Analysis: 2018 VCE Drama Written Examination

Sorry for the delay folks, but here is my analysis of the 2018 VCE Drama Written Examination sat by students a few days ago.

As usual, in accordance with the exam specifications document, this year’s VCE Drama exam was divided up into two sections. Section A worth 35 marks and Section B worth 15 marks, making a total score of 50 marks. This examination is weighted at 25% of the total study score for Drama.

Section A Question 1

This question asked students to create a non-naturalistic solo performance using a main character and a secondary character. The basis of the various parts in Question 1 was a collection of thirteen different images of doors. These doorways ranged from house doors and bus doors, to the more exotic doorways opening out to a Japanese garden or ocean views.

The main character’s life is challenged by a secondary character who enters the doorway of the stimulus door chosen by the student. Pretty straightforward so far. The student then had to choose from one of the three main non-naturalistic performance styles listed for study in this version of the VCE Drama course (2014-2018 study design) – Epic Theatre, Poor Theatre, or Theatre of Cruelty. Added to this was a list of potential characters in the stimulus material, such as “the naughty child”, the eccentric cat lover” and “the curious inventor”. Students were now asked to choose one of these characters as the main character for their non-naturalistic solo performance.

A context for this non-naturalistic solo performance was now to be identified in part a). As “context” is not a familiar term used in past VCE Drama exams, an example was given, but not allowed to be used in the students’ response. It was simple – age, place, time.

Part b) asked how the actor will identify this context using two dramatic elements, a key component of the two-year VCE Drama course. In this instance it was space and sound. I can see a range of marks being awarded here as the response needed to be consistent with the previously chosen performance style. For example, Antonin Artaud was known to place the audience in the centre of Theatre of Cruelty performances, with the actors performing all around them, in essence entrapping them. Sound was loud, either from the performers or other means, as it attempted to assault their senses. Epic Theatre commonly breaks the fourth wall with direct address, narration, and storyteller-characters talking to the audience. Poor Theatre performances place moving actors in and around the audience. Jerzy Grotowski referred to it as “communion” between actor and spectator, eliminating the traditional stage altogether, as actors and audience shared the same space.

Part c) asked how the actor will apply one expressive skill (voice, movement, facial expression, or gesture) and was very easy.

Part d) changed things up a bit with the arrival of a second character. This is a common occurrence in previous VCE Drama exams and students who had practiced with previous exam papers should have seen this as familiar. Asking for how the play-making technique of improvisation could be applied to develop a second character will probably catch a few students out. Personally, I’m not big on doing improvisation activities in the senior Drama classroom, but that didn’t stop me giving my students the Victorian Curriculum and Assessment Authority’s official examples of improvisation activities such as role-playing, trial and error, hot-seating and others, to my students in preparation for a question just like this. I imagine generalised and vague responses that did not identify specific improvisation activities will not be awarded full marks.

Part e) referred to the transformation from the main character to the secondary character. It specifically asked the student to refer to the expressive skill they chose to answer part c) in this response. Students who used reading time effectively would have read ahead and chosen an expressive skill in part c) that suited their intended response for part e). This expressive skill needed to establish the contrasting energy of the secondary character. So, if a student chose to discuss facial expression in part c), then their challenge here is determining how facial expressions related to energy. I assume voice and movement would have been popular choices. Some students will no doubt miss the instruction to use the same expressive skill from part c) and be penalised accordingly. I imagine a “transformation technique” will need to be identified as well, for example morphing, snap transition, give and take, etc. These transformation techniques are now officially listed in the new VCE Drama study design starting in 2019, not hidden away in comments on past examiners’ reports as has been the case the last five years.

Part f) asks how the actor portrays a change in the main character’s feelings about their immediate world, after transforming back to the main character, using stagecraft and timing. Safe stagecraft responses could include lighting, costume, props, set pieces, sound, or make-up. Timing is assessing students’ knowledge of one of the four performance skills (as with energy and actor-audience relationship previously). Most stagecraft areas in the VCE Drama course affect mood in some way, which is effectively “feelings” in this question. The timing of actor actions and movements could easily be discussed here. One thing students often forget is to refer back to aspects of the stimulus material and performance style wherever possible in parts a) to f), even if not specifically asked for. Keep in mind all parts of the question relate to the chosen stimulus and performance style.

Section A Question 2

For the first time, the same stimulus for Section A Question 1 formed part of the stimulus for Section A Question 2. These have always been separate stimuli in previous examinations. So, the listed characters and the doorway images got used again here. This would have been a surprise to everyone, but shouldn’t have presented any problems. Additional stimulus for this question included an actor’s toolbox full of small props such as textas, blanket, umbrella, bongo drums, rope, and more items.

