The application of drama and theatre in English, media and drama studies
Our Theatre in Education (TiE) project ‘Guilty’ was based on a ‘murder mystery’ narrative, using the characters of the board game ‘Cluedo’ as a foundation block on which to build our story. Like many narratives in this genre, our drama complied with the Aristotelian unities of place and time, in that the crime was shown to have been committed in an enclosed space – in our case, a cruise ship – and was investigated within 24 hours by a detective figure, with all the characters in the drama becoming suspects. We peopled our fictional ship with stock characters and in our drama the audience became fellow passengers, who would come to the aid of Guru Green in his investigation.
We began with the idea of a shipwreck. I had brought in an image of Gericault’s ‘The Raft of the Medusa’ and this coincided with the mention of the original ‘Beauty and the Beast’ story by Barbot de Villeneuve, which opens with a shipwreck. However, our group quickly abandoned this story and subsequently, in a session with Stas Smagala, we developed stock characters to people our ship. When a member of our group suggested ‘murder mystery’ as a structure, we realised that our characters fitted neatly into the ‘Cluedo’ mould.
In rehearsal, we were interested in how we might create dramatic tension and we focussed on scene development, aware of the “notion that dramatic power and tension were most heightened if the narrative time was concentrated”(O’Toole 1992: 27). In terms of the curriculum, we wanted students to understand the conventions of the murder-mystery genre in order that they might use these in their own narratives. During the process, several themes emerged as important. Bolton (1993: 46) defines three levels of meaning in narratives, the “contextual”, the “universal or thematic” and the “personal or idiosyncratic”. Our contextual meaning related to the enquiry into “who killed Gilbert Mustard?” whereas our “universal or thematic meanings” might be defined as “the roles of judgement and justice in society” and “the nature of beauty”. We hoped our work would raise significant questions on these themes.
I am acutely aware of the pressures on young people – and girls especially – in contemporary society to conform to unrealistic ideals of beauty and I’m cognisant of the link between perceived appearance and self-esteem. Self-esteem is a vital component of the PSHE Curriculum and drama proved a powerful medium through which to explore this area. When working in role as Ms Peacock, I was able to directly question students on what ‘beauty’ meant to them.
At first I saw Ms Peacock as a stock character but I portrayed her seriously. However, during feedback, it was suggested that an injection of humour might be appropriate. In a subsequent rehearsal, I received excellent direction from my group. We worked on developing elements of caricature, so that Ms Peacock became a ridiculous figure. This valuable experience of listening to and acting on feedback offered me a direct experience of how positive group work can enhance the experience of creating drama in the classroom and was a reminder of the importance of the rehearsal process in any drama production.
On a “performative” level (Winston 2005: 312), humour became a key to engaging our audience. Winston (2005: 317) writes about “the surprise of laughter” and its role in “holding our interest” and also its ability to “complement those aspects of moral education concerned with principles and ethical codes”. By allowing myself to be laughed at, I was in fact opening up a complex space, where students might be free to examine their own views, as I shall go on to explore.
Heathcote (1984: 162) writes about an aspect of role as the process of creating “the other”:
“I spend a lot of time preventing classes feeling stared at … The obvious way of avoiding this is to give them something so attractive in the room that they feel they are staring at it. Role is one of the most efficient ‘others’.”
We agreed to make Ms Peacock as colourful as possible in her peacock-blue dress, her excessive jewellery and thick make-up. During our first school performance, I experienced my character as “other”. The students lined up outside the drama studio and we greeted them in outlandish costume, inviting them onto our ship. They stared, shocked and uncertain. One might call this a moment of theatrical “wonder” and it is this “wonder” which, I believe, allows students to work in a fresh way: in being asked to inhabit a relatively alien experience, they are also offered space to develop and to reflect.
