visiting artists, sharing life lessons

This post is written by Lexi Earl.

Many of the schools we visit invite artists, performers, touring companies, and other creative people in to talk to students, demonstrate techniques, run workshops, or perform plays. These types of experiences offer wonderful opportunities for the young people to see what it is like to ‘do’ a particular job in the world, and to get first hand stories of how people end up where they do.

During my visit to Uxbridge High School in Uxbridge, near London, I spoke to some Year 10 Drama students who articulated what these types of opportunities meant for them personally. Uxbridge High works in partnership with Intermission Theatre and the RSC. These companies often visit the school to run workshops or put on performances. Uxbridge also takes students out to see West End theatre shows, local theatre productions, or to visit London galleries and museums.

The students talked about how they benefitted from trips to museums, galleries or theatres.

I think Drama and Performing Arts at this school really opens a lot of doors for us and let’s us go on trips. And with Art as well, they went to the Natural History Museum and they studied that in their curriculum. They do do a lot of trips for us so we can see how this could be us one day.

And you work on it as well. It’s not like you just go to a trip and forget about it a week later. You could still go on about it in a year’s time and do work that would help you in the future.

Lion King was the first official play that most of us saw. Because it was so grand it was really amazing and it showed everyone that Drama is a big thing. And it is valued in society. You see so many people who were coming and watching. It is valued and it is not something that is thrown to the corner. It was something that really inspired us because we could see how [through] doing Drama at school what you can become and the possibilities that can happen.

Then the students explained how something different occurs when an adult other than a teacher tells them about their own life experiences, and explains how they ended up in the creative industries.

When it is from someone who has actually been through it and does it now you get the push where you’re like ‘oh, so I could actually genuinely do that myself’, without having a teacher say it to you.

For me, [it is] their stories. They usually tell us about how they might’ve had a difficult life before, something like that so it gives us hope rather than from your teacher because it is your teacher’s job to give you hope. When you hear it from people who don’t really mean anything to you and they tell you about where they were before and where they are now and how Drama has helped them get through so many things, it does inspire us and it gives us hope and it encourages us to carry on.

The students at Uxbridge highlighted how vital it is for young people to be exposed to others working in the arts and creative industries, and just how much influence these encounters can have on young people in schools.

 

 

what kind of pirate are you?

This post is written by Lexi Earl.

Late last year, I had the opportunity to see Coriolanus at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre. It was a spectacular performance, and I was completely immersed in the story and the characters. I found myself paying particular attention to the fight scenes. I watched as the actors moved together in the fight, as a dance. One actor moved, the other responded. This obviously happened very quickly and with much violence, but it was mesmerizing. I noticed how the sounds of smacking and slapping happened, and the way the actors’ feet moved in sequence with the other.

I can only pin my sudden awareness of the fight choreography to my visit in the same week to Welcombe Hills School. Welcombe Hills is a special school, and while I was visiting, the Key Stage 3 pupils were learning about Peter Pan. The school is putting on a production of Peter later this year (in aid of Great Ormond Street Hospital) and the pupils I observed were learning about fight scenes. Rather than Roman generals fighting with their fists, these would be pirates and lost boys clashing with swords. Jo Bradley, the Drama teacher, and Cassie Gibb, the Drama teaching assistant, were schooling the pupils on the details of fight choreography.

Cassie explained to the pupils, “as actors, you need to think of a fight like a dance. No one is going to be surprised; it is choreographed. A sword fight is action, reaction.”

To begin, Jo and Cassie illustrated the physical movements they wanted the pupils to learn – moving backwards and forwards in response to the person facing you, and swooshing your arms around to chop off someone’s head. “It’s got to come as if it is slicing his head off,” Cassie explained to some pupils.

The students got to practice in pairs during class. First they concentrated on getting their feet to move easily forwards and backwards in reaction to their partner. One foot stayed cemented and unmoving while the other moved in response, some pupils naturally leaning back as their opponent tried to stab them in the stomach. Some students giggled as they got their bodies to react, others made swooshing, swishing noises of a sword cutting through the air.

The class then shared their work with each other, each pair taking a turn to demonstrate their movements. “That’s tiptoeing,” Cassie said to one pair who hadn’t quite gotten the foot movement down yet. “What kind of pirate are you?” she asked amusedly.

Next they practiced thrusting the sword forward to stab their opponent in the stomach, still trying to get their foot movement correct. Once they had both their feet and the two different arm movements sorted, they were asked to choreograph their own fight scene in pairs. They could choose whatever sequence they wished to do. “For example, you can go head head middle head,” Cassie explained. The pupils had to do five different actions from the two different sword movements. “This is a fight sequence,” Cassie explained, “swing to the head and duck, step forwards and thrust the sword forward, the other steps backwards. Work out how the fight is going to end.”

The children were given time to work out their fights, moving around the room and discussing their strategies in pairs. Then they were all invited to show their fights to the group. Each fight was different, and there was much enjoyment and laughter as they worked. Many fights ended in a death scene, the injured party falling dramatically (and often heavily) to the floor.

When everyone had demonstrated their work, Jo asked how fighting relates to the story of Peter Pan. “The pirates and lost boys fight,” a student explained. When I later saw the actors on the stage fighting, I saw how the basics that were being taught to the students applied to the professional stage.

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.

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.

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.