Stage 6 Drama – Group Performance – Byron Bay High School – Teacher reflections

SIMONE MUSETH: I’m Simone Museth, and I am the drama teacher at a high school in the beautiful northern rivers of New South Wales. So I’m the only drama teacher at the school. I have a great theater space to teaching. I’m very lucky. I have some really driven and creative and talented students, most of whom have a very mature outlook, which I think is an advantage when devising theater.

I have quite a tried and tested program for year 11, which I think is very beneficial for developing all the necessary skills required of ensemble work in year 12. So I usually start the year studying non-realist theater under theatrical traditions and styles. And so the students I think in year 11 are really ready to tackle that sort of revolutionary and challenging styles of theater that occurred in the early 20th century. And because they’re so technique-driven and sort of fragmented short bursts of theater, I think this really prepares the students well, because we teach it experientially and they do logbook reflections on the performances that they deliver in the style of futurism, expressionism, surrealism, absurdism.

And from there we look at a core text and we move into contemporary theater, which is heavily influenced by those non-realist styles. And depending on the text we choose, it might be a magical realism text or a physical theater text, but we do a three-month production. And I think that’s really where the groundwork is laid, because over those three months, the requirement of the students to be committed, cohesive, collaborative communicators is very high. And they commit themselves to weekend rehearsals and afternoon rehearsals. And whether or not they’re performing or part of the crew, they understand that they are part of this web, and the timing and the precision and the visual aesthetic and the power of the piece is dependent on all of them.

And then we finally end the year 11 course with a mini GP and a mini IP. And so they get the experience of devising their own group performance in year 11, and doing their own individual performance as well. And giving them that experience I think as a package is really what prepares them well. They understand what is involved in ensemble work in terms of commitment, creativity, and communication.

We introduce the GP in year 12 at the beginning of term two, and we introduce it initially through improvisation or play. So there’s a lot of freedom. And a lot of fun goes on in the first week really, a lot of experimentation with the topic list and open whole class circles of improvisation games. And then once they’re in their groups, we work with brainstorming. And with those little mind maps and connotations taken from the topic list, I get the students to create what I call the GP nucleus. And they will do this several times. But it’s literally about having a list of phrases and words that are associated with each item on the topic list, picking their favorite lists within there, and marrying them up with dramatic techniques.

And so they might have a word and a particular technique, like soundscape, or physical theater, or a synchronized movement chorus work, and they’ll attach that word or that concept to the technique, and they’ll explore it in a moving image. And they’ll do three or four of those all associated with one phrase from the list, and that’s their nucleus. And from there, they get feedback. And if they’re liking the feedback and they’re liking the direction and the themes that are coming out, then generally they begin working through that. But often, we’ll start a second nucleus, totally separate item on the list, and then they can compare.

So in terms of formulating the groups for the GP, I normally have a system. However, last year I didn’t use that system, interestingly enough. So the system I usually use is the preferred four-person preferred technique, which is the students write their name on a piece of paper, and then they write four other names underneath theirs, and they are the four people that they would most like to work with in the group if they had their ideal group. And then they come to me confidentially, and through that I’m usually able to formulate groups where everyone has at least one of those people on their list, possibly two if we’re lucky.

But last year, the groups were pretty determined. I had 15 at first, and they were quite determined that they could do this themselves. But as it turned out, there were two groups of five who’d kind of decided that, and the final group of five didn’t have much say in that. And it wasn’t that they were necessarily unhappy, but they wanted to be part of that process of deciding.

And so given that they’re quite a cohesive, friendly group, I figured that I would give them the opportunity to work this out themselves. So I sat them in the green room at the back of the theater, and I gave them 15 minutes and a whiteboard and a whiteboard marker. And when they felt they decided, I came in and went, uh-uh, you’ve got two identical twins in the same group. I don’t think these are good combinations. Fix it. You’ve got five more minutes. And they did. They came out of there all smiles. They were all very happy.

So that is one example of how it has worked that the students have chosen themselves, but it’s not generally the way I like to do it. I like to give them a bit of choice and then tweak the groups and make them myself.

