Top Class Drama 2008
Once again the Victorian Curriculum and Assessment Authority’s Top Class Drama concerts, showcased as part of their Season of Excellence program on Friday 18th and Saturday 19th April, proved very entertaining and valuable for students and teachers, alike.
If you’re a regular reader of this blog, you’ll know I’m a big fan of Top Class Drama. Like all Drama teachers out there, I take my Drama staff and students along to regular theatre shows throughout the year. But each year I am reminded by both my students and fellow teachers that Top Class Drama is one of the most important events we attend.
Back in the 90s, I never attended Top Class concerts, instead spending my time listening to my Drama teacher friends at other schools rave about the experience. These days I wonder what rock I was hiding under back in the old days and how I survived without Top Class Drama?
Firstly, not everyone is familiar with the processes involved in Top Class Drama selection, so first I’ll offer an explanation. In the October solo performance examinations, all students who receive a perfect score (that’s 77/77 from each of the three examiners, or 231/231 for the total exam mark) automatically receive a letter from the VCAA offering them the opportunity to audition their solo performance piece in January the following year. This letter usually arrives the same day (or the day after) as results day in December. Not all students take up the offer of auditioning their solo performance for Top Class Drama, but those that do, perform their solo again over the summer holidays at the Victorian College of the Arts before, among others, the Chief Assessor for Drama. This panel chooses 33 solo performances to be showcased at the three Top Class Drama concerts at the National Theatre, St. Kilda, in April. Many of us get Top Class and Top Acts mixed up. Top Acts is the combination of a selection of some of the best performances from all performing arts Top Class concerts (Drama, Theatre Studies, Dance and Music) at Hamer Hall in May (another fabulous experience).
Over the weekend I took along 55 Drama students to all three sessions of Top Class Drama (plus a number of ex-students from last year’s class as well). Granted, there has to be a certain amount of money in the kitty to allow that to happen in the first place, but at only $10 a head, Top Class is about the cheapest event you could take your students to and most teachers who do attend, go to one of the three concerts to receive a fair sampling of the performances on offer. Why 55 you may ask? Do I have 55 students in Year 12 Drama this year? No way! I have 11 students in Year 12 Drama, 20 students in Semester 1 Year 11 Drama and a further 24 in Semester 1 Year 10 Drama …. and there’s my 55 students! Who said Top Class Drama is just for your current Year 12 class?
I have absolutely no doubt that taking Year 10, 11 and 12 Drama students in recent years to both the Top Class Drama concerts at the National Theatre in April and the Top Acts concert at Hamer Hall in May is a contributing factor to improved grades in performance work in all of these year levels. This is not just confined to classroom performances. My Year 12 solo performance exam marks have improved also. Quite simply, going to Top Class Drama is professional learning for your students. Teachers go to PL throughout the year and Top Class Drama is the best PL your students can get.
If you can afford to take your Year 10 Drama students along to Top Class Drama, getting the atmosphere right is very important, because they are young. I leave that task up to my Year 12s, who are super keen and drip feed the appropriate level of enthusiasm and expected behaviour through to the Year 11s, who in turn drip feed it down to the Year 10s for me. At first, I was concerned about the Year 10s being a bit too immature to appreciate Top Class, but once you’ve done it successfully, the next year is a breeze because the students do the publicity for you through word of mouth. Before you know it, you’ve got a ‘tradition’ on your hands and now my students look forward to Top Class Drama every year. My Year 10s came along for the first time in 2007 when the previous year, the Year 10 Drama class was asking me ‘why can’t we come along to Top Class Drama, too’?
For my students, Top Class Drama is an academic excursion, while Top Acts a month later at Hamer Hall is like their reward for going to Top Class. With an emphasis also on entertainment value, Top Acts is such a fun evening and quite often my students enjoy the Music and Dance items more than the Drama solo performances I took them along to see! Nothing pleased me more last Friday and Saturday at Top Class Drama to see my students willingly discuss amongst themselves between sessions the various performances, not just in terms of ‘favourites’, but also in relation to conventions used, props transformed, character transformations etc. They were happily (and successfully) talking the language of drama (often in a sophisticated manner) and to me it was like practice for upcoming classroom SACs.