Heathcote refers to the almost “improper” (1984: 163) aspect of role yet it is this improper nature that quickly sets the “frame” that Heathcote refers to:
“the very fact that someone has entered into a full signing system, in drama time, automatically places the rest of the people present into roles themselves” (1984:163)
As Heathcote, in her work in role as manager of a gold mine called for picks and shovels, so I, in role, asked students if they had suntan lotion, sunglasses and a fan, as a way of immediately engaging them in the action. Dramatic play allows the students to enter a safe zone where they might explore unsafe situations. As O’Toole (1992: 24) writes:
“the act of entering a fictional context may be said to be entering a play-frame … It provides some protection from external consequences for those who step inside it.”
In our TiE performance, Ms Peacock asks students what their idea of beauty is? My role had something in common with the role of a fellow student who played the role of Simon in “Street-crossed Lovers”. We set ourselves up as “ugly” and framed “ugly” as “other”. In allowing ourselves to be mocked, in the space that laughter opened up, they were made safe; we were vulnerable in order that they did not need to be so. Within this frame, students could choose to indulge in mockery and explore questions such as “what does it feel like to be cruel?” Equally, they could become involved in the debate on beauty.
The majority of students opposed Ms Peacock’s role – some for her absurd search for beauty, others for her inability to see how beauty is internal not external. During rehearsals, we discussed the importance of framing the audience into a position of “concern” (Heathcote 1984: 169) as well as “influence” (Heathcote 1984: 168). Vine (1993: 111) describes Boal’s approach: “He believed that feelings as well as the intellect were crucial to the development of people’s perceptions and understandings.” I reflected on the importance of giving unpleasant characters likeable traits. Many students did feel concern for Ms Peacock and offered advice and sympathy. Through these varied student responses, I can consider the multiplicity of views within any classroom and it encourages me to return to the question posed by Yandell in our first lecture at Institute of Education (10th September 2012): “who are the learners and what do they know?”
This leads me to Bolton’s third level of meaning, the “personal or idiosyncratic”. Nicholson (2005:70) also refers to this:
“from the perspective of any one participant, there is always a triangulation between their own narratives of identity, the narratives of others and the narratives of the drama itself which needs to be negotiated.”
Students perceive the drama and its implications from individual viewpoints. As a performer, I learned that I must be open to individual responses to my offerings – just as, as a teacher, there will be an enormous range of responses that I must build on. In audience interactions, I was aware of the potential contentiousness of embodying a character whose values I do not uphold, what Nicholson (2005: 79) calls “the point of intersection and confrontation” when “embodying roles which may or may not be appealing, and which may represent values and ideas which may be personally and politically challenging.”
By taking a standpoint in character that the audience would not agree with, the audience were thus more challenged to examine their own views. Jackson (1993:35) describes good theatre as that which, “initiates or extends a questioning process in its audience, when it makes us look afresh at the world, its institutions and conventions and at our own place in that world.” This makes me question what becomes possible in any precise moment of theatrical interaction. Through inhabiting a role and through observing students in role, I can perceive new possibilities in the student-teacher dynamic. This could be extended in the English classroom for example, by using teacher-in-role, by ‘playing devil’s advocate’ in questioning sessions, by using costume to enhance a task or by finding some fresh angle on an old topic. It teaches me that the element of surprise – and wonder – must not be underestimated.
As Heathcote (1984: 164) states, in the course of the drama, “rules of behaviour can emerge”. I was fascinated to observe how different classes responded to our production. The “personal” and “idiosyncratic” (Bolton 1993: 46) therefore might refer not only to individual culture but to a constantly shifting group culture. For example, a Year 7 class in Period 6 on a Friday afternoon with minimal theatrical lighting responded totally differently to a Year 9 class on Monday morning in a theatrically-lit space. In the former example many students felt able to call out at Ms Peacock, “you’re butters” and to mock her; the latter class were less vocal, yet more thoughtful and offered considered responses to the question of beauty and its importance. From this, I have learned the importance of context and individual response in every moment of teaching.
The experience of devising the TiE project contributed to my understanding of how students feel when they are given complex group tasks. As Franks (2010: 107) states:
“groups are not chosen on the basis of friendship, but are required to work productively and with maturity and professionalism within tight constraints of time and form.”
