Analysis: 2017 VCE Drama Written Examination

Yesterday, VCE Drama students undertook their 90-minute written examination. I thought it was a fair paper that most students should have been able to respond to without too much difficulty. As usual, this examination was divided into two sections / three parts.

Section A – Question 1

Section A, Question 1 asked students to use the provided stimulus material to develop and present a non-naturalistic (non-realistic) solo performance. This question consisted of five parts (a-e). Response allocations were between 2 and 6 marks each.

The focus of Question 1 was masks. After a brief explanation of some of the purposes of masks in different cultures, five themes for the solo performance were provided, followed by a solo performance structure entitled “The mask”. This structure consisted of clear instructions for the candidate and connected the task to one of three performance styles students should have studied in their coursework (Epic Theatre, Theatre of Cruelty, Poor Theatre). Students may have been more familiar with these performance styles in the creation of an ensemble performance in their coursework. This question mixed things up a bit by linking the style to a solo performance, instead.


The stimulus provided for Question 1 was nine images of various “masks” ranging from actual masks (such as the Royal National Theatre’s production of Euripides’ The Bacchae), to Australian actor Barry Humphries’ fictional character/mask Sir Les Patterson, painted masks used for cultural purposes, and even singer David Bowie shown covering half his face with his left hand.

A question on brainstorming with a blank box underneath should not have proved difficult for students who had prepared for this examination by undertaking past papers. A similar question existed on both the 2016 and 2014 VCE Drama exams (both belonging to the current course/study design). Most students should have been able to think of one improvisational activity for question 1c, either from drama class or from memorising the VCAA descriptor for “improvising”, which detailed example activities. Keeping the activity consistent with the chosen performance style may have proven challenging for some.

Questions about character transformation are now common on VCE Drama examinations. Question 1d linked the candidate’s chosen theme for the solo performance to the transformation of character from the main character in the solo to a secondary character. Students then had to discuss how the moment of transformation was created by the actor using contrast and/or timing. Once again, familiarity with past papers will have made it clear that candidates should expect frequent mix and match scenarios with terms studied in their coursework (in this case, a dramatic element coupled with a performance skill).

Is it just me, or is stagecraft creeping its way more and more into the VCE Drama examination in recent years? While many would argue stagecraft belongs more in a Theatre Studies exam, stagecraft is clearly part of the VCE Drama course. It is just not a main focus. Question 1e about applying an area of stagecraft (from the list provided) and actor energy in order to create a change in mood in the solo performance was fairly straightforward.

Sir Les Patterson

Section A – Question 2

Section A, Question 2 asked students to apply theory knowledge, creativity and the provided stimulus to develop and present a devised non-naturalistic (non-realistic) ensemble performance. All candidates devised their own ensemble performances in class work in the first semester this year.

The stimulus for Question 2 was a double-page landscape drawing of a community, complete with some named buildings, streets, parkland, cars and people. This daily routine of the community is disrupted and characters need to move to one or more different location found in the stimulus material.

Equipment used for the development and presentation of this ensemble group is fairly minimalistic – four black boxes. A non-naturalistic performance style is to be chosen.


Interestingly, we seem to be continuously shifting with the notion of performance styles in recent VCE Drama exams. Papers up to and including 2014 asked students to choose one naturalistic performance style studied in their course. As the three styles listed in the study design are Epic Theatre (Bertolt Brecht), Poor Theatre (Jerzy Grotowski) and Theatre of Cruelty (Antonin Artaud), students would always choose one of these styles to discuss.

For the first time in 2015, the VCE Drama examination specifically listed these three performance styles in separate questions, resulting in students’ requiring in-depth knowledge of all three styles. While the study design did indeed state these three styles define non-naturalism, it was not clear that all three performance styles must be studied in coursework. Subsequently, some students were caught out with a lack of knowledge in one or more areas (Poor Theatre, for example).

