All Stuff ‘n’ Nonsense: Northcross Intermediate drama road trip energises learning

Issue: Volume 94, Number 16

Posted: 7 September 2015
Reference #: 1H9cuT

Northcross Intermediate drama teacher Mark Jensen is a passionate advocate of drama as a learning tool; aside, of course, from being an end in itself, drama can energise and enrich literacy learning, he says. Mark talks about learning outcomes and exploring creative process, while building toward the show-stopping Stuff ‘n’ Nonsense finale.

The idea behind the performing arts group ‘Stuff ‘n’ Nonsense’ came from our students: they’d expressed a desire to lead construction of their own drama learning context. Previously, our school production was perhaps a bit over-directed, and students indicated that they wanted more involvement. It was felt that we wanted to move towards a model that was less rigid, with more opportunity for creative risk-taking: for example, leaving room for ad-lib departure from a script. The ‘Stuffy’ group - as it came to be informally known – has grown from 10 students in 2003 to a cast of 40 in 2015.

At the beginning of the year, we came up with the goal of putting together an hour-long dramatic presentation that we could take ‘on the road’, and share with intermediate schools in South Auckland, and beyond to Hamilton. We knew we were up against it: we only had Term 1 to perfect our performance – and two weeks of that were unavailable for practice and planning due to school camp – but I’m pleased to say that we made it, and were able to present a really rich performance involving poetry, dance, story-telling, Shakespeare, improvisation, mask work and interesting props that went down well with our audiences.

The experience has been wonderful for me as a teacher, and it was great to see the kids thriving in an excitingly authentic learning context that achieved our educational goals and engendered great outcomes, as well as providing a context to explore and practice Level 4 achievement outcomes. Not to mention, of course, the community engagement aspect.

Play building

The central idea we built on to create our performance was to use the ‘compilation play building’ approach: this is a medley of interpretations, involving the juxtaposition of small scenes around a central idea. The process of compilation play building is like creating a montage, as it involves composing a piece from miscellaneous elements; it also resembles the collage process, which is the juxtaposition of a collection of unrelated things, from which meaning is derived. The process allows play builders to take a kaleidoscopic view of the topic and show multiple reflections, which is a great way of exploring the Level 4 learning objective ‘Select and use techniques and relevant technologies to develop drama practice’ – we can build many different techniques into one dramatic theme.

Each scene or episode was devised by the group; the scenes are then ordered into a sequence that achieves maximum audience impact. One of the many advantages of this type of work is that it is easy to provide equal roles for everyone in the group, maximising participation. There are also opportunities to produce tight ensemble work that highlights an individual’s talents and skills.

Material from various written sources, such as speeches, quotes, songs, poems, short stories, advertisements on television, social media, and excerpts from Shakespeare are borrowed: when placed in the context of a performance the source material takes on a different meaning. The process is to adopt another person’s idea, adapt it to our needs and in doing so create something new. This style of work combines many dramatic elements, such as stylised movement, song, dance, parody, chorus work, soundscapes, monologue, narration, poetry and mask. This helps us to explore the ‘developing ideas’ achievement objective – ‘Investigate the functions, purposes, and technologies of drama in cultural and historical contexts’.

Surface and depth

We wanted to create a relationship between ‘surface’ and ‘depth’ through our process: by this we mean that we wanted to explore symbolism and signified meaning, in rehearsal and performance, and to think about how best to communicate that meaning to our audience. Each of the 40 cast members was on stage throughout the hour-long show, presenting a variety of strange characters and odd dilemmas. Our audience quickly recognised that they were required to think and be challenged, as well as to laugh.

The cast worked hard to express themselves through body and face gestures, so that their surface performance becomes a moving pattern of signifiers to a deeper meaning. An important tool in our training has been the mask. A mask fixes the face so that attention is drawn to the body, which can then become a more versatile communication instrument – a device that ties in nicely with the ‘communicating and interpreting’ side of the Level 4 achievement objectives.

The Stuff ‘n’ Nonsense group also sought to highlight sound effects. We had lots of fun throwing in a modern-day Lynx advertisement for example, allowing us to contrast and explore different forms of language.

We also did a lot of work in the physical realm. Freedom of movement is largely developed through the encouragement of instinct and playfulness; by improvising until things begin to feel right. The cast then gradually begin to ask for meaning in this movement – the emotional energy released by the effort involved contributes to understanding, even if this happens at an affective rather than a cognitive level. Individuals have a choice as to whether they subject the created material to analysis or leave it to function as a kind of group dreaming. The selection of ‘strange’ or ‘quirky’ music, also serves to accentuate voice and language and helps to trigger emotional response.

As the group neared the end of a term’s intensive rehearsal, and prepared for their road trip to South Auckland and Hamilton, there was a kind of sadness among the group, as everyone realised that the final outcome is so much richer because of the process that the audience doesn’t see. But we were able to generate some real audience engagement in our road trip performances, which to me means that the process achieved all it set out to achieve.

The feedback from the schools we visited has made for wonderful motivation for next year, as we were enthusiastically received wherever we went. Our students returned to school empowered by their real-life experience, accomplished through teamwork and dedication. It’s my experience that when students are really motivated by a goal like our drama road trip, which they know requires heaps of investment in team work, they paradoxically discover a stronger sense of their own individuality: drama, like anything in education, is all about the process.

Stuff 'n' nonsense: some of our education objectives

* To educate students in and through drama, by learning to communicate effectively orally, and by use of body language. Our process began with a focus on defined skills, but as we moved through the project, we explored the importance of content and context – particularly in the Shakespeare work.

Curriculum link: Developing practical knowledge in drama and understanding in context.

* To provide real opportunities for students to engage and communicate with varied audiences. The Stuff ‘n’ Nonsense group performed for schools covering a wide range of age, ethnicity, as well as socio-economic backgrounds. With each show, the performers were focused on acknowledging, examining, and valuing our interactions in these various settings.

Curriculum link: Communicating and interpreting.

* To encourage students to reflect on their learning process: as we rehearsed and devised the four varieties of dramatic action (context-building, narrative, poetic and reflective), our work began to crossover and become more fluid. New ideas began to emerge as the students became proficient in using appropriate conventions, symbols, ambiguities and imagery.
Curriculum link: Developing ideas

BY Mark Jensen
Northcross Intermediate ,

Posted: 11:07 PM, 7 September 2015

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