Should students take risks with their performance material in Drama? If so, will it pay dividends?
Well, I’ve got to admit, in years gone by, I have always encouraged my students to play it safe with their performance making and the word ‘risk’ barely entered our vocabulary. I was too afraid of the insecurity of risk-taking and the possible results.
By ‘risk-taking’ I don’t mean party all night before a school production and rock up exhausted or try being in the wrong position on stage in a scene and see how the rest of the cast copes with it! What I really mean is an actor taking risks with the development of their character in the rehearsal phase.
At the moment, myself and many of my colleagues are embarking on our senior students’ end of year performance examinations. In Drama, these are 7-minute solo performances, where the students devise their own script and blocking from a ‘prescribed structure’, or series of plot events prescribed for inclusion in the performance. The characters are drawn from history, film, art, plays, fiction and the imagination. The task involves considerable research and decision making by the student.
In Drama’s sister subject Theatre Studies, the exam is a monologue performance in the acting tradition of an audition from a selected play. These monologues are chosen from famous and not so famous plays, both historical, modern and contemporary. On both exams, students receive a choice: usually 10 prescribed characters in Drama and up to 13 monologues in Theatre Studies, from which they choose one to perform (and these choices change each year). Find the exams here if you’d like a look.
But many years into my teaching career, with success in the past without my students really taking risks, I am now highly encouraging my students to take risks in their character and scene development for their Drama performance exams. Almost like I have been hiding under a rock for the past decade, now I see no other option. Where have I been all these years?
But be warned! There is a difference between taking unnecessary risks and taking calculated risks. Unnecessary risk-taking may well be deliberate and with purpose, but there is little sense in encouraging a student to choose a solo performance character that has no connection with their interests or strengths. Students must possess not just a mild interest, but a passion for a character at the beginning, as they are the ones who will be doing most of the hard work developing it. So you gotta love it, or you’ll end up hating the whole process.
Calculated risks usually involve risks that are set within an imaginary boundary, that may be different for each student and character. For example, if I believe a particular character choice is the most appropriate for a one of my students for the exam, then I will first check to see if the passion and interest levels are there, then really encourage my student to sink their teeth into this one and a little way down the track start encouraging them to take calculated risks with their choice of character. Great drama is only created when we move out of our comfort zone a little and feel the anxiety and nervousness of stretching ourselves into new and previously unexplored territory. Many students will be hesitant to try this and some will be prepared to take more risks than others. Then it is up to the teacher to guide the student in making the best possible decisions along the way until the character and performance are fully realised.
As I have blogged before, if a student takes little or no risks developing their exam character, then this will only produce mediocrity. And what is the risk for taking a risk in Drama? Less of a risk than taking no risk at all!