rehearsal room practice

performing-artsSt Mary’s College in Hull has an impressive proscenium theatre and an ambitious programme of productions. Director of Performance, Neil Wood, has worked in musical theatre professionally and he draws on this background in his approach to teaching:

I always say to my students right at the beginning that when they walk through the doors of my classroom they are walking into a rehearsal studio and they are very much young actors. We will be creating theatre together and I expect them to be evaluative actors who can look back and also comment on other peoples work in a supportive environment. So I very much treat the classroom as a studio space.

The productions are led by students often as part of their courses, supported by staff, but with considerable responsibility for all the different aspects of production. In one term there might be a musical production, a play, a dance performance and a talent show alongside the school’s existing commitment to a programme of work as an RSC Associate School and in partnership with Hull Truck Theatre. Senior management support the work fully and see it as integral to the ethos of the school:

I think it sits very comfortably with our spiritual ethos because spirituality isnt something that is only linked with religion. It is about the discovery of self. I am always struck by the self-esteem that goes with acting and performing. I sometimes think I see therapy in art and design and, in acting. I see therapy in the escape of taking on a role and the ability to be someone else and to explore their nature. The curriculum should provide as many kinds of opportunities for that kind of spiritual experience and that kind of self-discovery.

Deputy Head, Damian Walmsley

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The TALE research team are currently analysing the data we have collected from the first year of visits and it’s very interesting to see what the students themselves say about what they learn when they take part in professional productions. The focus group of twenty four students we interviewed suggested they developed a wide range of skills:

  1. Communication
  2. Independence
  3. Active engagement
  4. Responsibility
  5. Confidence
  6. Self-reliance
  7. Dealing with pressure.
  8. Courage
  9. Creativity
  10. Dedication
  11. Interpretation
  12. Social skills
  13. Thinking on your feet
  14. Portraying the right image
  15. Self-expression
  16. Being proud of who you are
  17. Trial and error
  18. Persistence
  19. Being able to give and take constructive criticism
  20. Determination

img_3970Students often talk about pushing themselves to perform and the way this their increases confidence and as these year 10 students suggests, it is not always easy:

Some people used to run off if they were asked to go on stage whereas now, they might not love doing it, but they will volunteer.

In drama, even if you don’t feel confident, you get up on that stage and forget about everything and express yourself.

As the students go on to suggest:

You can’t take anything back when you are doing this kind of thing [live performance].

So much of what they do involves taking risks, but they have a clear sense of the value this has to their own development:

In drama you learn to exploit yourself and embody your ideas. You perform in real life.

I asked Neil how the RSC Associate School programme fitted with his approach to teaching:

I’ve always had this view of my classroom being a rehearsal space but to go along and work with a worldwide leading company and find that is what they were trying to do too…they were trying to bring Shakespeare into the classroom as a rehearsal room practice. And with the very first CPD we did that unlocked Shakespeare for me and I suddenly had these ways of unlocking texts.

Clearly this student, who said he previously did not like Shakespeare, has also found new ways to think about the plays:

I loved reading it. He has so many different ways like there’s a battle and they’ll be a comedy section in it. That’s why I love it because I want to think about why he did that.

Despite the challenges schools currently face in relation to the government position on arts education, the leadership team at St Mary’s are confident that they know what will best support the learning and success of their students:

2017 is a huge opportunity for us in terms of the cultural agenda and I hope that we take it to heart as a school and I really hope the city does as well.

Deputy Head, Damian Walmsley

We look forward to catching up with staff and students at St Mary’s and to hearing more about their experiences of being part of the UK City of Culture later in the year.

 

it’s a different kind of hard work

hwIn this post Anton Franks reflects on his visit to one of the RSC partnership schools:

Arriving at Ark Helenswood Academy lower school site on a sunny June morning in Hastings, I am met by Niall Whitehead, a drama teacher and the Director of Performing Arts in the school. He’s a very busy man – overseeing drama, dance, music and PE and teaching, spending his days whizzing between Helenswood’s two sites and the Sixth Form Centre, located at a neighbouring boys’ school. Walking with him down the corridor to his office, I’m struck by wall displays of performing arts projects. Niall is involved as a lead teacher in RSC’s LPN, but has in the past participated in Shakespeare Schools Festival. He’s impressed by the high quality of the RSC’s education work and believes it has real benefits for the students. It emerges that Niall is also a founder and key member of Hastings and Rother Arts Education Network (HRAEN). During the summer vacation, Niall also runs a youth theatre group, devising and performing theatre at a local centre, The Stables.

