‘don’t be a robot…’

This post is written by Lexi Earl. 

In my recent visits to schools I have heard the phrase, ‘don’t be a robot’ or ‘the arts allow you to not be a robot’ a number of times. I have wondered about this and so I asked some of the students at Ark Helenswood in Hastings about the kinds of self-development that goes on in schools, and in particular, the kinds of opportunities creative subjects offer to this end.

The students told me:

I think as well, with Dance and Drama, they help you to build your own person. Because Dance makes you unique and different. You can do your own style. Like the choreography part of the curriculum, you can become your own person and reflect that in other things.

In Drama you’ve got to be able to stand in front of people and present it nicely instead of being all hunched up, or shut up and really quiet. You’ve got to be able to stand [up for] yourself and project, get your point across as well as you can.  

Those skills go with you for the rest of your life as well. If you go for an interview, if they can see that you’re confident it is better for them because they know that they can ask questions that need to be asked.

We’ve just done our English speeches and I think that’s helped me so much, having the confidence to know that I can speak in front of people. I can talk about something I’m passionate about, I didn’t have that added on stress. It was just ‘let’s memorise this’. I know the talking bit is okay it’s just let’s get the facts together.

 I then asked the students whether they thought this self-development needed to happen in schools. They said:

You can have so many people who have A*’s and everything, if you say I’ve done Drama performances, Dance performances and things like that, you have something about you that is different.

 You’ve got to have a character.

It’s all very robotic. It’s all very, it needs to be this, this and this. You can’t do this because it is wrong. It’s all following a strict script. That’s not what we’re made to do. We’re made to be our own person, we’re made to go off and do something that someone else hasn’t done before whereas they’re [the government]trying to make everyone the same. And that is not right!

It makes you more diverse as a character as well. If you’re doing dance and you’ve picked up a new choreography or you’re thrown into a dance that you weren’t expecting, you’ve got the skill to be able to change quickly. You can have a job that is completely not to do with Dance but you know how to deal with pressure, changing environment, learning new skills quickly.

Finally, I asked the students what they would say to people who make policy about all the ‘sameness’ that they feel is going on. They elaborated:

It’s not right!

I think the only way to get that out is to have the creative subjects, and the performing subjects. You have to do Maths and English and there is a right and a wrong way but it’s those subjects where you can build your confidence and work out who you are, they’re the subjects you need and that is what helps you then in your academic subjects. So you’re able to answer questions, interpret the text in your own way. I think if you didn’t have that at all, everyone would think the same.

The subjects are a relief as well. If you do so many academic subjects, just one creative subject can take you away from everything. If you enjoy that subject so much you just get immersed in it. It’s so much easier to drop everything. Schools tell us, don’t get over stressed, but once you’ve got that added pressure that they do bash into you out of good nature, it becomes very hard to do that.

Niall Whitehead, Head of Performing Arts, explained to me about why the school was so committed to the arts (particularly in the current climate), and why he is focused on turning the school into a community space for the arts.

We are in an area which is one of the poorest parts of the south east and over a third of our students are disadvantaged so wellbeing is vital and I do see that the arts play a major role in this. In all our learning and all the work that we do we are pushing skills onto the kids but along with that we are always aware that we provide an element of social and emotional capability for these students. I know these words get bandied about an awful lot but it is important that they do learn that sense of communication and collaboration and resilience that the arts can deliver. So it is twofold: it’s the idea that wellbeing is always there as a subtext to the arts that we provide and, of course, there is the skills of the arts themselves and a lot of our students are passionate about it as are we but it’s just about making sure that it still has a high profile and is still important.

Ark Helenswood is committed to providing opportunities for their girls that allows them to develop their own personalities, confidence and communication skills.

 

understanding relationships through movement

This post is written by Lexi Earl.

During my visit to St Mary’s College in Hull, I had the opportunity to observe a Year 13 Performing Arts class. This group of Year 13s are studying BTec Performing Arts and their course is made up of drama, dance and singing classes. Many want to go on to pursue careers in the performing arts, including doing musical theater. In this particular class, the teacher was using movement to help students understand The Crucible, the new text they were studying.

The class begins with a warm-up, “to get rid of the giggles”, and then the students watch a video of a group of people moving without ever breaking contact. In the video, people come in and out of the sequence but always take hold of someone’s hand before joining. The transitions are really smooth. It looks like a dance. The actors are always in contact as they move. There are hugs, forehead touches, holding each other in a head lock. When the video finished, the teacher asks the students to guess the types of relationships that might have been in the scene. “We learnt a lot by looking at contact. Lots of elements can come from movement or choreography,” the teacher explains when they are finished discussing the various relationships they saw.

