tried and tested RSC technique, explaining that sometimes this can overly shape the students’ interpretation of the plays. In this simple act, Miles removed any sense of a hierarchical, prescriptive approach and the learning space became exploratory and collaborative.

LPN PG Cert Event_2012_Rob Freeman_22086.jpgMiles got us to try a different approach, to use Shakespeare’s words – ‘a dumb show’, which enabled physical and bodily representation of key actions but avoided interpretation, expressed in language, which might close down the meaning of the play for the students. The group of teachers and theatre partners jointly devised and performed the whole of King Lear without words, in mime to music. It was an enchanting experience and, as someone not that familiar with the plot, I was able to quickly get a sense of the characters and events. But, the enchantment was key. It was a ‘so much more than the sum of our parts’ feeling, a hard to articulate, in the moment, magic. In the focus groups students talk about how proud they are of themselves when it ‘goes right,’ and at that moment I felt what they meant.

 

Emboldened by this and Deputy Artistic Director Erica Whyman’s insistence on women volunteers I took a turn to read Cordelia. I was fresh from thinking fast and furiously about the role of women in Shakespeare’s plays. When Lear demands a speech declaring love from Cordelia I remembered my teenage self feeling angry at the value placed on public shows of affection or flowery words, rather than deeds. I connected with Cordelia then, although I have to say this didn’t help me to read or act the role better. It did help me to rethink my early impressions of a character I have previously thought of as gentle and too passive.

And then we went to see King Lear and an odd thing happened. I didn’t love it. I started the day with a reverent attitude … ‘It’s probably the work of genius’ and this view was being thoroughly shaken. In fact, I thought it was a ridiculously odd play. I thought back to our poring over the text and interpretations of characters and thought, ‘we are stretching the fabric too thin’. For me the play doesn’t work if we impose 21st century sensibilities on the characters of Goneril and Regan. It backfires. Men in the audience laugh at lines which scorn the sisters. Horrible. It’s just an odd play. I’m not sure I’d ever choose to perform it, direct it or teach it. I was left thinking, despite brilliant and subtle acting and staging, that poor old Bill must have been trying to please a lot of jealous actors when creating Lear.

So where does this leave me? Out in the cold? Well energised actually. Encouraged by the RSC approaches to think that my own interpretation counts. Confident to have that view even if it differs from others… That the play is not always the thing…

What emerged to me as of central importance was to recognize that the RSC Education approach encourages teachers and young people to think independently, to value their own experiences and interpret freely. This can be a dangerous liaison – it invites challenge to authority and rethinking of orthodoxies…. and this leads me to question whether looking at students’ exam results in English is ever going to measure the value of this work….do examiners look for this level of criticality? Can students articulate their thinking in writing (in an exam) as effectively as they do dramatically….?  I ended the weekend with my mind in a jumble of ideas, conflicts and new and important questions – always a sign of a valuable learning experience.

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an emphasis on performance

Chris Hall reports on her visit to Launceston College in Cornwall.

Bryan Maywood, the head at Launceston College, keeps his old year 10 English folder in his desk drawer. The folder reminds him about his own learning in English, a subject he’s passionately interested in now. He remembers the support and advice he got from a slightly older friend. He remembers a teacher who accurately identified precisely what he needed to know to do well in his literature exam, and then made sure he learned it. He is amused now by the examples in his folder of rather less detailed and constructive feedback from other teachers.

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The themes of this first-thing-on-a-Monday morning conversation with the head – the value of peer support, how you learn to perform well, the importance of attention to detail – cropped up throughout my visit. For example, Kate Prouse, second in the English department, told me how when she’d first started work at Launceston, she’d been immediately struck by the cohesiveness of the college community and how the students genuinely support and are interested in one another. Kate put this down in part to the emphasis in the college on performance.   She explained how performance is factored in to the annual cycle of the school year: through house and whole school assemblies, an ambitious school production, exhibitions, competitions, a summer term activities week, lively art, drama and music programmes…

Jack Jackson, the college’s executive head, told me about the current adventure learning programme and plans for a new award system that recognises achievement and supports progress across five areas (adventure, performance, curriculum learning, understanding others, skills). Dan Wendon, assistant principal with responsibility for teaching and learning, explained the college’s staff development programme, which challenges teachers to devise and conduct action research projects that they judge will have a positive impact on their own professional learning.

All of the Launceston students I met were hugely appreciative of this focus on performance. They really valued the encouragement their teachers gave them to share their work with their peers, whether this was in assemblies, in lessons or in wider public events. They said they trusted one another. They learned to be more confident, to speak up, to express themselves. They made new friends through working together to get the performance right and many of them said they learned more about themselves. They loved the applause they got at the end because they knew they had earned it. They said they learned a lot from seeing other students perform.