Before rushing off to another site, Niall introduces me to two Year 9 students, Ellie and Sirsha, who’ve arrived to escort me on a tour of the school, before I meet again with Niall at lunchtime. The girls are articulate and animated as they guide me swiftly around corridors, peering into classrooms and skating past wall displays, many of dance performances presented in and out of school.

The girls tell me that the school offers A-levels in both Dance and Drama – not many schools do that. In Year 7, they had Dance, Drama and Music lessons every week. Since Year 8, though, the performing arts are on a half-termly rotation, with one lesson of each every two weeks. Ellie and Sirsha are clear that ‘behaviour in drama and dance is much better’ than in other lessons. ‘It’s much more about group work and you really have to concentrate on what you’re making, with no room to switch off and dream that you have in other lessons,’ they tell me. Later, in a group discussion, a Year 11 student echoes this point, ‘It’s a different kind of hard work… It’s equally hard work but because you’re having fun you don’t feel it’.

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The discipline of working creatively with others comes up in discussions with students, because ‘you have to rely on each other much more.’ Lessons in the performing arts, they think, ‘are very different from academic lessons. They [teachers] really encourage you to be creative.’ And the opportunities to exchange and trade ideas and to work towards an artistic product in performing arts lessons is valued by the students – ‘You bounce ideas off each other… everyone brings something. It’s more that you’re working together towards a common goal, rather than relying on one another.’ How working in the performing arts is different from other lessons arises pretty quickly in discussion with Sixth Formers, too. Performing arts lessons are ‘Somewhere you can let go, in normal lessons you’re very restricted in what you do. You can express yourself in an arts lesson.’

Returning to the conversation with Ellie, she is enthusiastic about doing Shakespeare in drama. In English it’s ‘hard to understand, but easier to understand and work with in drama.’ (Niall tells me later that Ellie was involved with the Shakespeare Schools Festival that he was leading on in Hastings when she was at primary school in Year 6. He thinks it’s a main reason why she so wanted to come to Helenswood.) Talking with a group of Year 10 girls the following day, one tells me, ‘It was nice to do it for ourselves, because in English you’re given the exact interpretation and analysis, and you have to get the right answer. But in drama we brought our own ideas and our physicality, and characters’. Another chips in, ‘If you’ve performed it and become that character, then you understand them more.’ Getting inside the mind and skin of a character is also something that arises in discussion with Sixth Formers – ‘There’s an element of almost psychology… finding out and understanding why people should act in certain ways…’

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All in all, it becomes clear over the course of my visit that performing arts teachers and students at Helenswood make vibrant contributions to the cultural life of the area. In the past year alone, for example, they’ve been involved in 1066 anniversary and in the opening of the newly refurbished Hastings pier. Elaine Vanner later shows me a YouTube video of her A-level Dance group dancing on the pier with a group of construction workers in a piece they choreographed, performed and filmed in a single day.

Through work in dance and drama with the teachers in the Performing Arts faculty, Helenswood appears to have become quite a ‘hub’ institution for the performing arts in Hastings

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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cashing in the learning

My research visit to St Albans school in Highgate, Birmingham concluded with an observation of a poetry lesson.  A year nine class were undertaking a scaffolded approach to writing their critical responses to Shelley’s poem ‘Ozymandias’. The aim of the lesson was to enable the students to transform their verbal responses to the poem into written sentences and then paragraphs working towards a full essay. Each element of the essay was carefully structured by Headteacher, Mark Gregory, to ensure the students were using appropriate language and specific vocabulary to articulate ideas clearly.

In order to enable the students to verbalise their responses, images of the students were projected which recalled to mind a lesson where they had created tableaux of key fragments of the poem. These images really helped the students embody the character of the ‘King of kings’ and therefore understand the themes of the poem. Indeed they seemed most engaged when trying to find ways to express the folly of vanity as depicted in one image of Ozymandias’ ‘sneer of cold command,’ represented by one of their peers. This technique of working in an ensemble format is one of the key approaches of the RSC. To collaborate with peers to embody a line of poetry or prose clearly creates a safe space for the discussion of meaning and animates the written word. The photos act as a reminder of this process and help the students sustain their engagement with the poem once they have moved on to written responses.

During the discussion of the movement of time as a theme and in the rhythm of the poem one student noticed with some excitement,

‘The last line is the slowest.’

 Mark Gregory built on this observation:

‘It’s beautiful what you said and that you noticed.’

They entered a dialogue about which word would be the best to express the idea and agree on ‘pace’. Mark added:

 ‘If you can close that out, that’s on the money. That will be amazing.’

