painting clay, having fun

This post is written by Lexi Earl. 

At Grey Coat Hospital in London, the Art department has found an innovative way to offer more skills development for their Year 12 students, by running an informal after-school Art Club.

On Monday afternoons, once school is finished at 3.30pm, the Year 12 art students congregate in the bright upstairs art room. The room has a wall of windows looking out over the city, and as dusk fell outside one November Monday, Phillipa Prince, the Head of Art, demonstrated painting clay while still wet.

This method uses decorative slip to paint colour onto clay that has been rolled out flat, not yet formed, and not yet fired. Phillipa showed the group how you can add texture to the clay using a variety of ordinary household materials (bubble wrap, feathers, woven bamboo, engraved with pencil). The slip can be painted onto the clay, or painted first onto newspaper and then pressed onto the clay, or painted in sections. The possibilities are endless, really. Once a pattern or series of designs and colours have been added to the clay, it can be shaped into a form (a small vase perhaps), or left flat like a tile, to dry. Phillipa explained that this technique allows layers to be built up over time. Once the shapes have been fired in the kiln (something the group will be doing in the next few weeks), glazes can be added too. The results are complex, interesting forms that could be used as potential presents or gifts.

After the demonstration, the students were able to experiment with their own designs. Each had a flat piece of clay to which they could add colour or texture. Everyone worked happily, discussing their designs as they went along, asking Phillipa for advice or thoughts. Towards the end of the session, shapes began to form out of the flat clay as the students manipulated vases, jars, and spirals.

After the session I spoke with Clare Burnett, the other Art teacher who helps run the Art Club, about the purpose of such sessions. She explained:

“What we realised is that they [the students] do a lot of personal investigations in GCSE but the danger of doing project after project is that they go straight into more investigation just relying on what they’ve learnt before and they don’t actually expand their repertoire. Pottery after school has been really fun– it’s nice for them to have a bit of relaxation, allows them to expand their sculpture skills and we’ve got the kiln”.

The Year 12 students I spoke to explained what they felt the purpose of the class was:

Right now we’re doing pottery. We just learn basic skills. The first skill we learnt was making normal thumb pots. Then learning how to use the wheel. Yesterday we learnt how to use slip and how you can paint onto clay when it is dried or when it is wet. It is just adding to your book of skills that you can use in Year 13.

It is good that we are building up skill sets.

They are helpful because I have never done any of the things that they have. It is exposing me to different things apart from what I know.

Art Club is therefore a way to both introduce students to techniques they may not have encountered before, and to let the students develop their interests in multiple art forms. The session I witnessed was relaxed and fun, the students free to experiment, make mistakes, and develop ideas. Even though the club is extra-curricular, it clearly has an important place in the wider goals of the art department.

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.

using artworks in drama

This post is written by Lexi Earl, on her visit to West Derby School in Liverpool.

As most readers of this blog will have gathered by now, I spend most of my time visiting the different schools that are involved in this project. Generally, I know what to expect from my visit. If the school has a partnership with the RSC, I spend my time with either Drama or English departments (and sometimes both). If the school has a partnership with the Tate, I am in an Art department, talking to students doing Fine Art, Photography, Textiles and the like. But one school in this project has broken this mould. At West Derby School in Liverpool, the partnership is with the Tate but the partnership is held by the Drama teacher, Kate Forrest. As I discovered when I visited, this means that Kate uses exhibitions at the Tate as stimuli for Drama projects and performances.

During my visit I had the opportunity to talk to two Year 13 Drama students who had visited the Tate Liverpool to see Tracey Emin’s My Bed (1998) when it was on display. The students then used this artwork as a stimulus for a play that they wrote and then performed. Their play dealt with sexual abuse.

They explained how the artwork was about more than just a messy bed, and how this had helped them develop their play.

See, Tracey Emin’s bed in the Tate, when you come in and look at the bed, people go ‘oh that’s just a messed up bed. I could do that on a Monday morning’. But when you look at it and what is around the bed, and what it symbolises, knowing her backstory, you realise that all of her life has unfolded in that art piece. She had a picture of her ex who she was completely in love with who left her, cigarettes, alcohol bottles and a bed just torn to pieces. That, in a way, shows her mental state, and we wanted to adhere to that and show the mental state of our characters. Hopefully that will connect to whomever we perform to.

Most people look at the art in a literal sense and say this art is just a bed. It is less about the bed itself and more about the person behind.

The students then explained how this artwork created a stimulus for them to leap from, to engage in difficult and complex ideas, and how it inspired their work on mental health and the links to sexual abuse.