At times I found the experience of working with those with whom I would not usually work challenging, yet I learned more about myself and my processes than I would have done otherwise. I also understood more about how students feel when placed in groups by their teacher. In any theatrical decision, there are potential losses and gains. For example, one area of frustration for me was the fact that I wanted to experiment more with Forum Theatre and I was concerned that students should not become “submissive passengers” (Bolton 1993: 43) during our piece; I wanted them to be “genuinely involved in decision making” (Bolton 1993: 43). I was mindful of O’Toole’s (1992: 30) idea that “the tension produced by withholding information is actually a product of a broader dynamic, embodying a dialectic of power and control”. I did not want to “trick” the students in relation to the guilt of Guru Green and felt that the lack of clues in relation to her motivation was inadequate. I feared disempowering the audience. However, several audience members did, nonetheless, guess the guilt of the Guru and in fact this was an empowering moment for those students.
In our education pack, we focussed on genre and narrative and the issue of judgement, by including a court scene as a speaking and listening task. The issue of “beauty” as a core topic did not emerge deeply until our final week of rehearsals, making it too late to include in the education pack. I would like to have included a PSHE lesson with a focus on beauty and the media, linking to the topic of self-esteem. Whilst we did not have the opportunity for an extended class discussion on the subject of beauty, in our third school, the students had an opportunity to reflect on the drama skills we had used in our performance. Franks (2010: 108) refers to the role of the TiE project in drawing “attention to the various modes and conventions of modern theatre”. Students at this school were keen to point out our use of freeze-frame, sound effect, hot-seating and physical theatre. They had clearly learned about the process of drama through the theatrical aspects of our performance, as revealed through the intensity of their questioning about the devising process.
Bolton (1993: 42) states, “it is beneficial for a class or an audience to reflect after the experience, but the greater potential may lie in reflection during the dramatic experience.” The full effect of any TiE performance may not be immediate or even tangible. Yet if one examines individual moments – when a student has a moment of realisation (“oh, it’s CLUEDO!”) or when they comfort and reassure a character (“No, really, it’s what’s on the inside that counts”) – one can make a parallel with any moment of learning in any classroom. It is the quality of the individual interaction in any given moment, the level of engagement and the depth of response that matter. These individual moments are what make up an education and this knowledge will inform my teaching practice as I attempt to make each moment matter, to be always aware of personal responses and to continually strive to offer students a fresh perspective.
Bolton, G. (1993) ‘Drama in Education and TIE: a comparison’, Chapter 2, pp. 40-47 in Jackson, T. Learning through Theatre: New perspectives on Theatre in Education. (2nd ed.) London: Routledge
Franks, A. (2010) ‘Playing a Part’ pp. 102 – 113 in Heilbronn, R. and Yandell, J. (eds.) Critical Practice in Teacher Education. London: IOE Publications
Heathcote, D. (1984), ‘Signs and Portents’, pp. 160-169 in Johnson, L. and O’Neill, (eds.) C. Dorothy Heathcote, Collected Writings on Education and Drama. London: Hutchinson
Jackson, T. Introduction and Education or Theatre: The development of TIE in Britain, Chapter 1, pp. 1-12 and 17- 37 in Jackson, T. (1993) Learning through Theatre: New perspectives on Theatre in Education. (2nd ed.) London: Routledge
Nicholson, H. (2005) ‘Narrative and the Gift of Storytelling’, Chapter 4, pp. 63-82 in Nicholson, H. Applied Drama: The Gift of Theatre. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan
O’Toole, J (1992), The Process of Drama: Negotiating Art and Meaning. London, Routledge
Vine, C. (1993) ‘TIE and the Theatre of the Oppressed’, Chapter 6, pp. 109-127 in Jackson, T. Learning Through Theatre: New Perspectives on Theatre in Education. (2nd ed.) London: Routledge
Winston, J. (2005), ‘Between the Aesthetic and the Ethical: Analysing the Tension at the Heart of Theatre in Education’. Journal of Moral Education, 34 (3), 309-323