empathising and understanding the character

This post is written by Lexi Earl on her experiences at Minsthorpe Community College.

On my visit to Minsthorpe Community College in west Yorkshire, I was able to observe a Year Seven English lesson on Much Ado about Nothing. The lesson made use of the rehearsal room approaches encouraged by the RSC. The lesson took place in the centre of the class, with students moving around, forming and reforming groups, and sitting on the floor.

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Sal Thompson, the teacher, began the lesson by drawing the students’ attention to the board. This had the phrase ‘dramatic irony’ displayed on it. She asked the class if they knew the phrase. Sal explained that dramatic irony occurs when the audience knows something that the actors on stage do not, and this can lead to conflict or to humour. It is done deliberately by the playwright to achieve a particular effect.

The students then began a warm-up activity called ‘Zip, Zap, Boing!’ They had to pass an invisible ball of energy around a circle, calling either zip, zap or boing depending on where they were sending it. (Zip sends it right or left, zap is across the circle, and boing is a header or tummy throw). The students were soon laughing, looks of panic crossing their faces when they unexpectedly received the energy ball before they had decided what to do with it, and making eye contact with the receiver. They performed the activity in two separate groups. When they were all done, Sal brought them back together and asked them to reflect on the point of the exercise. They realized that by performing the activity in two separate groups, they had to concentrate harder and focus their attention on the game, because they were more likely to receive the ball.

They then participated in an activity called ‘Bomb and Shield’. The students walked around the room and had to find an ally by giving them a wink or a clear stare. They were not allowed to talk or touch each other, simply walk at a normal pace but had to make eye contact with their ally. Then, they had to decide on an enemy but not reveal whom they had chosen. Finally, the students had to continue walking but move so that their ally was between themselves and their enemy. They did this enthusiastically with much jollying and an increased pace in their walking. Soon laughter was breaking out. Sal then asked them to freeze, and resume a neutral position. She asked them to reflect on their activity.

“The end bit was hard trying to keep the enemy and ally cause the enemy didn’t know”, one said. “Is that dramatic irony Miss? Cause they didn’t know”, another asked. “Fantasic X-, that’s a slip for you because you’ve used what you’ve done and applied it to the vocab. Now, how can we apply this to how Beatrice is feeling?”

The class then focused on two extracts from the play. The first was from Act 3, Scene 1, where Beatrice overhears her friends talking about her, and the second from Act 2, Scene 3 where Benedick overhears his friends talking about him. The students were divided into groups. One student had to be Beatrice and stay silent whilst the rest preformed the lines. The students who were Beatrice were asked how they felt about the experience.

“It’s quite hurtful because you thought they were your friends”.

“You really want to speak out for yourself but can’t”.

“It got on my nerves cause if it were me I’d want to shout.”

They performed the reading again but this time Beatrice could respond to the audience. Once they’d all had time to say the lines, the group reformed to talk about the scene.

They then focused on the scene with Benedick and his friends. Once again, one of the students played Benedick and the rest were his friends, with their backs turned towards him. Benedick was allowed to respond whenever he would like and they read the scene through.

They discussed the scene. Sal asked what they thought Benedick thought of his friends. She tells them to think of what is being said – Benedick’s friends are not criticizing him the way Beatrice’s do. Rather, they highlight how Beatrice is secretly in love with Benedick. They make Beatrice sound lovely but also desperate.

“Why does Benedick speak but not Beatrice?” Sal asked the students. “Men are more confident and like the leaders”, a student answers. They go on to talk about the patriarchal nature of the Elizabethan era, how women had to respect men and couldn’t use their voices in the same way.

Molly Morgan, an NQT at the school, also used this approach to teach these scenes. When I spoke to Molly the following day she explained why such an approach is useful when dealing with complex texts.

If we’re doing any reading, I usually do it actively. I just find they engage better with it. Only one pupil can read at a time. So if only one pupil’s reading, everybody else is not listening usually. And in a lower set, most of the time if they can’t blatantly understand the language, if it’s not obvious what somebody is saying then they’re just not going to try and focus on it. Which is understandable. If somebody were reading Shakespeare to me, out loud with no tone or expression it’d be hard to understand, definitely. You need that expression and I think that’s something that the Year Seven’s are getting better at.

She went on to explain: If we were reading that as a whole class, they would probably be saying ‘what does this mean?’ ‘what does this mean?’ ‘what does that word mean?’ continuously throughout the reading. Whereas if you say, because they can’t all shout at you at once, cause you’re not even present within the room as far as they’re concerned, they’re in their own little bubble. So any vocabulary they don’t 100% understand, they just put into context and work out.

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In both classes the students seemed to have grasped the idea of dramatic irony, and the ways in which Beatrice and Benedick were being tricked by their friends. What is more, the students clearly enjoyed being able to perform the lines and participate in the class, making the whole process of learning fun and accessible.

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.

 

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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