At this stage of the game

6th November 1998 at 00:00
Call yourself a banana and then find somewhere to sit - Heather Neill spends a day with teachers refreshing their drama skills

Drama is the fastest growing subject at GCSE, but there are too few experienced or specialist teachers to cope with demand. Even when a school has sufficient staff, there are bound to be occasions when the cover list on the staffroom noticeboard allocates an unexpected drama lesson to a less than delighted historian, geographer or art teacher. But as these are all subjects - and not the only ones - which could sometimes benefit from an injection of drama skills, it might not go amiss for everyone to acquire at least a few basics.

Most of the teachers who turned up for the National Theatre's "Drama Skills 1" (see box) in September were English or drama specialists, but many were also responsible for art or design technology, a bit of history or RE. Some were trying to polish up rusty techniques, having been "landed" with drama because no one else was available; some were new to the profession and many commented that their absence for a whole Wednesday had been met with groans by those left to fill in. Perhaps the groaners will pick up some tips from what follows.

Didi Hopkins, our tutor for the day, greeted us as we arrived at the NT's education space near Waterloo station and invited us to draw chairs into a circle. One of the first benefits of this kind of course is that it reminds those whose job it is to expect compliance, even obedience, from pupils what it feels like to carry out the lesson tasks themselves. Some participants were more self-conscious than others, but Didi reminded us at intervals that we were in a "safe" environment, no one was here to judge anyone else, and soon we were throwing ourselves into the games she had planned for us. Sometimes literally.

First "Fruitbowl". Didi designated each of the 20 of us banana, apple or orange and when our fruit was called we had to find another seat in the circle. There being one too few, this led to teachers squealing and hurtling across the room. Another similar game followed with a central person shouting something like "everyone who has a cat", "everyone who likes poetry". More hurtling in search of a chair. On "everyone wearing lacy underwear" only Mark, at this stage the sole man - Tom arrived later - stood up looking mysterious. The ice was well and truly broken.

Didi reminded us after every game why it was worth playing. Now, not only was the class relaxed, but she as teacher knew a little bit more about each of us. A name-remembering trick soon followed, with each of us choosing and doing an alliterative action, such as zigzagging for Zo , vibrating for Vicki, cooking for Christine and so on. We stood in a circle saying and demonstrating the appropriate action. In no time, we were "presenting" each other to the class in twos and threes as if we were on television. We learned little bits of information and embellished them until we had a character study interesting enough to hold an audience's attention.

Wordless concentration is needed for "Pass the Handclap". You stand in a circle, one person turns to the next, following through with body position and eye-contact, and claps. The next person "takes" the clap and either passes it on or gives it back. Here are the beginnings of theatre skills: learning to respond quickly, keeping alert and eliciting acknowledgement from another person.

Several exercises encouraged us to use space imaginatively. Examples are walking at different speeds, changing direction at right-angles and then, on a given signal, forming a square or a triangle together without speaking. Concentration and group awareness are needed.

Paul Salmon, the photographer, arrived while participants were getting to grips with each other in "trust" exercises, taking each other's weight and "mirroring" gestures. There was some falling in heaps, followed by giggles and a firm reminder from Didi about a suitable dress code for drama: slippery shoes are not a good idea.

Next came "modelling", in pairs, one person "sculpting" the other into a shape which is given a title. Didi asked for detail, so the "sculptor" might require a head to tilt, an eye to close, a finger to point - all without words. We were now beginning to draw on our imagination and taking aesthetic considerations into account. I was pleased when my "Future" was chosen for an imaginary group exhibition; not so pleased when my partner's view of "Britain 98" included pushing me into a miserably breathless embryo shape on the floor.

Lunch in the National's canteen allowed a bit of time for reflection. The general view was that, even if you knew some of the games, it was good to be a student again and helpful to swap ideas and horror stories with other teachers. Drama specialists always have a fund of these because their lessons, in some schools, are not treated as important and can be interrupted, changed without warning or consigned to the temporary classroom across the playground. There is another potential danger in drama: if students begin to draw on their own emotions and experience, all kinds of problems can rise to the surface. A drama teacher needs extra antennae to spot such things. These considerations came to the fore in the afternoon.

But first, back at the education room, there was another game to get us in the mood for work. Standing in two lines toe to toe, we were designated Snax or Snickers and, at Didi's shout of the appropriate word, we had to chase the person beside us to the wall. If touched, they had to join the opposing team.

Limbered up, we began to build on the morning's experience. Someone adopted a position which could be interpreted by others - it might be "reading" a newspaper or "strap-hanging" on the tube. Others joined as if they were part of the same scene. Which is how someone came to be investigating my back pocket while I was standing with one arm in the air. No words this time either. But now Didi expected us to be thinking about character, so that, when questioned, we had to give an account of the person we had invented. A "teenager" was, needless to say, picking my pocket on a tube journey.

The rest of the day required more sophisticated group work, more preparation and more imagination. In groups of 10 we were assigned the task of adopting characters and presenting a family tableau with a title including a present participle: preparing the wedding, naming the baby. Much thought went into understanding relationships between family members and, from now on, each group could comment on the other's work. Here was a chance to develop analytical and critical thinking.

Before long, we were building quite detailed tableaux, which moved from one phase to another, on large abstract themes. Our half of the class had to express the state of the modern family and try to demonstrate a way of dealing with its problems in three stages; the others got to grips with education. Each in character, from child to grandparent, we tried to show that our "family" was fractured, each member isolated, and we finished by each saying a conciliatory sentence. "Education" was a vigorous mixture of inequalities and pressures, but with a generally optimistic finale. Didi explained that these exercises, which attempt to identify a problem and find a solution, are based on the philosophy of Augusto Boal, who works with those on the edge of society in South America and Europe. Some teachers thought the family was a dangerous subject to approach in this way, but felt they could adapt the procedures.

By now, we had moved a long way from the morning's games and were using far more sophisticated skills. There were no longer any traces of shyness or diffidence, which was just as well, as the next exercise was quite demanding. We each had to "find" a book in an imaginary library and prepare to be interviewed on its contents and then "read" a page aloud.

This was a neat way to lead into dealing with text. In groups of about five, we read a short section of Cider with Rosie - the bit where Laurie Lee describes being bundled off to school for the first time - and worked out how to present it to everybody else. The differences were fascinating. Without words, using all the words, spoken by a narrator, leaving the text aside and telling the story in quite different words - all methods were tried and each playlet was appraised by everybody else.

It had been a physically demanding day and there had been no time to write notes, but Didi provided a crib sheet to remind us of what we had done, together with a useful bibliography. As I nursed my aching calves, I reflected that it helps to be fit if you want to teach drama, but then, we had probably covered the rudiments of at least half a term's lessons in one day.

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