All entries for March 2009

March 10, 2009

The ongoing story of Molly

"Once upon a time there was a little girl called Molly Whuppie and she was very clever. But her parents had so many children they could not afford to feed her and her two older sisters, so they were sent out into the world.

Led by Molly, the girls encounter a giant and escape, causing his own daughters to be killed along the way. She meets a king, and through fulfilling a series of tasks set by him - namely returning to the giant's house and stealing various treasured items - Molly secures prince-husbands for her sisters and finally herself."

This was the English fairy tale that formed the basis of our group's storytelling theatre performance last term. Using the storytelling techniques described by Mike Alfreds in his work with Shared Experience. This proved a unique and sometimes frustrating challenge during rehearsal, as we swung from an interpritation that was too cartoonish, to a heavy-handed, pyschological character analysis approach.

Our saviour was Bakhtin, and carnival humour. Suddenly the elements of the story made sense - the grotesque body of the giant, the reoccurance of food and eating as key themes, and Molly as the comic hero: amoral, resourcesful and likeable trickster. Revived by this, we transformed the piece as a rollicking and irreverent romp. It was a great success when performed to our peers. Our tutor, Joe Winston commented "something of a triumph - pacey, gripping, suspenseful, comical, ironical and true to the spirit of the original." 


Giants, child snatchers and other villians of MA storytelling group!

Yet, as an ensemble all viewing each other's work, I couldn't help but be aware that we all had a certain amount invested in enjoying the performances each group presented. The presentation evening ran high with theatrical nerves and elation, and while the standard was such that the compliments which passed easily between us were honest and heartfelt, this was not an evening when our practice was carefully reflected on. For many, what felt like the real challenge as education practitioners was the next day's performance in a local primary school; Balsall Common. The laughter was less, but it was there - with rapt attention between.

What I found really interesting was watching the children - aged between 7-10 - during a break between performances. They had just watched a performance of Ali Baba and The Forty Thieves that included an enthustiastic mime sequence of pouring boiling oil into barrels containing hidden thieves and an African tale with a cartwheeling villian. As soon as the children got up from their spaces they began mimicking the sections that had made the most impression on them. The room was full of the screams of miniature thieves, dying in boiling agony, and legs flying everywhere as cartwheels were attempted. This made me consider that an important aspect of performances intended for young people should elements they can recreate for themselves. As Grotowski observes, if the actor "performs feats which are well beyond the ability of the spectator... the result is either incomprehension... or quite vehement refusal to listen"

The second incarnation of Molly Whuppie was as part of an hour long workshop with a year four class at Templars Primary School. We attempted to deliver a workshop with a focus on the moral themes inherent in Molly Whuppie, particulary the questionable moral values of Molly herself. However, we discovered the children, without expection, approved of Molly's action and wanted to be her friend because 'she was clever' and 'she would take care of you'. A hotseating session with the giant almost descended into a slanging match. The giant tried in vain to explain to the class Molly had caused him to kill his children and almost batter his wife to death. But they would have none of it - Molly was the hero of the hour. I wonder if a factor in this was that the performers ourselves, though our devising process had also come to like and admire Molly, and in our carnival-inspired performance revelled in her trickery - even when it resulted in death and violence.

Reflecting on this, we struggled. It seemed clear a more heavy-handed protrayal of Molly would leaden the whole performance. the very power of this carnival folk tale, some would argue of all theatre, is in its ability to subvert the norms of society. If (as we attempted in rehearsal) we were to temper Molly's actions with space in the narrative to reflect on their consequences, the whole performance took on the air of a sermon. And so, despite an enjoyable workshop, we were left with questions. We were sure the tale had moral issues within its scope; combining so deftly questions of hunger, greed and poverty with family allegiances, bravery and marriage, but how to tease out these without loosing the sense of fun inherent in the story?

Our latest Molly adventure was with a year 10 drama class at Queensbridge School. On the teacher's request, we had developed a skills-based workshop. The group had already done some work on narration, and so - also taking into consideration our own storytelling module began with an exploration of narration, this seemed a viable choice of focus. Remembering the primary children and their eager imitations of the most grusome storytelling moments, we elected to focus on the moment at the Giant's house when Molly has tricked the Giant into clubbing his own daughters to death - giving her and her sisters time to escape.

Although the performance was well recieved, we struggled with a frustrating mixture of rowdiness and lack of motivation from the class for the rest of the session. The teacher (himself a previous graduate of my MA scheme) had told us we might face these challenges with this group. And although we spent time developing the scaffolding of the task - using a mixute of discussion, whole space warm-ups and still image formation to develop understanding of the narrator's role - I wonder now if we could have taken more advantage of our numbers (four facillitators in all) to work more intensively with smaller groups. Our model of one facillitator leading an exercise and others drifting between groups left too much space for either misbehaviour or disinterest to develop. In fact there were times when the 'how are you getting on?' approach to a group actually felt more of a hinderence than a help to them - the sudden attention either making them clam up completely, or having to halt effective group negotiations to communicate with us.

