In the 90s, I think Madonna meant a slightly different form of expressing yourself when she released this song, but at the heart of our Drama classes is the ability for our students to express themselves properly in their acting.
Recently, I injected a bit of academic rigour into a Year 8 Drama (13-14 year-olds) unit that focused on the acting style of realism. I have always been a strong believer in teaching watered down versions of prescribed aspects of senior Drama courses to junior students and in this instance, I focused on the four expressive skills stipulated in VCE Drama (Year 11/12):
- facial expressions
These four expressive skills represent the nuts and bolts of student acting in secondary school Drama classes. Of course, there are many more elements such as conflict and symbol, but to a group of Year 8 students, isolating the four expressive skills was enough of a challenge and one that paid dividends.
Using two brief pre-written scripts with room for considerable interpretation of character and no stage directions, students explored the various ways of developing their scenes. The aim was to make their use of voice, movement, facial expressions and gesture as realistic as possible. Of course, an explanation of what makes acting realistic was first needed.
Just prior to using the scripts, students were asked to create a brief improvised scene of their choice in small groups and present it before the class. As the observing students responded to each performance, they were not allowed to offer the usual responses, such as “I thought the acting was good” and “Jennifer was really funny”. This time around, students could only respond in the language of Drama we were now studying. Considering two-thirds of the class had never heard of the word gesture before and of those that had, few had used it in conversation, this was going to be a valuable task, indeed.
Students began tentatively in their responses, as if they were using a completely new language for the very first time. But as the scene presentations progressed and more feedback from the audience was offered, the students’ responses slowly became more confident and academic. Before long I had 13 year-olds offering constructive criticism to classmates about their voice projection and tone or lack of movement in the scene. Finally, when one student politely commented to another that she didn’t believe in her character because she over-acted the role, I knew we had struck gold!
We then moved onto our script work and I deliberately sat back and observed. Ever tried to become invisible in your own Drama classroom? Well, I teach in a classroom slightly larger than an over-sized shoebox, so you could say trying to be invisible here is near impossible. However, if your class is busy enough and the students engaged in their learning, then it doesn’t matter how small the room is or amount of students within it, one can almost disappear.
So, I watched my students without giving them this impression, as they examined their first scripted scene. I listened to students debate with each other in pairs how much to offer to their role, as they explored the delicate balance between overstating and understating their character. Shy students jumped out of their comfort zone in order to attempt larger gestures and louder voices. Confident students were trying desperately to hold back a little (probably for the first time ever) and control their normally enthusiastic but wayward acting, because now they were focusing on getting their use of the four expressive skills just right.
And then of course what constitutes ‘just right’ is often a judgement difficult to define. We worked on the basis that the acting was just right if others found it believable in all aspects of voice, movement, facial expressions and use of gesture.
The first script was used as a lead-in and acted as more of an activity where process drama was paramount. Students then moved onto a second scripted scene in pairs. This script was to be performed for assessment. It lasted three to four minutes and required them to;
- learn all lines
- create their own blocking
- develop their own role interpretations
- define the setting (deliberately not defined in the given script)
- acquire costume and props
- ensure their four expressive skills were realistic and believable
- perform for assessment (using many of the above, as criteria)
It really was a worthwhile unit of activity, where I felt my two classes of Year 8 Drama students (all girls) were really benefiting from using the language of Drama in conversation (as criticism) and in practice (performance). It was clear they were engaged and motivated to learn (more than they knew already) about a subject many of them loved.
Having said all this …. I’ve sort of lied. My student-teacher at the time, under my guidance, did it all, not me. I really was an observer in the corner of the room … only in this case, the entire time, not just for part of the time. What a joy it was to watch a competent student-teacher do all this so successfully, without a hiccup, and as a result see the beaming faces of my students, enjoying the fun of learning new skills in Drama.