Now that all is clear about studying these three non-naturalistic performance styles in coursework, the 2017 VCE Drama exam listed more than the three found in the study design! Confused? To be fair, choice was given and the three styles mentioned earlier that are studied in VCE Drama were given on the paper. But so was kabuki, Commedia dell’Arte, and Theatre of the Absurd. While these were offered as examples only, they are not listed in the study design or any VCAA descriptors regarding non-naturalistic performance styles. So why were they on the exam??? For this question, students were given the choice of “any non-naturalistic performance style” to base their ensemble performance on. So we have moved from what many teachers thought were three recommended non-naturalistic performance styles, to these same three as mandated styles, to others styles not mentioned in the study design. It looks like we are already paving the way for the eclecticism that is about to arrive in the upcoming VCE Drama study design (2019 onwards), with a blend of performance styles in student theatre-making (minus the “non-naturalism”, which will no longer be stated).

Section B

Section B consisted of questions relating to the five live theatre productions approved by the VCAA (the “playlist”). Thankfully, the format of this year’s Section B was similar to recent years’ papers, with two short answer responses and one extended answer response required. Question (a) began with “Discuss” and asked about one actor portraying one character in the chosen production. All these questions consisted of either an expressive skill or a performance skills (focus  > voice > timing > focus > movement). Question (b) began with “Explain” and asked about a different area of stagecraft for each production (lighting > props > sound production > props > set design). Question (c) began with “Evaluate” and asked how one dramatic element and one convention of the production’s performance style were manipulated in the performance? With elements of questions (a) and (b) tailored to specific productions on the VCE Drama playlist, all of Section B looked fairly kind to me. The questions looked fair, not overly complex and straightforward.


As with other years, the key to preparing for the VCE Drama written examination is covering all bases with drama terminology and concepts, getting students to sit a number of past papers (particularly from the current study design), and scouring through multiple assessors’ reports to see how marking is awarded. Other than conventions relating to various performance styles, there is a finite list of terms to be studied for this examination (play-making techniques, dramatic elements, stagecraft, expressive skills, performance skills).

5 Responses

  1. Jade Kemp says:

    do you have a break down or definition of the exam action words? As in Explain, Evaluate etc… I have something but would like to ensure it’s the same as others.

    • Justin Cash says:

      Jade, I use the ones Drama Victoria provides with the “marking scheme” component of the Drama Vic trial exam (for VCE Drama in this case). It has a descriptor for each of these terms that is great. – Justin

  2. Justin Cash says:

    Did anyone’s students find this paper on the short side? I’m not complaining! Just need to know whether I should be worried, because most of my class seemed to finish with 10+ minutes to spare…

  3. Justin Cash says:

    Prudence, my guess is that if your students are a very low standard group and they were happy with the exam, then that’s a good thing and that most students found it a fair paper. Although I could be totally wrong, too! I see your point about the degree of prescriptive info on the exam. It could have the potential to stifle more creative responses if the balance isn’t right. My students were pleased with the amount of info, because they would prefer it this way than a lack of info resulting in ambiguity. Too much info can confuse students, when its intention may be to clarify. For example, there’s got to be students who used the same performance style for Section A Questions 1 & 2, when the instructions were to choose different styles.

  4. Prudence Scholtes says:

    I totally agree with the issue with stagecraft. The reason why we offer Drama and not Theatre Studies is because we have a ‘poor theatre’ environment in which to teach. Our students only have experiences with props and costumes. We hold classes in portables – we have no experience of lighting or anything else! My students response to the paper was that they felt good but felt that there was too much ‘prescriptive’ info – it stifled their creativity. For those kids that struggle with coming up with ideas under pressure it might have been good – but usually those same kids are the ones who struggle with reading and too much writing. I will be interested to see if the lower kids performed better but the top kids struggled to get the big differentiation required to show they really are the top kids. I’m suspecting the bell curve will go lower on this exam because the top kids won’t excel. But I could be totally wrong! But if my kids were happy (a very low standard group) what can I say?

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