This post is the first of several to offers tips for teachers on how to approach the Solo Performance Examination task, which is part of the Victorian Certificate of Education Drama course in Melbourne, Australia. Even if you’re not a ‘local’ and are viewing this blog from the other side of the world, a quick look at the exam itself (link below) is a fascination view into a very challenging and highly sophisticated 7-minute performance exam.
With ten character choices published annually for the exam, students in their final year of high school studying Drama choose one to interpret and perform before three external assessors. The ‘characters’ are created by the exam setting panel and are drawn from real life, history, novels, paintings, films, musicals and more. Actual events in the life of the characters are often mixed with fictional events created by the panel, with jumps in time (flashbacks and flashforwards) common, creating a performance with considerable scope for individual interpretation.
Students must perform other minor characters, additional to their main character, for part of their solo performance. A plot outline is prescribed and from this, students write their own script. All performances must be non-naturalistic (anti-realistic) in style and various other theatrical conventions are also prescribed.
If you’re from another part of the world, hit the exam link below and check out the details. If you’re a local, read on for tips if you teach the task this year.
Tip #1: Choose Carefully
Often an underestimated part of the process, students’ choosing the most appropriate character from the ten on offer is crucial to their success in this task. I never choose characters on behalf of my students, but instead leave it up to their judgement. As their teacher, my students value my opinion, so after making an initial choice, they always ask me if I ‘approve’ or have any doubts or concerns (of which I am honest and frank, without being blunt).
This year, I sent all my students away on their school holidays in July to skim the surface of discovering something about each of the ten exam characters, then narrowing it down to two or three likely choices. If your students don’t delve into aspects of all characters on the exam, how will they really know which is the most appropriate for them to perform? It’s not just about choosing the best character for your skill strengths, it is equally about legitimately discounting inappropriate choices as well.
One of my current students recently read over a hundred pages of the novel The Northern Lights (The Golden Compass in the US), a prescribed stimulus for one of the exam character structures, only to realise it simply wasn’t for her (and then off she went to another, more appropriate character choice on the exam). How else would she have known the ‘world of the plot’ of this solo performance character was interesting or boring for her tastes, if she didn’t first do some research?
And it is your students’ strengths that must play a large part of the decision making. If a student is a dancer, choosing a character who is prescribed to dance or use exaggerated movement in a performance may be appropriate. Occasionally over the years, the use of song in one or two performances is also prescribed, so good singers may be attracted to this convention. This year, I have one particular student who is naturally comedic in a left of centre sort of way, so when one of the current exam characters called for ‘Pythonesque comedy’, it was the most suitable choice for her without a doubt.
While it is totally acceptable for a student to choose a solo performance of the opposite gender to themselves, be wary of this. Every now and then you may have students in your class who play the opposite sex well in performances, but this performance exam accounts for 35% of a student’s final grade in Drama, so if there are nine other character choices available, make sure the right decision is being made. Occasionally, I might have a girl playing a male character in a solo performance in Year 11, but in this externally assessed Year 12 exam, it is rare for this to occur. I would certainly imagine it being easier for a girl to play a male role successfully, than the reverse.
I have been more than happy with my students choosing their exam character choice themselves over the years. While this is probably common among teachers of the task, I can honestly say if I were to be hard on myself, only one student in the past seven years chose the ‘wrong’ character, and for this, I blame myself.
This year has been the best of all when it comes to character choices. With eleven girls in my senior class, I honestly believe every single one of them has chosen the most appropriate character for their individual strengths without a single discussion for advice with their teacher needed at all! We sat down and gave a collective smile as I wrote the student names and corresponding characters on the whiteboard, because we all knew that what I have just written was indeed the case. My students know that if their final solo performance exam grade later this year is not of the calibre they were realistically aiming for, then the choice of character was not to blame.
And yet the whole point of this post is to argue the choice of character is paramount to a student’s success. So, I’ll go out on a limb now and predict not one of my students will be disappointed with her grade for her solo performance exam at the end of this year. Why? Because each of them has laboured long and hard over choosing the very best character for their strengths and interests at the start of the task. I will even get all of my students to write down a predicted grade for themselves just prior to their exam and seal it away until their grades are published. I believe my students, through careful decision-making and hard work, have set themselves up to potentially achieve the best grade they are capable of in this exam ….. and your students can, too.
Tip #2: Research, Research, Research!