It is a great privilege for me to host the writing of Rachel Burnett, now in Year 13, her final year of schooling, but once a member of my very first One Day School class. These kids were, and still are, a truly remarkable bunch. Rachel has continued a passion for drama that she had already discovered at that time, and writes about it here:
As a high-achieving academic and musical student, I have been told by peers that pursuing drama, or even taking it as a subject throughout high-school is a “waste of my brain”. Besides the fact that nothing interests me as immensely as drama and I have incredible classmates and teachers supporting this interest, there really is no proof to this insult.
Drama at a high-school level is, in fact, very beneficial for the gifted student. Of course, there are those who are more into the creative side than the theoretical and vice versa, the students seriously pursuing drama as part of a career as opposed to others who take the subject to complement other interests, and then the students who have never read Shakespeare in the same class as some who have been very well exposed to many theatre and film types. However, there are many ways in which drama accommodates and develops all types.
…the teachers are not all kaftan-sporting tortured souls, screaming “Next!”
Firstly, drama at high-school is the study of just that. Drama. It does not teach you how to act, it will not take you straight to West End if you get good marks, and the teachers are not all kaftan-sporting tortured souls, screaming “Next!” if you don’t wow them. Rather, the theory behind drama is taught. This means that students don’t have to be aspiring actors, but can be interested in backstage or writing. In fact, there are whole internals based on devising (the conception and writing of the collective work of students, in which meaning and social context are evident) and technologies (symbolism and meaning in sound, lighting, costume and make-up, set and props and even a mask-making internal). Also, actors are not crafted, but rather allowed to explore individual style and creativity in the study of theatre types and techniques.
This format seems to particularly benefit gifted students, as it puts the emphasis on academic aspects. In fact, the bookwork (which involves research, reflections and recognition of drama techniques) is more important than the performance itself at year 11 and 12, and of equal importance in year 13. Therefore, students are fuelling the knowledge of theatre forms and methods, as well as crafting their communication of ideas and thoughts about the whole performance in general, not just lines and characters. Communication with other actors, directors and audiences is highlighted, which is a great skill no matter the student’s intention for drama in their future. Some might complain that this sort of deep analysis is not applicable for the theatre or film industries, but, as any academic knows, the theory and what has gone before must be explored to form individual techniques.
Depth of thought is rewarded.
The most encouraging aspect of drama for gifted students is that depth of thought is rewarded. If insight is shown and communicated well in drama, this is rewarded, and seems to be the excellence material. This not only disproves the theory that drama is non-academic, but also makes it suitably challenging for those who care. Making the connections between human behaviour, research, perception and text is something that can be done in so many ways with so many layers that there is no excuse not to use your brain and use it well.
There are the arguments with drama that put a lot of gifted students off, including that they will be put with the unenthusiastic or “plainly hopeless” students, because that’s just something that always happens to gifted students. I’m not going to say that high-school drama is an exception to this misfortune, but after I got over the initial frustration of this, I realised that, in fact, working with these students was probably the most valuable group work I could have done. What else could possibly call for more communication, intensity and negotiation than creating a performance and interpreting a text with these students? The need to work with people with diverse strengths and challenges is not going to stop at high-school. Why not learn the skills to deal with it, and deal with it well, as a teenager?
Analysis and insight are required.
As to the end-of-year external, some are disbelieving that drama students can sit in an exam hall for 3 hours, writing on a performance-dependent subject and getting equal marks for it as in science or other, apparently more academic subjects. The exam is mostly split into two parts: the analysis of texts or technologies that have never been encountered before and reflection and insight about performances that students have seen throughout the year (a joyously compulsory part of the curriculum). This serves as testament that drama at high-school is an academic subject and the observations, quick thinking and insight needed about texts or situations that have never been encountered before is a worthy and challenging skill to harness. Once again, deeper and more coherent connections made within the time frame (which is a push) in this exam are rewarded with good marks. There is no way you can escape the drama curriculum without thinking very hard throughout the year about different periods (Commedia dell Arte, Shakespeare, realism, Greek theatre to name a few), techniques (from Stanislavski to Laban) and possibilities (staging, themes, symbolism, movement, song). In fact, in many respects, I find this exam more challenging than my physics or calculus papers.
Aside from the performances that students can get marked on, the opportunities for high-school students committed to acting, production or backstage work are usually prominent in any school. Regional theatre sports tournaments are especially designed for the high-energy students that seem to be able to improvise comedy genius at a drop of a hat. Most schools will have productions which in themselves are the ultimate crash-course in auditioning, taking instruction and being committed throughout the process. More often than not (or so I’d strongly recommend to any school), these shows involve music and dance skills as well, which is another highly likely aspect of the drama industry that students can explore through school. I have been lucky enough to have a very alert and active arts department as well as committed classmates, so that opportunities to perform or aid a performance are never turned down. This year, for example, a decent number of senior students are taking part in a playwright’s day, exploring the other side of what we love so much. The enthusiasm and confidence with which we approach this activity shows the strength of the fundamental knowledge that drama has provided us with. Last, but best (in my humble opinion) is the University of Otago Sheilah Winn Shakespeare Festival. This festival, along with the regional Junior Shakespeare festival, has provided me with 5 years of acting, translating, reading, directing (of students younger and older than me, and from different schools) and networking. The interpretations I have been both been involved with and seen are widespread (from a film noir-style Othello to a Soviet Russia Twelfth Night), but always return to the beauty and integrity of the text and portraying this to the audience (as well as all gunning for a spot in the Young Shakespeare Company, who travel to the Globe).
Drama students laugh the loudest!
However, all these opportunities are certainly not to say that you have to be tunnel-visioned about taking drama as a subject. My Cambridge English class last year had to study two plays, including a Shakespeare text. Not only could the drama students present insight as to how this would have been staged, point out the indicative lines in a character’s story or laugh the loudest at the satirical jokes, but we could also apply our habits of insight to films, novels and short stories. In my three years of NCEA drama, myself and my classmates have used German, Maori and French, all of which are studied at our school. The media students could act in their own short films and analyse their own characters with confidence and collaborations with dance, music, visual art and computing students are paramount to a full school drama experience. In fact, I don’t think I could have experienced school itself at such an involved level without my interest in drama.
There is absolutely no way that drama is a waste of my brain, or the brain of any gifted student. And to any person that dares utter anything to the contrary, I will declare that drama is a life skill, and the next time they come across a person that finds it difficult to communicate, interpret details, respond well under pressure or make a simple presentation, they should remember that.
Drama offers range of experience and depth of thought to the gifted student.
This photo, by Flickr member ~jjjohn~, has attribution, non-commercial and no derivatives licenses.