Solo Performance Tip #4: From The Page To The Stage

Tip #4: From The Page To The Stage

Now this is a tough one.

As Drama teachers, we’ve all been there … most of us every single year … where one or more students in our Year 12 class doesn’t want to get up and prac the solo performance in your lesson.

All of a sudden the student who yesterday couldn’t lift a pen to do some writing, is now the most prolific of researchers! The fear of practising the solo in class is a dreaded one, indeed.

I cannot stress enough the importance of adhering to an agreed timeline for this major task in Drama. In order to do this, students simply must get up and prac the solo on your timeline, not theirs.

As educators, we often feel mean forcing a student to rehearse in class when they don’t ‘appear’ or ‘feel’ ready, but if we don’t place this little bit of pressure on them, we are ultimately doing our students a disservice and causing ourselves to have migraines closer to show time when students aren’t fully prepared for exam day.

The toughest part is at the beginning of the play-making process, when students fear the very first time they have to prepare the solo in class time. They’re usually much happier developing their performance at home.

Here’s what I’ve had in my class over the years (recognise them?):

  • students burying their heads in paperwork, instead of rehearsing
  • students quietly ‘miming’ their spoken performance
  • students whispering their solo to that bit of air directly in front of their lips
  • students whispering their solo to a wall or a corner of the classroom
  • students refusing to prac their work in class
  • students offering every excuse known to humankind for why they’re ‘not ready to prac yet’

But, I’ve also been fortunate to have this, too:

  • students so keen to rehearse we run out of space in the classroom for everyone
  • every member of the class simultaneously rehearsing their solo at performance volume
  • students wanting to stay and rehearse their solos after school, before school, lunchtimes…

I tell ya, the day (or days) when your entire class is rehearsing the solos, in character with props and costume at full volume and all at the same time, is a moment you won’t forget for a while. As teachers, we work so hard to see magic moments like this, it’s like a reward we truly deserved to have. I know in theory, all Drama classes should be exactly as you plan them in your head, but we all know that the reality is often a different story, no matter how good a teacher we are.

I’d suggest allowing students to ‘get into character’ early on, before formal rehearsals in class. This will both help them feel confident to rehearse in the company of others, but also assist with their role. We’ve probably all seen a student perform or rehearse part of their solo that, technically speaking is very strong, but for one small problem …. the complete absence of ‘character’!

Any number of character exercises will prove useful. Evens simple stuff like sitting, standing and walking as their character, meeting other characters in the room etc will help.

Students also need to understand their character’s setting early in the process. Sometimes they forget their location at a particular moment in the solo. They need to be able to identify setting and time at any point in the solo, when developing the piece. I often quiz my students at random about these things as I make my way around the room.

Whatever you do, don’t leave your students to their own devices for several weeks and then expect them to produce five minutes of their solo performance for the rest of the class all at once. If it happens, it almost certainly won’t be quality work. This will prove too difficult for most students, if you’re after anything above a C, that is.

I ask my students, normally after two or three weeks of solid research, to start showing snippets of their solo to the rest of the class. As I write this post, I am at the end of Week 3 in this very task and tomorrow every member of the Year 12 Drama class will perform for the first time.

I’m only asking for a minute or so of material. Most will perform their ‘stem’ (the introductory sentence above the dot points), but some will choose to show part of the plot (dot points) instead. We’re very open about this in class. We talk freely about how this will not allow anyone to procrastinate or delay the process, enable us all to be on the same timeline as a class and most importantly, not allow anyone to slack off.

I’m a big believer in teaching my Drama students something I lacked in every high school subject myself (except Drama, that is) … responsibility. After having performed an ensemble performance for 20% of their year’s mark in Unit 3 last semester, here’s hoping our students have a good sense of the importance of collective responsibility. Those who let other group members down in ensemble rehearsals, or others who were rewarded with hard work, should now be able to transfer this knowledge and skills to the process of developing a solo performance in Unit 4.

On the whole, the responsibility required by our students now shifts to being a personal one. But I politely remind my students that their first responsibility lies with themself (because ultimately they will let themself down if they don’t produce the work), secondly their classmates (because an agreed class timeline for the project is futile if several members of the class refuse to abide by it) and finally I’m happy to come in third place as resonsibility to their teacher for the task.

From now on, every Friday is showtime! I’d recommend you do something similar. Once a week at a set time, every member of the Drama class performs bits of their solo before the rest of the class. Obviously, this eats into rehearsal class rehearsal time, especially if you have a large number of students to perform each week. As the early weeks pass by, it can be

  • only new parts of the solo developed in the intervening days since the last showing
  • tricky bits the student needs feedback on from the class
  • bridges between two sections that the student wishes to join for the first time
  • or the whole solo developed at any given time

This process works wonders. Students now understand they need to be responsible to themselves and others, they have a renewed sense of confidence and tackle the enormity of the solo task in bite-sized chunks, instead of all at once … a daunting prospect for any Drama student.

If you can get your students to rehearse on their own in class without being distracted, you’re doing well. If you can get each of them to rehearse at performance volume, even better! If this seems impossible, try buddy-ing students up in pairs for the development of the solo task.

However, avoid pairing friends together, students who will simply fool around if placed together and pairs doing the same exam character structure (or they’ll look too similar!). Paired working relationships often end up being largely individual work anyway, but the process doesn’t seem as ‘lonely’ as completely individual work.

Here, there’s always a buddy to show a developing performance to, so it can be very advantageous. Sometimes in your class, you’ll get these unplanned magic moments where suddenly the whole class stops working to see a student perform his/her piece in development, originally intended only for a single classmate, but the power of performance took hold of everyone.

I have three 80-minute lessons each week. For two of these, I go around to each student and conference with them about questions they may have etc, maybe see tiny snippets of their solo, offer advice etc. As I see individual students one at a time, the rest of the class is rehearsing. Many people ask me if it it worth devoting one-t
hird of my students’ class time each week to seeing student performances? The answer is definitely yes!

But, often students need to make up for this time. There will never be enough class time alone to develop the solo performance task, anyway. Let your students know this from the outset. Homework between lessons is very important in this task and this can make up for a perceived loss of time in showing developing solos in class each week. Sure, its a challenging and difficult task, but its also a hell of a lot of fun. Homework doesn’t get much better than this, surely?

Coming Up
Tip #5: Artistic Discipline

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