Having said this, there were some very positive moments. One group of boys in particular seemed to grasp the concept of narration leading the tone and interpritation of the story, creating two strong still images: one of Molly's triumph, and the other of the Giant Children's tragedy. Other groups had started to experiement with the importance of body langauge and use of the space in storytelling there - one girl created a strong, upright Molly standing over the prone bodies of the Giant Children, while another group had Molly standing on a table, the Giant Children draped asleep or dead at her feet

If I believe (and I do) that storytelling can be engaging and relevant for every age, then how do I understand and hopefully overcome the issues we faced in the GCSE workshop? For me it raised lots of questions about discipline and classroom management in drama. If you are trying to create the atmosphere of an ensemble, how do you sqaure this away with the need (as we had today) of dealing with unacceptable classroom behaviours? If, as Nora Allingham points out "curriculum consists of everything in the school environment' then won't a 'shut up and listen now' attitude destory any mutual respect between teachers and students? And yet if the behaviour of some is inhibiting the work of others, isn't there a necessity of discipline procedures to deal with this? And if this is a knotty problem for a teacher to handle, surely it is even more so for the visiting practitioner to deal with? How do you establish these boundries in one, or a small number of sessions?.... But this issue is, as we say, a story for another day.

March 02, 2009

Theatre and Citizenship

"the idea of the ensemble as a community reconciles the artistic and social purposes of Theatre making"- Jonothan Neelands (Course Director)

Early on in our course we were introduced to the concept of the ENSEMBLE, and it's importance as an artistic, social and educational construct. The idea of meaning existing between was something I was familiar with from my time as a drama undergraduate, and I now began to expand it - meaning between not only performers and audience, but between teacher and student, student and student, citizen and citizen. For me, theatre naturally inhabits the edges - the grey, dangerous, exciting and taboo borders between supposed opposite or singular entities. I began to understand that this idea encompasses not only what we show in theatre, but the participants themselves - by taking the leap of inhabiting this shared space we achieve what Geoffrey Streatfield describes as "a secure environment without ever being a comfort zone. All of us are continually challenging ourselves and being inspired by those around us."

Our class experienced this during a session with visiting practitioner Brian Lighthill. Brian is currently researching how using Shakespeare can help teach citizenship and PHSE. In a swift-paced workshop, little changed from the ones he delivers in secondary schools, we combined whole space drama games and story 'wooshes' with carefully scaffolded discussion exercises to explore ideas such as 'community', 'blame', 'truth', and 'responsibility' through Romeo and Juliet and Macbeth.

The feeling of ensemble was engendered from the beginning through the agreement on a set of group rules (or guidelines as my inner liberal would prefer to call them) and a simple walking the space exercise that emphasised group responsibility for ensuring the space was evenly filled.

The result was a powerful atmosphere in the room, different from other sessions and more reminiscent of debates in my undergraduate philosophy modules than any drama class I could recall. Students spoke rapidly - international students breaking industriously off into Greek and Mandarin to discover the right English words to explain themselves - agreement, disagreement, questioning, clarification and extension of each other's ideas: never before had we worked so efficiently together in an effort to create meaning between ourselves.

Brian's role in this had been a facilitator in the truest sence - providing stimulus and helping to create a framework within which this sharing and learning could occur. This, I felt, was the sort of practitioner I wanted to be. Able to create that environment that was at once secure, but challeging and inspirational; blur the boundries between theatre and citizentry, art and life - recognising one could not exist without the other and they can never be mutally exclusive concepts.

And yet I struggled with some aspects of the workshop - did I agree that we had used Shakespeare without once directly encounting his dialogue, written or spoken? Did I accept that the language could represent enough of a boundry to some students to justify it's exclusion? Where does the value of working with Shakespeare truely lie - in understanding his stories or his words, if indeed we can make that clear distinction?

Also Brian used the term 'impartial facilitator' - can one ever be truely impartial? What if, in attempting to be impartial, all we do is fail to recognise and therefore naturalise our own partiality? Surely the advantage of the ensemble is not in striving to be objective individuals, but in sharing and learning from each others subjectivities - the facilitator included?

A year goes by rapidly

"A year goes by rapidly, especially when you begin to enjoy what you do, to understand the language you speak, to make friendships, loves. And when you are studying with colleagues like mine, learning, reading all the books, watching all the films, going to all the shows, when you live like that, really living and loving, a year rushes by"

                                                                              - Augusto Boal, 2001

I read that extract from Boal's autobiography in December 2008, and nothing could more clearly express my feelings on my first three months of my Master's course: Drama and Theatre in Education at The University of Warwick. A BA Drama graduate, thrown into the turbulent and dynamic world of educational theatre I would leave the brightly lit studio of my evening classes - bursting out into the night air - feeling as if my head had exploded. New ideas, new ways of looking at theatre; teaching; life itself - revelations, moments of recognition, solidarity, debate and wonder punctuated every day.

Back for the second term in January 2009, beginning the research methods module and becoming familiar with the term 'reflective practitioner', I realised that is what I must become. Not only in relation to myself as a teaching practitioner in the classroom, but as a practitioner within the whole context of my course and experience at The University of Warwick. To find some perspective on the continuing revelations. Reflect on and understand my reactions to different theorists and practitioners and my actions and choices in my own projects.

That is what I want to share - with current and future possible colleagues, employers, collaborators, funders, students - to chart my trajectory, my ever moving stance as I encounter new ideas that inform and change my practice.

March 2009

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