I have to stress however, the importance of prepping your students before attending Top Class Drama. Many of the solo performances are complex structures and if a student is not informed in the audience, following the performances can sometimes be very difficult, particularly plot references to outside events relating to the main thread of the central character. My students often comment they would be lost without prior knowledge of the exam structures at Top Class. In recent years I have been fortunate to have my own students in Top Class Drama and hence receive a running sheet of all the solo performances in advance in the mail. however, this is not necessary, as you can assume all exam structures will be performed at Top Class Drama (9 of the 10 structures were performed this year), so you simply need to download and print out the previous years’ solo exams and go through them in advance with your students attending the concert/s.
This year’s Top Class Drama showcases represented a fairly high standard of material. While I have no intention of sounding negative in any way on the wonderful work these Drama students have created (with the help of their wonderful teachers of course!), it is both interesting and important to recognise the differences in quality between performances. Even at this high level, it is valuable for your students attending to discuss the merits of all the performances. While I firmly believe each performance at Top Class Drama every year has many aspects worthy of positive discussion afterwards, it is a fact that some performances are stronger than others on the day.
Separate from a quick review of this year’s Top Class Drama will be my own student Stefania Gatt who performed Eliza Doolittle on the Saturday session. I was, as you’d expect, very proud of her to get this far and perform at Top Class Drama. At her own admission, we discussed how she probably performed her solo a little faster that she would have liked, but every tiny bit of content was performed without a hitch and I thought she did a wonderful job. For her now it is back to studying Music at Monash University and being the face of several Hungry Jack’s commercials on television – half her luck – it has nothing to do with me – although I was keen on a 20% commission on her payment 🙂
These were the standout performances at Top Class Drama for me this year. In Concert 1 on Friday morning I was very impressed with Jessie Yates from Melbourne Girls Grammar and her interpretation of Eliza Doolittle. Among other things, when you hear a communal sigh in the audience for a sophisticated technique in the solo, you know you’ve got a good show. This occurred when Jes
sie upturned her open-hooped skirt and popped her head through as a baby being born – magic moment. This was a strong performance all round.
I also thoroughly enjoyed both Spirit of Australian Suburbia’s in this session from Konstantine Stefanou (Marcellin College) and Will McMahon (Scotch College), as I was encouraged by the ‘freedom’ this exam structure seemed to offer and the wonderful choices students made with it in performance. Tom Ballard’s The Migrant (Brauer College) was also a very strong performance, as was Lucy Honigman’s portrayal of Soraya (MLC).
In Concert 2 on Friday afternoon two performance stood out form me. The first of these was Justin Clausen’s performance of The Migrant (Mentone Grammar). Justin’s performance skills were fabulous and aside from being a real crowd favourite, his interpretation of the structure was intelligent in performance. A thoroughly entertaining solo. Terry Kenos (Strathmore SC) finished off this session with a portrayal of Announcer Two from The War of the Worlds radio play. Terry demonstrated excellent performance skills and a sophisticated plot in performance.
Finally in Concert 3 on Saturday, Patrick McCarthy’s Spirit of Australian Suburbia (The Peninsula School) was a great performance, demonstrating thorough research and fine expressive skills. Broden Kelly (Viewbank College) also performed a fantastic solo with his interpretation of Announcer Two. Loved this solo! Outstanding performance skills, excellent choice of language (spoken script) and a thoroughly entertaining solo from start to finish.
All in all, another wonderful year of Top Class Drama concerts displaying a high standard of performances throughout. Seeing there is a history of not choosing multiples of the one character for the Top Acts concert at Hamer Hall, coupled with more than one outstanding interpretation of The Spirit of Australian Suburbia, The Migrant and Announcer Two in particular, I think some difficult decisions will have to be made over the next few days…