As usual, this question referred to the development and performance of a non-naturalistic ensemble performance, the other main practical component of the VCE Drama course in the final year of schooling. A series of notes were prescribed, such as the characters and doorway used to respond to Question 1 were permissible in Question 2, but the performance style used in Question 1 could not be used. Once again, students who used reading time properly would have noticed this and planned accordingly, before they even started writing. Some students will not have read the notes carefully and be penalised for using the same performance style as in Question 1.

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A number of non-naturalistic performance styles were listed as examples in this question, going beyond the three mentioned in the study design (Epic Theatre, Poor Theatre, Theatre of Cruelty). The play-making techniques of research and improvisation were prescribed and a scenario outlining four to six actors was offered. But again using one of the thirteen doorway images as stimulus meant the nature of the ensemble performance was not that different to the situation for the solo performance in Question 1 – a doorway from which a new character enters and changes the world of the original character – only it is a group of people instead of one person in Question 2.

Part a) was very easy asking for how movement could be used to explore and create the world inspired by the chosen doorway? However, responses would need to be specific in relation to how movement was used?

Part b) asked for a listed character and object from the stimulus toolbox to be identified, then discuss how the actor will transform the chosen object to explore one or more aspects of the chosen character? As long as students addressed all parts of the question (not as easy as it looks) then there shouldn’t have been too many issues here.

Part c) witnessed a new arrival entering the community and the need for students to identify two performance styles different to the one used in Question 1 to be used in exploring and developing the ensemble performance. Students were asked how how one convention from each performance style could be applied to explore the group response to the new arrival and manipulate the actor-audience relationship. Well, put simply students must know their drama theory well in order to respond successfully here. If they only studied the three main styles, Epic Theatre, Poor Theatre, and Theatre of Cruelty, then two of the three could be used here. Additional styles could also be used other than these three, such as  Commedia or Absurdism. I am hoping after the 2015 VCE Drama exam, all teachers covered at least the three main non-naturalistic performance styles in their courses and everyone was able to respond properly.

Part d) was full of instructions and prescriptions, which could easily throw some students. One performance style from part c) had to be selected. The small-knit group in the ensemble were affected in one of two listed ways, then the impact of this change had to be conveyed to the audience using two of three prescribed dramatic elements. Added to this, students were reminded the response needed to be consistent with the chosen performance style. I think this question may look straightforward, but has so many moving parts that is may prove difficult to score full marks.

Section B

Section B always relates to the non-naturalistic professional theatre performances approved by the VCAA students to see in semester one. This year there were five approved performances on the VCE Drama Playlist. In the current study design period (2014-2018), the five exams saw two short answer responses and one extended response occur four times in Section B. On one occasion there were four parts to Section B. From 2014-2017 one or two parts were exactly the same question for all plays, with one or two parts unique to each play. On this year’s exam paper, all three parts were exactly the same question for all of the five performances. This is relevant because some students see more than one play with their teachers to give them more opportunity to respond to the best question. Although my students and I only saw one of the five plays (twice), we can only assume the exam setting panel believed these three questions were relevant to all of the five performances on the playlist.

Part a) may have shocked some students who were not used to seeing the word “convention” isolated in a question without a performance style first attached to it. This makes perfect sense considering conventions are specific acting and/or staging techniques belonging to a performance style. However, for students who knew the play performance well, the question should have been fairly straightforward.

Part b) asked for students to discuss how one actor in the performance applied and manipulated one dramatic element in the performance? Even for students who were not up to scratch on their theory and couldn’t recall the nine dramatic elements in the current VCE Drama course, this question was pretty easy because five of them had already been listed in previous questions on the exam paper, three of them identified as dramatic elements (contrast, rhythm, symbol, space, and sound). However, the word “manipulate” may have proved challenging for some. Also, students are possibly less used to discussing dramatic elements in relation to an actor, but more in relation to a performance as whole.

The response to the final exam question (part c) was strangely shortened this year from two pages to one and a half pages. Perhaps lots of students did not complete the paper last year and this was a good thing? Here, students needed to evaluate how the use of expressive skills and one stagecraft element were manipulated to enhance the performance styles in the production? Evaluate will have slipped up some students, as they will have needed to assess the worth or effectiveness of the expressive skills and one stagecraft element in enhancing the performance styles, not simply discuss them. Also, it is implied all performances were eclectic on the VCE Drama Playlist this year. We know all of them had to be non-naturalistic in some way in order to be approved, but part c) specifically stated performance styles. Simply evaluating the performance as non-naturalistic won’t cut it, as students will have needed to identify a minimum of two non-naturalistic performance styles in this response.

Summary

I often find the VCE Drama Written Examination can look deceptively simple some years, until one reads the paper over several times. It is here with a deeper analysis that we find double and triple barrelled questions and think carefully about everything that will be required to possibly receive full marks for a response. In summary, I believe the 2018 VCE Drama exam paper was fair and straightforward with plenty of choices offered in various questions. It did, however, have a number of prescribed notes and instructions that would have tripped up unwary students.

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