Drama Ensemble Process

Recently my Year 12 Drama class performed their end of semester ensemble performances before teachers, friends and families. This year I mixed it up a bit. Instead of asking all groups in the class to research, script and perform the same topic in the same style, all groups researched the same topic but performed their plays in three different performance styles. The topic given to my students was the story of London’s infamous killer Jack the Ripper in the late 1800s. In this post, I intend to deconstruct the ensemble process.

Ensemble Topic: I refuse to give my students lame topics for self-devised ensemble performances, especially in their final years of schooling. A juicy topic offers students something to sink their teeth into. It doesn’t always have to be tragic, but my preference in recent years has been to give students ensemble topics that will at least be dramatic in performance. I lean towards world events, some recent, others historical. Events that involve a sense of mystery, cover-ups, and people at the mercy of government often result in interesting revelations for the audience. These are the topics I have written for my Year 12 Drama classes over the past eight years: Jack The Ripper, Modern-Day Witch Hunts, Black Saturday, The Black Death, Terror In Mumbai, The Space Shuttle Disasters: Challenger & Columbia, Hurricane Katrina, and Chernobyl. Check them out and feel free to use them with your own students if you wish.

Performance Style: Here in Melbourne, our Year 12 Drama ensemble topics are chosen by the teacher, but must be non-naturalistic (non-realistic) in style. Because Brecht’s Epic Theatre has some of the most straightforward conventions for students to understand and use in performances, this style is commonly prescribed by teachers. You can see from my own list of original ensemble topics that Epic Theatre has been used most years. But this year I decided to encourage my student groups to each choose a different theatre style to use for their ensemble topic Jack The Ripper. It was a risk. For weeks I secretly squirmed behind the scenes, concerned this concept could blow up in my face. But ultimately, it worked like a charm. One group performed in Grotowski’s Poor Theatre style, another used Epic Theatre, while a third group employed Artaud’s Theatre of Cruelty. I was acutely aware of making this task a level playing field for all students during the performance making process. I married prescribed conventions for all groups with a mixture of select dramatic elements and stagecraft unique to different groups, as such:

Poor Theatre Group:

  • employed the curriculum authority prescribed conventions of transformation of character, time, place and object
  • focused on the dramatic elements of rhythm and symbol, unique to their group – selected from the list of dramatic elements in their course documents and chosen by the teacher as most appropriate for Poor Theatre
  • focused on the use of space, deliberately prescribed for all groups in order to explore the relationship between performer and audience – this group placed their audience on swivel chairs and positioned them in a number of small clusters, performing around them
  • used the stagecraft element of properties – even though Poor Theatre deliberately used very few props
  • employed the strategy of partly improvising and partly scripting their performance

Grotowski employed the transformation of (limited) objects in the performance space to sometimes make these ‘new’ objects significant in the context of the drama. Could the Poor theatre group link their object transformation focus with their prescribed use of symbol in performance? Would they perform in such a way that they truly shared the performing space with their audience (what Grotowski referred to as a ‘communion’)? Would the Poor Theatre group be able to sustain the audience’s attention and engage them with little use of costume, props and other stagecraft?

Epic Theatre Group:

  • employed the curriculum authority prescribed conventions of transformation of character, time, place and object
  • focused on the dramatic elements of contrast and tension, unique to their group – selected from the list of dramatic elements in their course documents and chosen by the teacher as the most appropriate ones for Epic Theatre
  • focused on the use of space, deliberately prescribed for all groups in order to explore the relationship between performer and audience – this group placed their audience in a more conventional end-on staging arrangement
  • used theatre technologies (multimedia) – as Brecht (and his collaborator Erwin Piscator) were likely among the first practitioners to successfully use projection in the theatre
  • employed the strategy of entirely scripting their performance, suitable for Epic Theatre

Brecht’s characters were often over-simplified. Would the Epic Theatre group be able to stereotype their characterisations, enabling them to easily create one aspect of contrast? On the surface, the element of tension looks like an odd choice for the teacher to prescribe in this style. By digging a little deeper, would the Epic Theatre students remember from their theory lessons that Brecht often deliberately ruined tension in his plays by, among other things, getting characters (or narrators) to introduce scenes and even tell the action of the upcoming scene before it was performed? Could they extract some of the emotion (and tension) from the sordid subject matter of Jack the Ripper and present their play in Brechtian intellectual fashion?

Theatre of Cruelty Group:

  • employed the curriculum authority prescribed conventions of transformation of character, time, place and object
  • focused on the dramatic elements of sound and mood, unique to their group – selected from the list of dramatic elements in their course documents and chosen by the teacher as the most appropriate ones for Theatre of Cruelty
  • focused on the use of space, deliberately prescribed for all groups in order to explore the relationship between performer and audience – this group placed their audience on swivel chairs positioned in one large cluster in the centre, performing all around them in a circular fashion, but focusing on the four corners of the outside space as Artaud himself had done with his own performers
  • used the stagecraft element of sound (must involve technology) – an obvious Theatre of Cruelty convention
  • employed the strategy of entirely improvising their performance – appropriate for Theatre of Cruelty

Artaud’s Theatre of Cruelty was largely a movement-based experience, shocking its audience’s senses with bright lights, piercing sounds and the use of the actor’s body. Would the Theatre of Cruelty group be able to use their prescribed element of mood in order to evoke emotion from the audience? Would they use both aspects of prescribed sound (using their bodies and objects, plus pre-recorded sound)? Would they successfully entrap their audience placed in the centre of their action, like Artaud did? Will their audience swivel around in their chairs to see the action occurring all around them and not think of a designated ‘stage area’ on one side? Will their audience be shocked, scared or even horrified?

Performance Space: Who needs a fancy theatre? My school does not have a purpose-built theatre for drama performances. My choices are normally two lecture theatres: one too large, the other too small for my needs. This year I decided to use an area that was originally two standard classrooms, today converted into a multipurpose space. It was not particularly elegant or grand, but it definitely had an ‘alternative space’ feel about it. As a result, it suited the Poor Theatre and Theatre of Cruelty performances well. No stage lights meant the Theatre of Cruelty group had to employ portable spotlights for their performance. Using a multimedia trolley enabled the Epic Theatre group to simply project media onto a white brick wall at one end of the space. The rougher, the better. From the outset, I wanted this ensemble event to look and feel like a (poor) university theatre show.

Performance Making Process: The trickiest aspect of the rehearsal process for the teacher is finding the right balance between giving your students room to explore the task themselves and not leaving them on their own too much. I’m a big believer in empowering students in drama. I find myself as a mere facilitator during the ensemble process. If I set the task up correctly with appropriate teacher theory, student research, rehearsal timelines and deadlines, then all should be well. This particular task is normally undertaken in 8-10 school weeks, plus after-school rehearsals. This year I decided to encourage my students to use scheduled class time as efficiently as possible, minimising the need for numerous out-of-school rehearsals. The students still rehearsed outside class time, but at their own discretion. During performance making for ensemble tasks, students need to accept responsibility for their own actions if things go wrong. They also need to own their own work and be proud of their achievements at the end, no matter what their assessed grade may be.

See these articles on The Drama Teacher for further information: Epic Theatre Conventions Pt. 1, Epic Theatre Conventions Pt.2, Epic Theatre Conventions, Poor Theatre Conventions, Theatre of Cruelty Conventions.

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2 Responses

  1. Robyn says:

    You could try combo of Boal, Brecht and Verbatim…. then blend the three groups into an holistic outcome / performance .

  2. Geoff De Manser says:

    Brilliant – I love this approach, daring and risky can lead to the best results.

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