Hart Island Drama Ensemble Topic

Each year I publish the current topic I give to my Year 12 Drama class to devise as their ensemble performance. In small groups, the students create all aspects of the task, from research and brainstorming to scripting, directing and rehearsing. Their performance is individually graded as 20% of their overall marks in their final year of high school drama. The task begins with a stimulus offered by the teacher. Ultimately, each student must demonstrate in the actual performance their understanding of non-naturalistic (non-realistic) theatre via acting, conventions and the use of simple stagecraft.

Over the past decade, I have usually written ensemble stimulus structures for my students that are connected to a world event, some created by humans, others by nature. I love giving my students topics with a certain degree of weight. I am a big believer in the through-line between effective research and a solid script, resulting in a sophisticated performance. So, lightweight ensemble topics do not get a look-in.

I nearly always prescribe a topic where a sense of mystery is present, where an injustice has occurred, where failings by elected governments have resulted in disaster, where there are often more questions than answers, or cover-ups have been made by people in authority. These situations create conflict that drive the students’ dramatic performances. Sometimes, the student work becomes an awareness piece for their audience, at other times a dramatic investigation into an event of significance.

Last year I changed the nature of my ensemble task. Instead of asking all student groups in my class to perform their piece in the same non-naturalistic style (the way this task is traditionally delivered by teachers in various schools), I got my students to choose one of three styles, resulting in three pieces on the same topic performed very differently. I have continued with this concept this year. I get all my students to keep a record of their performance-making process during the play-making phase via group blogging online.

Previous topics I have given to my Year 12 Drama students are all available for viewing on The Drama Teacher, and include:

This year, my Year 12 Drama ensemble topic is Hart Island. I wonder whether you have ever heard of this small island in New York City where nearly a million souls are buried? Read on. It’s a fascinating tale.

Year 12 Drama – Ensemble Performance

Hart Island

New York City, 1860s – present day.

Performance Style
Non-naturalism: each group is to choose one dominant style for their performance. Aspects of other performance styles can be included.

Performance StyleTheatre PractitionerDramatic ElementsStagecraft
Poor TheatreJerzy GrotowskiRhythm / Space / SymbolProps*
Theatre of CrueltyAntonin ArtaudSound** / Space / MoodSound***
Epic TheatreBertolt BrechtContrast / Space / TensionMultimedia****

*use of props with a strong focus on transformation of objects
**sound using the actors’ voice, body, interaction with objects
***sound using technology
**** multimedia with a focus on projection

 Prescribed Non-Naturalistic Conventions (all groups)
Transformation of character, time, place and object.


Hart Island, located in The Bronx, New York City, is the biggest publicly funded cemetery in the world, yet its existence remains largely unknown to most Americans. Only a mile long and a quarter of a mile wide, Hart Island is home to an estimated one million people, buried in mass graves of 150 adults and 1,000 infants. For over a century, the City of New York has sent deceased paupers, stillborn babies, the homeless, the unidentified and unnamed to Hart Island. Today run by the Department of Correction, graves are dug by inmates of Rikers Island prison. Access to Hart Island is tightly controlled, even to those whose relatives are buried there. But in recent years, changes have taken place to right the wrongs of Hart Island’s past, leaving hope for the future.

Your performance must include scenes documenting the following:

  • Hart Island as a Prisoner of War camp
  • Hart Island as a sanatorium
  • Hart Island as a lunatic asylum
  • Hart Island as a reformatory
  • Hart Island as a Potter’s Field
  • Access to Hart Island by members of the public
  • Personal stories about relatives of those buried at Hart Island
  • The work of Melinda Hunt of the Hart Island Project and current reforms

6 Responses

  1. Ashleigh says:

    Justin, this stimulus instantly starts ideas running through my head!
    I have a very keen, but beginner-level Year 11 class for 2016, do you think this would be suitable for them?
    Thanks 🙂

    • Hi Ashleigh, I honestly think this Hart Island topic will be a bit too demanding for a beginner-level Year 11 Drama class. The other thing to consider is that if doing your ensemble in VCE Unit 1 Drama, the subject matter needs to be “a devised performance that includes real or imagined characters and is based on stimulus material that reflects personal, cultural and/or community experiences and stories” of your students, of which this topic would not be. Also, keep in mind the Unit 1 Drama ensemble needs to portray both naturalistic and non-naturalistic performance styles. I wrote a more suitable topic on social media for Unit 1 Drama a few years a back. I’ll post that on The Drama Teacher today. See what you think!

      • Ashleigh says:

        This is true, I was going to do a more naturalistic approach, but it might be a bit too heavy for them. I did Social Media with my class last year, so I’m looking for something a bit different. If you have any other ideas, it would be greatly appreciated – I’m the only Drama teacher at my school and have no one to bounce ideas off!

  2. Hi Carina. Glad you enjoy my posts. I have my Year 12 Drama class for 3 x 80-minute lessons per week (240 mins / 4 hrs total). If we look like we need extra time for a performance task, we simply run after school classes once a week, for example.

  3. Carina Oelofse says:

    Hi Justin, I just have a quick question for you. By the way, I do enjoy your posts very much. For how many hours a week do you have your seniors for Drama? I feel that the time I have just never seems enough for all the work we have to put in for the Cambridge Examinations.

  4. Miss Snedden says:

    Wow, thank you so much for sharing this!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *