The theatrics of classroom work

I hated school. I was loud, gobby, answered back and very, very opinionated. But the teachers missed ‘me’ within that noise. They never sported that in fact I completed every piece of work, that I would slave over something despite not being the most able, that I worked incredibly hard on my school work whilst balancing work to earn money to pay for my education. They missed this. So the commitment to going back to this space comes from a dedication to offer others creative, engaging experiences that value everyone and give opportunity for everyone. (Hence no prizes, no stickers or gold stars in my work!). The term I use, the term I feel embodies what I do, is Drama For Learning. It is the FOR within the centre of this that is key to my practice. I make plays, create theatre and direct young people’s theatre but what bothers me at night, what bothers me during the day and what will bother me probably on my death bed is how drama can be used FOR learning. Most of my work in classroom settings isn’t about creating theatre but it is about using the elements of theatre to create moments of magic.

Over the past six years I have immersed myself in the study of Heathcote and the pursuit of developing my own practice in the utilisation of drama within a classroom setting. In order to really work on my skills as a practitioner I seemed to have put the theatre to the side. I kept the props, the set, the theatre in another space to what I was doing. The performative elements stayed close however.

For a long time I watched (stalked!) Luke Abbott with beady eyes marvelling at how he could walk into any classroom and hold them, engage them in real purposeful work. To some it may have looked slightly chaotic or disorganised as children were sharing answers with each other, talking in small groups before falling silent without a cue. There was no “ssshhh”ing of children, no ‘signal for silence’. In fact often he didn’t seem to be saying anything at all. I wasn’t sure what he was doing or how he was doing it. Then I realised that what he was doing was listening not talking. He hadn’t asked them a question only to field one or two responses but was actually planting seeds, was allowing the children to have conversation and because he had hooked them in so strongly when I leant forward each child was talking about the problem, immersed in the drama. It wasn’t just his use of voice that was clear and commanding but his wonderful use of pause and silence that fascinated me (and as a drama practitioner trained in the ‘jolly’ it became on of my challenges.) He used silence to allow children to push their ideas to a deeper level but interestingly silence was also played, at other times, completely within a theatrical manner. Heathcote describes the development of tension in classroom drama just as how you would create tension in theatre, that it is central to the drama and drawn from the narrative created. Tension is Eastender’s shouting but in the classroom real tension is drawn from knowing what question to ask, when to narrate, when to probe, when to command, a moment of pause in a sentence or the use of repetition then a change in pattern. When to be silence and how to hold silence is another skill I saw him use and have spent years trying to perfect. It requires you to be present, to be in the moment, just as how we ask actors to be. When done properly the silence becomes stillness or a pause where we hold our breaths and wait to see what will happen. It is a the moment that the contracting of the fictional world comes to its height and we are thrown even deeper in to it.

Character (Adult in Role)
Going in to role always bothered me. It wasn’t an embarrassment thing as I am quite prepared to do it in the right context however when I did this in the classroom I seemed to loose control of the class, I was stuck in this role, trapped by the costume or dodgy accent I was using. However most importantly I noted it became a game to the children. I have also heard of it done another way where people come in in costume with the pretence that they really are a Police man looking for a stolen teddy bear or what ever the scenario is. I always felt uncomfortable doing this as it didn’t really seem to serve a purpose. And in my learning and development in my use of Adult in Role again I have to cite Luke Abbot. I was attending some training and he had set up a scenario around a lake, a bird had been found dead. There was a problem and asked when we were ready to investigate to step inside the space. I waited and no one did. As a drama bod I thought “I know! I will help and go first”. I stepped in and did my best concerned facial expression, vigorously rubbed my hands together and was clearly basing my character on the best detective that ever was: Columbo. Luke simply turned to me and said “are you with us?” This completely stopped me. No I wasn’t! I was in my own head acting out some play. I wasn’t there, wasn’t present in the space, wasn’t ‘with’ them. “Yes!” I said somewhat confused at what he meant. He looked at the ‘dead bird’ and then back at me and quietly said “Are you with us?”. In a moment I had dropped the ‘act’ and was there with them, ready, in the space that was being created and this space wasn’t a stage.
(Its worth noting that Luke is a highly experienced practitioner and knew that this was the right challenge for me. He also knew that he had to do something in that moment and that was to get rid of the ‘acting’ and bring me in to the space!)

Adult in role and character is the challenging, often misinterpreted element of what we do with drama in the classroom. In manifests itself in many ways from the TA trying to help a group make a ‘better’ freeze frame to the child who ‘acts’ distress at seeing the battlefield for the first time, kneeling down shouting ‘noooo’ in slow motion instead of ‘feeling’ it and quietly looking, reflecting. Of course this is at the hands of the practitioner to create and be clear with the participants. Like Luke when he asked the right question with the right amount of challenge to allow that moment of thought and understanding. There is ‘character’ at times. But it is when it is necessary, relevant and always carefully played. It may be the straight back to indicate a sense of self importance and it is always the vocabulary. At times I may enhance that character further, heighten my mannerisms a little more but the focus must be on the conversation we are having, the questions we are asking or the thoughts we are exploring. If they laugh at me, like an audience watching a play then I know I have got it wrong. It is the power of ‘if’ this were you. Imagine. “Can we agree that when I wear this hat I am Nicholas Winton? You can speak to him if you like but you should know that he is troubled. It is bothering him so he hasn’t had much sleep.” And then to enter the defined space you have set for the character but what you don’t do is then yawn. Many love being in role, many hate it. As a practitioner I am still working through it and each moment is different however for me it is about keeping us in that space, in the ‘now’ time.

