We've all done it. We put a sign up on the drama department door saying 'auditions', for the next school show. The production is cast, rehearsals begin and is staged for two or three nights. The pupils love taking part, we love doing it and the benefits are far-reaching. We collapse in a heap and the following year, the same thing happens again. This is one approach to whole-school productions and there absolutely nothing wrong with this but...is there another way? This Blog explores an alternative 'model' for whole school productions and how it can be used strategically to raise the profile of drama within your setting. I will refer specifically to our recent Think Like a Director webinar, led by Patrick O'Sullivan.
The 'Blank Canvas'
My first London teaching job was a mammoth one, in terms of how young I was, and the colossal mountain I had to climb in order to build the profile of drama in the school. At my interview, my soon-to-be Head of Faculty enthusiastically described performing arts as a 'blank canvas'. Naively, I saw this as an exciting prospect, totally unawares of the work it would involve. Indeed, with a white, blank canvas, any stroke of paint will make a mark, no matter how small. However, as we know, fundamental changes within the culture of schools takes time to implement, years in fact. When I left there five years later, drama had come a long way but but I was exhausted. I staged over fifty productions there, with varying degrees of success, but looking back I wonder whether this sheer volume of productions was necessary. How could I have been more strategic and staged fewer productions, with a greater impact on school life and culture?
In our recent Think Like a Director Webinar, watched by nearly three hundred drama teachers, Patrick O'Sullivan from Mousetrap Theatre Projects shared some inspirational ideas around 'Making Theatre: A Whole School Approach'. He started the webinar by giving an overview of his directing work and the contexts in which he has worked. He has a PGCE and has worked extensively with young people. He says his directing work is always 'rooted in community', in terms of how he engages the participants he works with in a non-hierarchical way. He now uses this approach as Head of Creative Learning at Mousetrap Theatre Projects, a registered charity and high-profile arts organisation based in the West End which, amongst other initiatives, delivers innovative creative projects and workshops in schools in London and the South East. A large part of their work is also to provide free or affordable to children and young people who would not usually have the opportunity to see West End shows. One of the first slides which Patrick shared in the webinar, included this quotation by Kelly Pollock, which summarises his approach and belief in arts education:
Change Your Tune
"The reason why we call it Change Your Tune is because we want to provoke a change of thinking or provoke a conversation within the school." - Patrick
In the webinar, Patrick shared one 'model' which he uses for creative projects, which teachers can adopt and modify within their own settings. He introduced the Change Your Tune (CYT) project. This funded project runs over an academic year and is aimed at Key Stage 3 students. It aims to address an identified issue within the school and uses the creation of a mini-musical (around 40 minutes) to do this. There are several unique aspects to this project, which makes it differ from a more 'traditional' approach we might take to staging productions.
Firstly, is the 'onboarding' process in your school- getting senior leaders and ideally the head teacher on board with the project, well in advance of the project start date. Ideally, this needs to happen as far in advance as possible. Set up a meeting with the head and propose your ideas and how the project will run throughout a whole academic year. In this conversation, the Head Teacher should start to think about and suggest a particular issue which they would like to focus on or explore- an issue which affects students directly.
"Once you have senior leaders on board, you're really empowered then to make the project happen"- Patrick
Notice too, we are using the term 'project' here. Patrick makes the point that using the term 'project' as opposed to 'production' is important at this stage as it suggests a cross-curricular approach which focuses on learning and creating change as opposed to a 'school show'. It is crucial to invest time in this stage of the process, build strong support with 'allies' and senior leaders in the school, so that the project runs smoothly from start to finish.
Change Your Tune at St Augustine CE High School, 2021- Photos: Alex Rumford
An Inclusive and Collaborative Approach
"Youth voice is essential- make a piece of theatre relevant for today. It's about engagement and empowerment"- Patrick
Patrick says it's important to think about the audience from the start of the process, as opposed to it being an 'after thought'. The next stage is to engage the proposed audience through a series of focus groups consisting of Key Stage 3 students, in order to find out more about the issue, along with how and why it affects the young people in the school. For CYT, previous issues explored have included Resilience, Taking Responsibility for your Actions and Respect & Tolerance. These focus groups also involve the young people sharing personal experiences and stories, all of which might possibly feed into narrative and character choices for the creative team. These issues then form the basis for the content which is created and, importantly, the audience of Key Stage 3 students are reminded when they watch the final production that their ideas have informed the piece.
The next important stage is to write a synopsis and present it to the Head Teacher, SLT and the drama lead in order to keep them engaged in the process and get some initial feedback. From there, a script and songs are drafted. In terms of getting students involved in the project, to is important for Patrick that the focus is not on 'auditions'. He runs six workshop sessions, which he calls 'Building an Ensemble', and students in the school can attend one or all of the sessions to see if they would like to be involved. It is important that whoever wants to take part, is able to. This is something which Patrick calls 'positive integrated casting'. It is about engaging young people who might not have taken part in a production before and might find the idea of an 'audition' daunting. His 'audition' process is run more as a series of workshops, which takes the form of exercises and games, as opposed to an X-Factor-style panel. This, is says, enables students to shine, who may not normally be confident enough to do a solo audition.
Rehearsals continue as an inclusive and collaborative process. This does not mean Patrick compromises on the discipline and the high standards needed to create high-quality work. He ensures that expectations around professional practice are communicated to the young people during the 'building an ensemble' workshops, early in the process. Young people are heard in rehearsals and actively contribute to creative ideas. It is an opportunity to try out script ideas and staging. The rehearsals build towards a whole day technical rehearsal and a full week of shows to the whole of Key Stage 3. The production can also be performed to feeder primary schools. Here is an infographic detailing the project structure over an academic year:
PSHE teachers in the school also watch the Change Your Tune production and lesson resources are written about the issues explored. Therefore, learning and discussions around the production continue long-after the production has been performed and becomes part of the school curriculum. Patrick cited a whole range of benefits to this approach, including increased enrolment to GCSE Drama courses and increased confidence, communication and creativity. Ultimately, though it is about empowering young people to feel part of a community and giving them a voice in the theatre work created.
The prospect of leading a project of this scale can be daunting. However, Patrick suggests 'starting small'. Create one scene at first or a short podcast. Whatever you create though, engage your senior team first, empower your students, (the audience) and the project will make a huge impact. This will lead to long term change within the culture of the school, so that the arts can recognised and celebrated, in the way they should be.
You can download the Timeline Infographic here, as a PDF:
Thank you to Patrick O'Sullivan for delivering this inspirational webinar. If you are interested in finding out more about Mousetrap Theatre Projects, please visit their website: https://www.mousetrap.org.uk/ You can also connect with them on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.