And then there were The Fairies – students from years 7 and 8 who, just before my visit, had performed in the RSC’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream at Hall for Cornwall in Truro.

images-1.jpegBursting with pride and plans for a career on the stage, the fairies had a torrent of stories about what they’d learnt from being in the RSC cast and working alongside professionals. But they had even more to say about the impact of the show on their families. They loved the fact that many of their relatives had been so engaged with the details of rehearsals and the planning that led up to the final performances. They said their families were still talking and texting about what they’d been doing. And now they’d heard that some of the fairies were to be invited to an official reception at 10 Downing Street, and timages.jpeghey had a lot to say about why they thought this had happened and how they thought students should be selected to attend.

I’d already heard about the fairies – from Dan, of course, who fixed up the meetings for me, but also from the older students I’d been interviewing, some of whom had helped out with mentoring and organising. The performances had created ripples in and out of the school.

I could see what Kate meant about the way the emphasis on performance helped build community cohesion.

 

 

 

the ensemble approach

Honley Shakespeare Ensemble - Henry V - Poster Design -  March 2016

The final observation during my visit to Minsthorpe School was a rehearsal for ‘Henry V’ by the school Shakespeare ensemble.  The students describe themselves as the ‘Henry’ group and are an extra-curricular group of Years 7, 8  and 11 pupils, launched by English Teacher, Sally Thompson, following her RSC Learning Performance Network (LPN)training. The scene being LPN rehearsed was the Minsthorpe contribution to the Honley Shakespeare Festival in March. The festival developed as a result of Honley High school’s involvement in the 2009. Minsthorpe first became involved in 2015 in order to increase opportunities for their students to further develop their interpretation and performance of Shakespeare’s plays with students from other schools in the area. As I observed, it was clear that the students had collectively arrived at an interpretation of their scene which they were then representing through a combination of tableaux and movement as well as language and even choral recitation. The dialogue throughout this decision-making process reflected a deep involvement with the text but also a firm connection with each otherally commented that that the students grew in confidence and demonstrated exceptional team-work skills in the process:

Working as an ensemble empowered the students to take ownership of the language and artistic decisions, and this mixed age, gender and ability group devised a powerful interpretation of Henry’s famous ‘band of brothers’. Their resilience, resourcefulness and respect for each other are vital skills they can transfer across the whole curriculum.

Edie Ewing, Year 7, added:

I’ve never acted in this way before. I didn’t realise Shakespeare could be so much fun, in the rehearsals and on stage; we could make our own decisions for how to move and speak, and even sing, if we wanted (which we did!) Mrs Thompson supported us with how it would look and feel as an audience member. It was a really exciting project. 

The group are already looking forward to next year’s ensemble scene for ‘The Tempest’.

Minsthorpe has also been keen to disseminate the RSC LPN approaches in the wider region through professional development for trainee teachers. As part of their local SCITT (School Centred Initial Teacher Training) Sally worked with trainee teachers from across the curriculum areas to demonstrate the techniques used and to share ideas about how these sorts of pedagogic approaches might be useful to subjects such as maths or history.

school performance (of drama)!

The performance space at Treviglas school takes centre stage; it is the first thing you encounter as you enter the school. It’s interesting that this makes the arts departments highly visible to the whole school community. Whilst visiting I saw this space used as a rehearsal space for drama, dance, singing and music as well an exhibition area for visual art, a stage for a performance of ‘Romeo and Juliet’ and the assembly hall and dining room. It’s a space the drama students have powerful memories of too, having performed and seen performances in it on numerous occasions. Our research focuses on the value of these sorts of experiences to the students and it was refreshing to hear from a wide range of young people about the impact of performing on their approach to learning – to paraphrase ‘If I can do that, I can anything.’ Leader of Learning for Creative Arts, Sam Colborne also highlighted the benefits to schools, teachers and students of working in partnership with arts organisations, something he suggests was a key impact of the work with the RSC. “The focus upon performance in our partnership has really engaged a large number of students, either through participating in our own productions, travelling to Stratford or hosting RSC performances here. Hundreds of students in our college and wider cluster have seen Shakespeare performed live, many for the first time.”

This poster advertises the performance of ‘Romeo Juliet’ at the school, involving 70 students across the age ranges.

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The photo was taken by Year 13 student Harry Brewer, who commented that the opportunities to be involved in the arts have really developed him as an individual, and opened broader horizons when it comes to career options and choices. He is applying for drama degrees as a result of his experiences.