My voice is one of the ways I tell if I have had a good session or not. If it hurts at the end of the day then I know I have struggled to engage the children. Again perhaps not in directorial mode, from the back of the theatre or hall, I use to my voice to offer energy and enthusiasm in to the space. To drive the rehearsal process forward even if we have done it a thousand times. It loud, energised and positive. However my dramatic inquiry classroom practice it’s different. Working alongside a TA practitioner had a big influence. I’m not saying I do TA in the classroom however the idea that I should speak adult to adult is so important. I’ve never been one of those high pitched, “well done””, over excited drama teachers who smiles and says ‘well done’ with no real commitment or truth behind it however my classroom work uses an adult to adult voice. When I ask them a question its genuine. It’s about authenticity. I’m asking because I don’t know. Because I’m genuinely interested and certainly not because I have the right answer and want you to guess it. There is a tonal change between these two. There is a definite nuance and shift in the vocal inflection of a question you don’t know the answer to to one that has implies it is a test and there is a right or wrong. I think there is also an energy shift, a change in the force of the question. My voice has become even more of an interest in my practice as I have a young child. I can hear when my pitch goes up and notice that I have certain vocal ‘ticks’ to indicate that something is not a good idea! The voice also comes in to play a lot in the classroom when I am narrating or storytelling a moment. I don’t mean that I am sat with the children in front of me telling a story I mean in the moment, in the drama. I use ‘narration’ to link ideas, to give instructions, to ask questions but it has a clear tone and is of a commanding volume. “If you know what Sidney’s mother said to the army can you step forward to share it with everyone? This is what Sidney’s mother said to the army…”. A commanding volume until the moment of reflection, or pause, or tension, or because I know have their attention so I speak quietly or because I need them to listen so I speak quietly. I think everyone should have some vocal training. It opens up so many possibilities and allows you to construct moments of tension, pause, reflection, excitement so simply.

And now for the recent….

For years I have been a master of invention. I’ve used basic props (such as an amazing wooden box- my uncles old tuck box!), a billion post stick notes, reams of paper. To really hone my classroom practice I dumped all of the real props of theatre. I was totally interrogating my questioning skills, and my practice and working on me and in order to do this I had to get rid of the ‘stuff’. And then I met John Doona. Its funny how your career throws you in the path of different people who make you go “oh! wait a minute!”. Just like Luke he stopped me in my tracks, took my hand and led me back my roots in theatre. I followed his schemes, his ideas and the way that he creates space using set, lighting, props and costume. For some reason I had thought it was one or the other. That it was either theatre or drama in the classroom. I now understand much better that what it is actually about is about taking whatever you need to create magic. I can indicate a letter with some paper a child hands me and rips for me in to shape buy the way I touch it, endow it, look at it, speak about it or I could have a real letter. Neither is better but both are possible and offer different opportunities. I’m currently launching a project that explores Macbeth with children. It may seem obvious but time is spent before the children come to the space preparing it. Contracting with the children the suspension of our disbelief just as you do when you enter a theatre or press play for a film. It involves (in this case!) candles, spells, quotes of text, crowns, daggers and drops of blood. The children are met in the classroom and then asked to take note of what they see for when we enter the space we will begin our story. In the past I have associated and used this type of technique for storytelling only. But here John reminded me how it can be used and totally integrated with dramatic inquiry pedagogy. The first thing the children are asked is if they can see anything that they think is important to share with the whole group. You see they are sat around the set up in a large circle, they surround it. Rather than it feeling like a display it feels ceremonial, it is ritual, it is drama. We then make our predictions as to what this story might be about. All are accepted and all are right. This clear sense of theatre and the mechanisms of theatre are explicitly exploited here to aid the dramatic inquiry , to prompt and stimulate before the children are swiftly moved backwards and forwards thought the exploration of moments of the play to, of course make their own meaning and discover for themselves. Deep, difficult questions are asked. In one recent school we spent much of the session exploring if it would be a good or bad thing to know what was going to happen to you, if fate was real, if you carved your own path or if it was all laid out for you. Questions that a year five group embraced and deeply reflected upon. Heavy stuff eh? But this blog isn’t about that its about how the mechanics of ‘theatre’ can offer the opportunity for that to happen and create space for that to happen.

I am so lucky to be involved in a world where I think I understand only to have my whole practice shaken and challenge through impromptu meetings of great people who also stand on the shoulders of other great people. I only hope one day I can offer someone else that kind on personal reflection but I’m more excited to know who I will meet next!


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