So structuring lessons– I think you really need to have a good idea of what you’re doing, the direction you want to head, and I think having a plan is really important, a flexible one. So we begin, as I said, with building the GP nucleus in the first couple of weeks, from brainstorming, a lot of group bonding activities as well in their small groups, a lot of warm ups designed to get them working well together. And then they build their nuclei from their mind maps, marrying them with dramatic techniques, just creating those short bursts of moving imagery that they weave together.

Then they feed back to each other. That’s the most important part is the groups watch each other. They sit there with their log books. They comment on each other’s moving images, on each other’s nucleus, and they’ll say these are the characters that seem to be coming through, these are the themes and ideas that seem to be coming through, this is really clever, really reacted well to this, wasn’t sure what was going on there. And from that feedback, they are able to decide whether or not they like the direction that first nucleus is going in.

Then we revisit the topic list again in week two, and we will go, let’s go to another topic list and we’ll look at your mind maps there, select a few words and phrases that you’ve come up with, and we’ll start again. And we will create something totally different, and we will work with new words and new techniques and create a second nucleus.

This time sometimes I get them to backward map a little bit. And what I mean by that is I’ll say to the group, OK, you’re going to work with a totally new concept this time. Why don’t you think about some of the talents your group has, some of the interests that your group share, that you all share, directions you feel you’d like to take with theater. What are you interested in exploring? And see if you can find something on that topic list that you can relate to stuff that you’re interested in, or topics that you’ve already decided you’d like to work with.

And I do this because sometimes students will work from the topic list into something, decide they don’t want to do it, start again, and forget about that topic list. And it’s so important obviously that they work on that topic list. So I sometimes ask to marry up one of the phrases on the topic list and all the connotations they’ve built and phrases they’ve built around it to something they are interested in and make sure that they marry. So often, I find that the students do go with that second nucleus, and also because they’ve experienced the first one and they know how to make it work better for the second.

From there, if they want a third, they’ve got to start again by themselves. But generally what happens is they’ll move forward with their first or second nucleus, performance nucleus, and then I give them a good six weeks of formative assessment. So I make them perform every week even if they’ve got 30 seconds, if they have a minute, if they have two minutes, and then I start to sort of say, you need to have at least three minutes to show. And they’ll perform in front of their peers and they’ll get this peer feedback, which I think is the most important part of the process– constant formative assessment and feedback, constantly watching them perform, hearing feedback from a teacher, but hearing feedback from an audience of peers. As often as I can, I get other teachers to watch as well.

And so I think that part of the process really drives them. They’ve got this goal. By the end of the lesson, we need to have shown something. Let’s do it. Yeah. And so that really happens right up until the trials, and then after the trials it’s more finesse and refining.

So the log books are a very important part of the process. I often start by showing them some exemplar log books from the previous year. It does daunt them a little bit, but I think it makes them realize just how valuable keeping a good log book is. So at first, it’s full of mind maps, one of each of the topic list phrases. Then they’ve reduced that to the mind maps and small lists of words they’ve chosen to work with and build their nucleus around. Then they have reflections of their original nucleus and sketches often, little stick figure sketches of what they’ve done, and then comments of the initial feedback.

So the first part of the log book is really a lot of note taking, bullet point reflection notes. From there, there’s a lot of research goes in and stimulus, but the important thing I say to students is it must be annotated and discussed. There’s no point in having this beautiful looking log book full of pictures if you can’t really comment on how that is developing your ideas or how it’s relating to the building of your piece. And it’s no good if it just sits there and it’s not shared. So the log books need to come into the classroom and they need to be part of that process. Look at these images I’ve found. Look at this fantastic quote. Look at this article. Look at this photograph.

And so from there, there’s detailed log reflections on rehearsals. And the students who do that well I think are often the ones who are really driving the process forward. And so they write reflections. They will talk about decisions that they have made, but also choices that they’ve rejected and why. And I think just that process of reflection is really important in them understanding and always pulling them back to the purpose of what they’re doing, the intention of what they’re doing, and why they’re making the choices they’re making, or why they’re rejecting others.

