The Less You Have In Drama The Better Off You Are

The less resources you have in a school drama program, the better off you are.

At first glance, my statement seems illogical. Surely a $50,000 school musical budget or a multi-million dollar purpose-built theatre would make for a great drama program? Quite often it does. But that’s not to say a lack of material resources results in a sub-standard drama program.

The multi-million dollar school theatre means the students have a beautiful stage on which to perform. While a modern theatre fitted with equipment will aid a student in their understanding of many aspects of theatre, quality acting can occur on the school oval if you want it to. And the $50,000 musical budget sometimes results in the orchestra, sets and costumes being hired from outside the school. I’d rather produce a small-scale show of which my students can truly say they own every aspect of it, from the costumes and props to ushering and publicity.

learning

We should be making analogies between our experiences as teachers viewing professional theatre in our personal lives, and the drama programs and products we produce at school. Rich theatre (the theatre of excess – the antithesis of what Grotowski describes as a stripped back “poor theatre”) does not always produce the best material. When I thoroughly enjoy a night out at the theatre seeing Wicked The Musical or The Lion King, it is not necessarily because of the acting or singing. Like everybody else, I marvel at the spectacular sets, costumes and lighting. Often the best theatre is raw theatre. It is the independent, small-scale, avant-garde, sometimes edgy theatre that truly inspires.

I have recently started telling my Year 12 Drama class that their ensemble performances should look like a university theatre show – low-budget, yet highly resourceful. Last year I moved my senior drama ensemble venue to a vacant space that used to be two classrooms side by side. With the centre wall knocked out and just the carpet remaining, it made for a blank canvas upon which my students painted their performances. My colleague in the drama department recently moved a student-run drama festival at school to a venue on campus that is older, crowded and more gritty. We love it. The audience last year was packed in like sardines. It was intimate student theatre at its best. The students could hear and see most of the audience during their performances. As a result, they could feed off the audience. It was very real.

Who needs bells and whistles in a school drama program? Of all the subjects on a school curriculum, surely drama, the subject where the student actor is at the core of our investigation and learning, can lead itself to a room, school hall or space with limited resources. Recently, one of my Year 8 Drama classes was disrupted in their preparation and performance of a major task. Moved out of the drama rooms to an old classroom to rehearse and perform their plays, they brought costumes and props from home, rehearsed more effectively in an alternate space, were highly organised and efficient, producing quality material in the midst of adversity. The less they had at their disposal, the better their material in drama became.

You only need four things to run a successful school drama program:

  1. A space in which to undertake practical lessons, rehearse and perform (any space will do)
  2. A quality teaching and learning program
  3. Enthusiastic students who want to be in class
  4. Passionate students and teachers

If you have these four essential ingredients, you should have a thriving drama program. From there, it really doesn’t matter what the students’ grades are, as long as they try their best in every task.

As for the drama room or theatre for performances, remember that in the 1960s British director Peter Brook said all you need is an “empty space” in which to perform the drama.

Sometimes the richest student theatre lives in the poorest conditions.

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4 Responses

  1. Darin says:

    Great article that gives me things to think about while I help out with my wife’s multimillion dollar high school theatre. While it’s important not to forget your privilege and to not replace creativity, problem solving, and hard work with off-the-shelf solutions, I think there’s also something to be said for getting the “high tech” education, which includes skills that you can bring to a future “low tech” situation.

    We need a “Rich Dad, Poor Dad” for high school theatre! Our kids are missing out on some of the DIY pride, and the “simpler” schools are missing out on experience with modern tech.

  2. Josh says:

    This post speaks volumes to me as a graduate drama teacher. Working in a small state school I have began wishing we had more resources to work with. Justin, your post brings drama teaching back into perspective and relates it back to the experience of the student and what they want to get out of it, rather then the teacher or the school staff. Thank you. This will hang on my wall and remind me of the purpose of our drama program.

  3. LaVerne Waldrop says:

    Totally agree. Working with less develops creativity. With duct tape, a hot glue gun, iron-on hemming, a thrift shop and paint we have created a setting and costumes that did not take away from performances but added just enough to enhance the acting. Thanks for your articles.

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