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Students in Drama
Robert Graham

Mr. Graham finds ways to re-boot the Drama Program at Seisen under challenging circumstances.

Re-Booting Drama at Seisen

Drama class

A worsening pandemic has demanded a re-think of teaching and performing spaces and activities in Drama. I never imagined it would be quite like this. I had seen people in Japan and Vietnam wearing face masks, but I had never worn one before. Now I have been wearing one every day, for most of the day, since August 2020 - and so have all of the students and staff. These masks have had a positive impact in slowing the spread of infection, but they have been a dampener for Drama classes, slowing the willingness of students to open up and to be expressive. They have had to compensate for a restriction of the vocal aspects of Drama in favour of the physical. Movement and gesture have become focal points, and not expressive faces. Many exciting, fun and interesting games and exercises have been denied to the students due to the need for social distancing and not touching each other, and also not speaking more than is necessary - certainly not speaking forcefully. Getting to know you, group cohesiveness, trust and relaxation exercises - which traditionally involve close contact - for the most part, have had to be abandoned.

Hiding behind masks

A performer relies on her greatest asset - her body - for expressive movement, use of the voice and gestures. Much of this expressiveness, however, comes from their faces, but these faces have been covered, which has generally dampened students’ responsiveness and willingness to experiment. Shy and anxious students have become more shy and anxious. The worst case scenario is that students are hiding behind their masks as a means of escaping contribution altogether.

Performance styles where masks are integral

Since mask-wearing is necessary, I thought about the dictum: “If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em”. So, teaching units on Ancient Greek theatre, especially the Greek Chorus and Japanese Noh theatre, where masks are integral to performance. Noh is in a direct line with the ancient Greek chorus. Masks are worn by various characters in this performance style and the students completed a research task and slide-show presentation to explore the connection between them. They made their own cardboard masks and created group-devised pieces in the style of a Greek chorus based on the prologue to the Beauty and the Beast film.

Students performing

Missing half of the theatrical experience

The students’ final project is a group dramatisation of a quirky Japanese folktale (Grade 9) and famous fairytale (Grade 8). Working in small groups, students were tasked with transforming the prose of the story into a working drama script, and to devise all movement, props, costumes and set pieces. They were encouraged to direct each other, and to design a poster and programme for their group’s presentation. The availability of a live audience to appreciate their efforts was uncertain. Though most of the students’ performances have been videotaped and shared with them (and these recordings are great for reflection and analysis) they have, however, essentially been denied audiences, which are half of the theatrical experience. These audiences, I believe, also respond quite differently in unusual situations like a pandemic: they are more subdued in their responses, less willing to be demonstrative and receptive - and that, unfortunately, can come across to young performers as being indifference - which it is not.

Where to from here?

Apart from the heavily-used and shared space at Seisen that is the Drama Room, outdoor performance spaces are one option. The Green Top, Kindergarten and Elementary School playgrounds, the courtyard - tennis courts even are potential performance spaces utilising a variety of performance styles. These would seem to be good options for more social distancing and fresh air, but outdoor spaces present their own difficulties: the need for greater voice projection, a bigger, less naturalistic performance style, and possibly amplification of actors.

Again, the necessity for masks makes this all the more difficult. Future productions here and collaborations with other schools are up in the air - fraught, given these uncertain times. The best (and safest thing) that we can do now is to dream of great dramatic experiences in the near future.

Mr. Graham (May 17, 2021)

Robert Graham portrait

Robert Graham is the Middle School and High School Drama Teacher.

He joined Seisen in August of 2020 after teaching Drama in Australia, the United States and Borneo, Malaysia.

 

 

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