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.

 

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.