Stage connections

25th November 2005 at 00:00
Lucy Cuthbertson shows how theatre techniques can be learned in class.

Can theatre skills be integrated into drama lessons? Is it possible, with a cast of students, to blur the boundaries between what is "professional-standard" theatre and what is not? And is it possible to do this without turning your drama department into a stage school?

There is no doubt that the answer is yes to all the above, even in schools with a strong bias towards process drama. There are many ways to integrate the teaching and learning of performance skills into drama lessons, and this is important: students don't learn to perform to a high standard overnight. The skills to make it possible need developing and refining over time, much like the acquisition of any technical abilities. However, young people are the match of adults in their imaginative capacities - in my experience, they exceed adults in both imagination and expression; they have fewer restraints, are less self-conscious and less "well behaved".

Much work training or directing adults in professional theatre involves breaking down the barriers which adults construct around themselves, learning to play, and rediscovering the imaginative life that is often lost in the process of growing up and adopting socially appropriate behaviour.

However, if young people possess a rich, surprising and free imagination, why is it frequently missing in school plays? Why the sudden wooden physicality, inaudibility, rigidity and monotone expression? What happens to them? What it usually indicates is a lack of confidence in basic technical performance skills. Projection, articulation, movement and positioning on stage are easily taught through any drama curriculum - even those which emphasise process techniques and approaches.

A lack of input into these skills early on proves to be a disservice to students at GCSE and A-level, who will be assessed directly for their ability to act. It will also mean that the school play remains just that, rather than potentially a piece of excellent theatre in its own right which happens to be performed by young people. The following ideas are ways to hone their performances.

Polish technical skills

* Emphasise the importance of projection whenever students are showing work.

This skill is probably given the least attention in schools, and is the weakest element in most school theatrical performances. Establish the concept early on, as projection initially feels unnatural. Introduce the idea of "thinking and speaking out" - eg for the person who is furthest away in the room. Alternatively, decide on a point on the wall which students can try to "hit" with their voice.

* Do breathing exercises from time to time. Teach students how the instrument of the voice works (this also links to science), how to use it, and that projection is not shouting. If you're showing work in the lesson, focus an evaluation question on audibility and other areas of voice, such as tone, variation, mood and character.

* Encourage the use of accents (regardless of how inaccurate) or, indeed, any change in voice. Sustaining a change in voice takes huge confidence. If students have a regional accent, start by encouraging them to exaggerate it as a safe introduction to playing with voice as a way into character. If you are performing a role, don't miss an opportunity to model this idea by changing your own voice or using an accent. Students will be inspired to have a go themselves.

* The best place to stand for an actor in a performance is rarely the one that feels most natural, in terms of either the space between actors or the physical relationship with the audience. Students need to learn this and get used to what is effective if they are ever to use these conventions with ease.

* Allocate the role of director to students and give them the responsibility for the "blocking" of a group's work. Try blocking games - scenes where one student in turn is always moving, standing, sitting, or has their back to the audience, and so on. Experiment with best and worst blocking scenarios for a particular piece of drama. All this will increase students' awareness of spacing and allow them to make more informed decisions.

* How do students ever understand the relationship between performer and spectator, the buzz or power of making people laugh, never mind mastering the skill of handling that laughter, riding the laugh, waiting for the laugh, without practise? Create opportunities for formal performance. There is no substitute for this.

SCRIPTS, PROPS AND SCENERY

When it comes to working on a script, whether it's a small scene in class or a full-scale production, I have found the following approaches get the best work from young people and result in a final piece they clearly have ownership over.

* Encourage students, in all their work on scripts, to see the dialogue - the words - as the starting point and to realise that their interpretation of the meaning of the play is vital. If you have the luxury of long rehearsal periods, take advantage of these in a workshop to improvise ideas long before picking up the script.

* Rather than restricting students, getting props, costumes and scenery in place early can be liberating for them, as it gives them free rein to play and invent. Objects and costumes have a chance to become fully integrated into a production in imaginative ways that you could not predict. Exercises in class encouraging the multiple use and symbolism of simple props within a scene, are useful for helping students to play in this way.

* The more challenging, difficult and exciting you make your directing, the more you will find students give. They will match you and better your ideas. Remember: 20 heads are better than one. Make it collaborative.

Lucy Cuthbertson is head of drama at Kidbrooke School, and AST for drama at Greenwich. Kidbrooke's production of Just, by Ali Smith, was presented at the National Theatre in July as part of the Shell Connections Festival

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