I also formatively assess the log book regularly. Obviously we sign it and ticket, but I read it regularly to get an understanding of is this student understanding what the process is about. And then I also use it as summative assessment, or it contributes to the summative assessment process as well, and that tends to make sure that students are keeping on top of it as well. In terms of drawing on support from colleagues and the wider community, we do showcases, and I think that’s really important. I think it’s important for the students to perform in front of an audience, an adult audience. It reminds them that they’re punching up all the time and not just delivering to their peers. So we perform here at school for parents and community members, but we also do music and drama u12 showcase at our local community center in town. And obviously I draw upon the support of my colleagues for that.

I work with two other teachers in the Northern Rivers community quite closely, and that we co-mark the trial performance exams and co-mark the written papers as well. So I’m constantly getting that feedback from people who are distanced from the work of my students. I mean, I’ve seen it progressing over months, whereas they’re just sitting there watching it at the trial HSC stage, and the insight that they’re able to give me as itinerant markers to– they’ve worked as itinerant markers in the past. So the insights they’re able to provide me are really valuable. And so we provide that support for each other. I will mark their students with them, and they will mark my students with me. And I think that is one of the most valuable things drama teachers can do, particularly when they like me and they’re the only one in their own school.

And I also sometimes get Zeal Theatre in, and last year I got them in to perform and do workshops with the students. However, it was prior to the GP starting. But if I can manage to work it in in term two, then I often get professional divisors to work with the students and give them some workshop experience too.

I think two of the most common challenges that can be faced with a group and/or a cohort and their teacher during the group performance process are dealing with the anxieties of students in that year group and dealing with attendance and potential changes to groups when students drop out. I think one of the best things that teachers can do from my perspective is to build a class culture from the very beginning of year 11 or 12, a sense of culture in the classroom, meaning what the students want the environment to be like. And sometimes I think it’s really good to connect with them as human beings. And we have a check-in circle that happens the beginning of most lessons, and that check-in circle really identifies for me who’s feeling good, who’s maybe lower in energy, who is feeling higher in energy and might be able to be relied upon in the group, and we do that in a dramatic way.

So we enact how we’re feeling using the most descriptive words possible and actions possible, highly exaggerating, and then we mirror each other. So if I’m feeling exhausted, I’ll show that through my body language and voice and say exhausted, and then everyone in the room will mirror me and share that feeling. And I just think that some of those– they create a culture, those experiences create a culture of I know how you’re feeling today, I know how you’re feeling about being here, and the group knows how you’re feeling. And we can be a little more sensitive about potential problems in the group if we know that someone’s feeling low that day.

And so apart from building class culture, I think the idea of commitment being a very strong part of that culture, commitment to the group. And I do find that when there are attendance issues for whatever reason, and they’re often very genuine reasons, if groups are aware that commitment means, even if there’s two of them present, and not the five or not the four, there is always something that can be doing to drive the piece forward, always something that can be doing. And if they communicate with each other through a group messenger platform or group chat and constantly keep each other in the loop, I think that enables those who can’t be here a sense of inclusion. And all of that is about building that cohesive class culture of respect and connection and commitment.

So formative assessment is a really important part of the group devising process for u12, and it pretty much dominates my lesson structures from week three or four onwards in term two. As previously mentioned, I get the students to perform snippets of their piece as a work in progress regularly. It’s something they’re required to do. It gives them that goal setting target. And formative assessment comes from those performances. I get to see how the piece is developing. I get to give them feedback, and often through questioning. That feedback is through questioning. Not, look, I don’t think this is working. Do you think this is working? Do you think the audience reacted well to this? How does it feel for you? What other options do you have?

And then the audience, as peers, is a really big part of that formative feedback, because they will often astound me with the responses that they provide or the feedback that they provide to their peers from an audience perspective. So formative assessment is, if not every lesson, most lessons they’ll have the opportunity to really work with feedback, constant feedback. They’re never left on their own.