I think the bed as an actual stimulus was what really pushed it for me because recognising that the bed wasn’t just a bed, it was the actual mental state so connecting that up to making a play about your mental state was really interesting for me. I could create bonds between our own production and the bed. When we first wanted to do it, we thought it would be more interesting if we included the bed – at least in the background. We had a bed onstage, messed up maybe so giving that sense of bad mental state. I’m not sure if you’ve read this but they say your mental state can be represented by your bedroom and the state it is in. It reflects what you feel inside which is really interesting. So we wanted to get that across but at the same time we didn’t want to confuse the audience so by the end of it we decided not to [include the bed]. We worried they’d be focused too much on the bed rather than the actual acting that was happening on stage. So we went for a minimalistic vibe rather than focusing on props, lighting, shadow, we wanted to focus on the actors. The only prop we used was a block to emphasise character stance.

I asked the students what the value to them was of being able to visit the Tate and use an artwork as a stimulus for a piece.

It helps build on your own ideas. We’re told in the media about these kinds of people, about mental health, and to just get down on the ground and see someone’s own mental health displayed really helps build upon what you want to do, how you want to present it.

WDtheatre

One of the students highlighted how Drama, through working with complex issues that form part of our world, can change your world view.

Most things when you come to Drama are confidence, you boost your confidence. But in fact, when doing this, it not only boosts your confidence on stage but going into the big world, meeting other people, you have got that confidence for it. When we were performing and exploring into it [the play], you realise the society that we live in and the society that the news feeds, that the government says it is, it is not. It is completely different to how it is. It changes your views on the world. You realise eventually who to go with, stay away from, what type of person they’ve built you into society and that is what Drama is pretty good for. 

The opportunity for these Drama students to visit Tate Liverpool, and use one of the artworks for an in-depth exploration of complicated mental states influenced their work. It was an interesting reminder that art can be used in different ways, with many subjects.

 

 

learning through trying again, and again…and again.

Last November, I visited Barcelona. During my visit I went to the Picasso Museum. One of the paintings I saw was Picasso’s Las Meninas. The painting itself was fascinating, intriguing, based on Velasquez’s work of the same title. But it was the way the painting was displayed that interested me most. In the rooms surrounding the main work, studies and sketches of Picasso’s work towards the final piece were displayed. It was evidence of the process of making an art piece, but I felt it was also evidence of experimentation, trying things out, looking at what worked, what did not, and trying again until the artist had achieved what he was after. I was reminded of this process of art making, the trying and failing and trying again, that is so necessary in making, during my visit to Childwall Sports and Science Academy in Liverpool.

As Becky Parry wrote about her own research visit here, the murals and art displayed all around the school is incredibly inspiring and impressive. There is a riot of colour, murals connected to subject themes, and student work on a variety of topics. The students I spoke with identified these public displays of art as proof that their school values the arts. It also meant that their own, older works were on display for other people to see, something they were not necessarily that comfortable with. The students explained that they didn’t necessarily enjoy seeing their work up (although it did make them proud), because they were now doing better work; work that they could see showed their progress as artists. They were therefore inadvertently able to see progress clearly because their older work is on display.

Students were also aware that the process of making progress in art allowed them to experience failure in a way that was not necessarily negative (or not necessarily failure) and contrasted strongly with other subjects where there is often a ‘right’ way of doing things.

In a conversation I had with Year 12s, the students explained:

 “It teaches you not to be afraid to fail. You have to fail to get better.”

“They [the teachers] encourage it. They want to see you do something wrong than you always get it right and never improve.”

I thought these ideas summarized what is so great about art in school, and is what we often forget when we look at art in a gallery. I found myself thinking about my conversation with the Year 12s at Childwall while I wandered through the Roy Lichtenstein rooms currently open at Tate Liverpool. Art teaches students that it is okay to fail, to not get things totally correct the first time, and to have the courage to start again. Later, when I looked properly at the flyer I had picked up from the Tate I laughed. The flyer is designed as a comic and on the front sat a frustrated Lichtenstein with the caption, “It’s not good. I need some inspiration.” This, I felt, was the crux of my discussion with the Year 12s at Childwall: art requires frustration and perceived failure on the part of the artist in order to improve, to achieve the vision that they have. Even great artists try multiple things, creating studies in different colours or techniques, before they create their final piece (the one we inevitably see in the gallery). Art teaches you that this process is okay.

Surely we should be encouraging more people to take arts subjects rather than less, so that we mould resilient young people, comfortable with failure, ready to navigate our complex world? This was certainly the approach I saw at Childwall. It is something to aspire to, I think.

‘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.

shakespeare in east london: Helena is crushing on Demetrius!

This post is written by Lexi Earl.

