gender politics, drama and the boring organisational bits of teaching

This post is written by Chris Hall.

I’d last been to Ricards Lodge decades ago, when my old grammar school was closed and incorporated into the borough’s new girls’ comprehensive. I was 17 then, in Year 13, doing my A levels. I’d enjoyed being at my old school but I don’t remember feeling particularly upset or disrupted by the move to Ricards. Our teachers obviously did a good job, and we weren’t of an age to be nostalgic. We got on with things in the new setting and were mostly concerned about what was coming next – university in my case, thanks to teachers who believed in girls’ education and a university grant system that encouraged social mobility.

So I was tuned in to thinking about the politics of girls’ education as I waited in reception. Malala smiled down at me from a poster on the wall as I watched a stream of girls (and a few boys, from a much later, sixth form, merger) negotiate the morning routines.

Ric image in reception

The focus of my visit was Drama. Back in the day, we read plays in English lessons but Drama – if it involved moving out of your seat – was an exclusively extracurricular affair, an optional extra, a polite refinement. So it was interesting to see at first hand how much things had changed.

Drama is thoroughly embedded in the everyday life of Ricards: in the formal curriculum, through public performances of school plays and musicals, in the displays and invitations to extracurricular visits, in the schools’ collaborations with local and national theatre companies, in the conversations I overheard between teachers and students…

Ric PA display

Jack and Sarah, two of the lead drama teachers, explained to me the way they managed the GCSE and BTEC Drama options to allow students to follow their preferences for studying technical or design aspects of theatre, or to focus more on devising, acting and textual analysis. I observed classes working on costume and set design for the play that actors in another class were rehearsing, and then saw the classes excitedly bringing their work together. I heard about the way the curricular work fed the extracurricular performances; how visits to particular shows, and work experience backstage, inspired creative ideas that the girls brought into their designs and performances. I saw Year 9 girls finishing off a unit of work on women and comedy. They were taking it in turns to act out the birth scene from Gargantua,in which a surreally enormous but reluctant baby is being induced to enter the world and end his mother’s two-year pregnancy. The girls (and their heavily pregnant teacher) found it hilarious. Through comedy, they were learning to be at ease with their bodies, to understand something about the absurd, to work together to explore emotions. And they were also thoroughly enjoying an ordinary day at school.

Observing this, I was struck by the teachers’ commitment to orchestrating timings and syllabus requirements to bring together the curricular, the extracurricular and the cross- curricular. This is the unglamorous, behind-the-scenes kind of work of planning meetings and timetabling, particularly frustrating at the moment with all the changes to the syllabuses and assessment criteria. Managing it well is a high level professional skill. Done properly it energises students to bring ideas together, to explore perspectives and make meanings that are important to them and to their lives beyond school. Two quotations from a conversation with the Year 13 drama students give some insights into what a difference this makes.  It was a privilege to see how things had moved on.

We started homelessness. That was our devised [drama piece for the exam]. We were learning about it, you have to talk about it. In Sociology, you talk about issues in society, you talk about homelessness being an issue, that it’s the individual’s fault. But you come to Drama, you do the research and you form these characters. We wrote these characters ourselves. You come up with a backstory, you come up with how it is going to end, how it is going to begin and you realise these are real people. It brings it a lot closer to home, which is easy if you just need to learn it and write it for an exam, but when you’re doing it in Drama, you become a lot more – you look at it from a completely different perspective than you would’ve done if you were just learning it like a textbook.

I am involved in political activism and I have felt that using drama has made my activism and campaigning a lot easier for me. Messages that are really hard to campaign about, you can convey that message through drama to loads of different audiences. If you campaign or have a protest about homelessness, people won’t get it. But then you have four women characters who you can relate to in some type of way that makes it a lot more accessible. For me as well, I think drama has made political activism a lot more accessible. When we look at politics and sociology and social issues, we think of it as a vague issue rather than an ‘us’ issue, but through drama you have learnt so much. We talk about these things all the time. In Drama, it’s a drama lesson, but it does help us formulate our ideas.

 

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.