Saying that, summative assessment at the trial is often, I find, the point at which they make vast improvements between the trial and the HSC and I’ve had groups that in the trial HSC have not performed as well as they could have. And the feedback that they’re given from that summative assessment from myself and from my colleague, whoever is marking with me, that summative assessment feedback is really important in them refining and tweaking and perfecting what they’re doing.

That last year, I did not summatively assess the GP until the trial, and that’s the first year I’ve ever done that. I normally do a work in progress assessment as a summative assessment task. I felt last year it worked really well for this group. They did not have any pressure in term two to meet a summative assessment goal. They had regular pressure to meet weekly formative assessment goals, but they did not have that pressure of, right, by week eight we have to have met this, this, this, and this for summative assessment. It’s going to affect our rank. They didn’t have that pressure. And I feel that this was my most successful cohort last year, and I feel that that was probably part of it. They just had that experience of a whole term that was summative assessment-free and they could just play and develop and devise.

Advice to my colleagues would be firstly to allow the students and encourage the students to work with content or style that they’re passionate about, that they are invested in, because the more they love what they’re doing and believe in what they’re doing, as we know, the more the audience will be invested in whatever is at stake. I think that I like to encourage students in the GP to ensure that their characters, no matter how many characters they’re playing in that GP, no matter how much transformation occurs, even if a character’s in there for 20 seconds, they need to be invested in their objective.

For example, there’s a character of a bumbling sidekick in that melodramatic scene in Story of a Hat who’s there for only 20 seconds and doesn’t have any dialogue. But what does that bumbling sidekick want to achieve? Is he trying to impress Dirty Eyed Joe? Is he trying to move a station up in terms of his status? He needs to know what that objective is. And as soon as actors are understanding every character’s objective no matter how small that character’s stage time is, I think that really gives them the energy to perform with conviction. I think giving multiple opportunities for formative assessment and to show the progress of their pace and get feedback is important.

I think the research component of a GP can never be underestimated, because it gives such authenticity to a topic. I think students can sometimes think that they know a lot about a topic because they’re passionate about it or they’re interested in it. But we can always learn more. And if we want to speak with some authority, whether it’s comedic or serious, research and stimulus is the way to get there. And to also encourage the students to really punch up in terms of their material, and again, particularly with comedy, because what their peers might find amusing is not necessarily going to be seen as amusing or understood by a wider audience. I think we need to look at those tried and tested comedic strategies and techniques and ensure that our students are aiming up, punching up with their material and their content.

And lastly, we need to remember they’re human beings and we need to check in with them. We need to make sure that they are feeling good about what they’re doing. They should be enjoying themselves. This is something they should be loving. And as my students have said, they really enjoyed drama. And I think it speaks volumes about a subject that is so demanding and requires so much commitment and so much energy that they can find such enjoyment out of it, and I think a lot of that comes from that class culture and understanding that we’re all human beings and that we’re going to have good days and bad days, but we need to be respectful and caring in a group environment.

Another piece of advice I would give is it’s really handy to have a little tool kit or an ingredient list of techniques and dramatic devices printed there, either in a booklet or on its own, for the kids, because when they’re devising and they’re flailing about and they’re not able to come up with a way of presenting something, just having that visual list to look at of techniques– mirroring, chorus work, soundscape, chant, poetry, dance, tableaux– they can look at that and go, let’s try this. It just gives them that immediate reference point to work with and stops that stalling process where they just sit down and talk.

I think as drama teachers, we are very fortunate because we work with some incredibly creative and open-minded students who generally want to be where they are. But I think that carries with it a real responsibility, because we need to ensure that they are getting the most out of our subject, and understanding that drama is a really, really powerful tool, and that doesn’t mean it has to be serious, and it can be a very powerful tool for lifting spirits and making people laugh, or a very powerful tool to make people critically reflect and think. But either way, we are reflecting the world around us in theater. And I think it’s far from a dying art. I think we need to impart that excitement about the live nature of what we do. And I think in the end, it really is a subject that prepares them for life in a way that many others don’t, because they need to be confident, communicative, collaborative, creative critical thinkers.

End of transcript

Content updated 22/9/2020