In a Year Seven class at Eastbury School in Barking, London, the students are studying A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The purpose of the class is to enable students to emphathise with Helena’s situation and so to begin, the teacher has the class read a version of Helena’s speech, and then discuss it in pairs. The class exchange their ideas about Helena.

“Helena and Hermia are rivals,” one student explains. “Why?” asks the teacher. “Because Helena is crushing on Demetrius but Demetrius is crushing on Hermia!” the girl exclaims. “Helena is in love and obsessed with Demetrius whereas Demetrius is obsessed with someone else,” another clarifies. Then the teacher asks what background we get from the speech. “Helena really likes him [Demetrius],” the class tells her. “Demetrius used to be in love with her before Hermia turned up.” “She’s angry with him because of what he’s doing,” another student observes. The teacher explains that Helena is suffering from unrequited love. “What does this mean?” she asks. “When you like someone and they don’t like you back,” a student tells her.

Then the class moves on to talking about iambic pentameter and how Shakespeare uses it in the text before the students start to ‘walk the room’. First, they have to walk around and pay a compliment to three different people. Then they walk around exchanging insults. This results in much laughter as the students walk. After this, the exchange is reversed, so if somebody pays another a compliment, the complimented person has to respond with an insult, and vice versa. The class then pause to reflect on how they feel about these exchanges. The teacher asks, “how did that feel, if you gave a compliment and then you received an insult?”

“It feels like bad and sad cause you’ve just been kind to that person and they’ve been harsh back,” a student explains. Another says, “betrayed” whilst a third says, “rejected. Because when you talk to the person and are nice to them, you expect them to be the same back. You’ve done nothing wrong.”

The students divide into pairs and are each given a copy of Act One, Scene Two to rehearse. One student is playing Demetrius, the other, Helena. The purpose of this task is to explore the emotions and feelings that the characters are experiencing. The class works through the scene together. “What do we notice about what is being said?” the teacher asks. “Demetrius doesn’t love her,” a student notes. “Demetrius doesn’t love her, cannot love her,” another observes. “Helena does not return the insults,” notes another student. Some of the lines of the scene are written in iambic pentameter. The teacher says that they should pay attention to this but not be bogged down by it. “I love thee not therefore pursue me not!” the teacher reads out. “He sounds angry here”.

They first try the lines whilst pretending they don’t want anyone else to hear but still want to bring out how the character is feeling. Then they perform the lines as if they’re out in the open and don’t care if anyone hears. This time the class is much louder – some stand up to deliver their lines. The teacher asks, “ Which one fits the scene best?” “The loud one cause it’s an argument. You wouldn’t be whispering. He’s telling her to go away,” a student says. “I agree. That line ‘for I am sick when I do look on thee’, he is sick when he looks at her,” the teacher says. “You can’t tell when we’re whispering that they’re angry,” another student observes. “Demetrius gives her insults and she returns with compliments, like we did earlier,” says another. “They might be whispering because they are in the wood, and Lysander and Hermia are running away and they don’t want them to hear.”

Following this discussion, the students are given five minutes to create a scene between the two characters. The students enthusiastically embrace the chance to perform, and the class is loud with noise and busy with movement. The class then comes back together to watch some of the performances. Their teacher advises that while they are watching they should consider how each character feels. After the first pair, the class talks about their thoughts.

“Demetrius is really angry”. “He wants Helena to let go of him”. “Helena is lovestruck, crazy over change”. “Its like before cause he’s insulting her and she compliments him.” The second performance is slightly different, and so the class has different responses. “Helena is upset that she’s having a one-sided feeling”. “What about Demetrius?” the teacher asks. “I get the impression that he really hates her! He puts his hand out so she’ll just go away. He doesn’t want to look at her”. The third group is another pair of girls. Helena is much meeker than we have seen, practically whispering her lines. Demetrius is more aggressive. The class thinks Helena is quiet and moody. She doesn’t look at Demetrius that much, she looks at the floor. She is shy. Her body language is slouched, unexpressive. “He is saying the words to her hurt, but she doesn’t want to show him”.

The class is then expected to write a short monologue that explains their character’s feelings, before they discuss what they have learnt to end the lesson. Afterwards, I spoke to the teacher about these types of rehearsal room approaches to learning – that require children to be on their feet, or performing scenes. She says the class is more engaged when they learn this way. The reading of the text can be too boring. In this class they’re reading lines but are not too worried about what individual words mean, they can still gain an understanding of the scene. The teacher explained that this approach, based on training she had with the RSC, could be adapted to other texts that the young people were studying, allowing them to learn texts in ways other than the tradition of reading out loud.

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.