 

The class then divided into groups and started to come up with their own sequences. The only instruction the teacher gave is that the contact should be between friends or family – so closer contact than greeting a stranger say – and that each person in the group should be involved in two movements.

In one group, two girls start with a hug and then others come and transition the hug into a different form. Now there is a new hug formed. There is a building of sequences. “At the moment, this doesn’t have a story, it is just movements, choreography,” the teacher tells them. The students move around in their groups, creating transitions from one pose to another. The teacher watches and gives advice, suggests things – Are you going to… Just watch that… Maybe you could… Then she tells them to think about transitioning out as well as into the pose. What happens when you leave? The students do the sequences multiple times until they are fluid, including their entrances and exits.

“We have to bring this back and think about how we can use this in The Crucible”, the teacher prompts. She explains that one of the play’s main themes is power and manipulation. In this time period, women were subordinate to men. ‘Goody’ meant good wife. Abigail is unmarried but had an affair with a married man. She wants the students to assign a character to each person but to do this randomly. “Don’t change the choreography”, she instructs. She explains to the students that embraces can change depending on strength and posture. The characters they need to assign are: Abigail, Proctor, Elizabeth, Mary W, Parris/Danforth. “Embraces might become something else”, the teacher advises. The groups reconvene and choose characters. They now practice the transitions and movements as their characters. The teacher talks to them as they move through the transitions, asking about how their characters now affect these movements.

“How does Elizabeth feel about Parris?” the teacher asks one group. “Be a bit more on-looking so we get a sense of who you are observing and why,” she tells another. “Don’t be frightened to push these characters a bit more, slow things down”, the teacher advises the class.

After they have had an opportunity to rehearse in their new characters, we watch the two groups in turn. The teacher asks them to go through the sequence twice. Afterwards, the students guess who was which character. “How did you decide?” the teacher asks. “Facial expressions”, “movements”, “who took control at the end”, the students answer. “You did a forceful embrace and it was really quick. He was impartial. It was like you needed support,” one student observes.

The teacher explained to me that the purpose of this class was to allow students to understand complex relationships and the complexity of the play, without being overwhelmed by the text. It was very interesting to see how the movements morphed to reflect different relationships, even though they had been randomly designed in the beginning. With each performance it was easy to spot characters through their movements or facial expressions. The lesson made me think about how we use such knowledge in real life, reading people – their expressions, their movements, their body language – in order to understand them. Drama is a way to learn this knowledge.

 

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.

‘If I ran the country…’

This post is written by Lexi Earl on her trip to Sacred Heart Catholic School for Girls.

As I was walking to catch a train at Newcastle central station, I started to listen to an episode of Desert Island Discs. I’m not sure about you but I find Desert Island Discs very comforting, the combination of music and life stories is soothing. This particular episode was a conversation with Paul Greengrass, director of (amongst other things) The Bourne series of films. In her opening monologue, Kirsty Young (the show’s host) quotes Paul as saying, “I don’t want people watching from the outside, I want them to be participants. Drama can take you there in a way that the facts can’t”. Paul went on to explain that it is the immersion in cinema that transports you to a particular place, and lets you into people’s lives, and (I think) allows you to empathise with them.

Sac H drama board

But it was the line ‘drama can take you there in a way that the facts can’t’ that stuck with me on my journey home. I had just spent two days at Sacred Heart Catholic School for Girls, talking to drama students and drama teachers. The girls I spoke to were very aware of the power of drama to explain events, or alter people’s lives, or teach them skills that they couldn’t necessarily learn in other classes.

In our conversation, some of the Year 12 girls explained the importance they felt Drama had beyond the standard curriculum.

“If I ran the country […] I would make Drama compulsory. I don’t know if I’d put it at the same standard as Maths and English because not everyone likes Drama, but the skills you get from it are so important. And people undermine Drama and say it is a soft subject. But everyone who does Drama knows the amount of work and stress. I hate it when people say that [it’s easy]. It’s horrible sometimes. But when you’re little and you’re shy, Drama is the only way you can break out your shell. […] And in fact not everyone is good at Maths and English and Science. And the only thing they’re good at is the arts, and people tend to neglect those kids who only can do the arts.”

The girls identified skills that Drama had helped them learn; that they thought would be valuable in their future lives.

“The skills that you use like team work. That will help you in your career because there are a lot of skills you need.”

“Public speaking. You learn so much about diction and volume. The speed you’re meant to go at so people can understand you. And if you don’t do Drama you’ve missed out.”

The students I spoke to at Sacred Heart understood that Drama was not just about learning plays, or acting scenes. Drama gave them skills that they could then apply to later life. While this may not have been what Greengrass meant when he said ‘drama can take you there in a way that the facts can’t’, his comment helped me see the importance of Drama as more than simply a subject at school. Drama has ‘real world’ value. The girls at Sacred Heart knew that.

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.