Importantly then, the lesson draws on the RSC active approaches to challenging texts, but also makes careful links to the demands of GCSE English Literature, a course the students have commenced early, to ensure that the ideas they have developed become more concrete and controlled. It strikes me that there is a balance to be struck between guiding students to ‘cash in’ their learning, with enabling them to transfer their learning, independently, into achievement in their coursework and examinations. The use of photographs of the dramatic process and a rich dialogue with a teacher who challenges thinking throughout seem key to this process.

redeeming Shylock

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During my visit to King Ethelbert School in Kent The headteacher, Kate Greig, attended the annual Dimbleby Lecture, this year presented by Gregory Doran, Artistic Director at the RSC. I felt at first hand Kate’s delight at the school being mentioned during this speech because of their commitment to teaching Shakespeare actively. Kate believes the students should recognise that the work belongs to them. Away from the glamour of speeches at The Shard, I was therefore extremely interested to understand how this belief becomes a tangible programme of work in the school.

Led by a team of teachers including Stacy Golding, Carol O’Shea and Amy Humphrys the school’s involvement in the LPN for two years and prioritises training new staff, using the RSC ensemble, active learning approach to teaching Shakespeare. I was delighted to be able to observe a year 8 English class was studying ‘The Merchant of Venice’ with newly qualified English teacher, Liz Channing.

The class began with a starter activity, inviting the students to reflect on their past learning about the characters in the play and their emotions. The activity also encouraged students to think of a wide range of vocabulary to describe those emotions. In the feedback session for this activity it was interesting to see the way the teacher helped the students make connections between the characters and their own experiences. The students drew on their previous learning in this section too, demonstrating rich understanding of the key themes of the play. It was particularly exciting to observe the way Liz prioritised the students’ developing understanding of the relationships in the play and had clearly built a safe space for learning in which students could express ideas even if they could not recall the character’s name or pronounce it with confidence.

The game which was used for warm up, ‘Bang,’ enabled the students to begin to physically react to their peers and also connected nicely with the conflicts being explored in the subsequent activity. Links were again made to the children’s own experiences and to the play in ways that successfully built the students’ anticipation of the next task.

The students were then asked to work in small groups on a short extract of text from the play, reading some sections and representing meaning in physical freeze frames. The groups discussed, planned and rehearsed their sequence and were later joined with another group who had been working on a linked scene so that there were two larger groups who took it in turns to perform a longer scene. In setting up the task Liz emphasised her high expectations of the performance and linked the room layout to an imaginary ‘in the round’ performance space.

The students engaged in lengthy and high stakes discussion with regard to their roles and responsibility. Some groups moved quickly to active rehearsal of movement, others spent longer planning. Some students, having been allocated a fairly small role took to practising this over again and, given that the role involved drunken arguments, they became highly immersed in their roles! This led to frustration from their peers. I was fascinated by this because it is so critical to the process of devising, for the students to have the chance to try out different approaches to group creative and collaboration and to learn from their own mistakes.

At times, this led some students to disagree and feel frustrated whilst a small number of others sat back and let peers take the lead. However, if students are micro-managed to ‘behave well’ in this context, and never experience the challenge of this sort of learning environment, they may not be able to fully engage with the play, the pedagogical approach and conflicting ideas. It was therefore compelling to see this work in a year 8 class with an NQT who had clearly been encouraged by the senior leadership team to use the active approaches to teaching Shakespeare without fearing that the buzz of activity in the room would leave her open to criticism. Indeed the role of the teacher here was to mediate in the groups and redirect their attention onto the important themes they were exploring, allowing them space and time to attempt to work together and begin to learn for themselves the skills involved in resolving differences and working to a deadline.

In one discussion  the students suggested that what they had been asked to do was ‘not easy’ and Liz agreed that it was ‘hard’ but suggested that they ‘think about how they individually could make their contribution more effectively,’ supporting them in taking personal responsibility.

The performances were executed with varying levels of success and engagement, and a useful plenary followed where the students were asked to think like film critics about what could have been better, which led to some productive comments and a clear recognition by some students of the performances which had been particularly effective.

Importantly, they were asked if the activity had made them feel any differently about Shylock. Here the discussion became very animated, despite a weather change (to thunder and lightning) and the imminence of the bell. One student found the words he was looking for to help him explain his ideas about Shylock. He had played the famous character and felt he was ‘kind of redeemed.’ There was disagreement which was a highly stimulating end to a rich lesson which demonstrated the way the school draws on the RSC approaches to enable their students to claim Shakespeare’s characters as their own.