Top Class Drama Review 22/4/06

On Saturday I travelled to beautiful St Kilda with three colleagues and 24 of my senior Drama students to see the final instalment of the VCAA’s VCE Season of Excellence Top Class Drama program, featuring eleven of the best 2005 Year 12 solo performance exams from across Victoria. It was also extra special for our party as we saw the remaining two ex-Avila girls perform from my class last year. Two weeks ago we witnessed Amelia Tau perform her Security Guard character with aplomb and here we were all back again to see another two Avila girls perform in the program.

It has to be said from the outset that the standard of these performances was very high. Half way through, I turned to a few of my talented and normally confident Year 12’s to see them literally shaking with fear! I always knew that taking my senior Drama students to see Top Class could instill anxiety and concern amongst the cohort, because it can easily be viewed as a scary experience for those wishing to achieve A’s or A+’s in their own solo performances later this year. But it’s all in the head. The purpose of attending Top Class from any Drama teacher’s perspective is to inspire their students to succeed. As soon as students jump this psychological hurdle, only then will they begin to reap the benefits of watching Top Class solos.

It is Sunday night and I knew the longer I left this blog, the more the memory will fade, but I will do my best highlighting aspects of these performances. First up was Nelson Gardner from Bendigo Senior Secondary College performing The Shakepsearean Character. I loved Nelson’s physicality on stage and his comic timing was an absolute delight. His performance was thoroughly entertaining with a good use of rhythm throughout. The script was carefully written and Nelson’s seamless transformation of characters provided food for thought. He successfully used a technique I normally discourage in my classes at Avila, that of moving across the space and quickly becoming the character who was just spoken to in a conversation. Personally, I think it is better to have a separate occasion in the performance where the performer becomes the other character on their own, instead of together swapping roles back and forth, as this can sometimes look clumsy. But, to his credit Nelson pulled this technique off with confidence and I believe it worked.

Second on the program was one of my students, Georgie Pardalis from Avila College performing Helena Rubenstein, the Beauty Queen. I’ve got to be honest, I take no credit whatsoever for Georgie’s great use of accent in this performance. Earlier last year we performed ensembles where the characters were Russian spies, so perhaps a bit of a foreign accent rubbed off on Georgie from there, but the accent was all her own work. I agree with Chief Assessor Philip Norman (compere) in that Georgie’s piece was tightly edited. Sometimes students cannot fully understand when developing their solos how critical editing is to the finished product. And, what’s more, it has to continually occur throughout the developmental process, not just chopping a few minor scenes a week before showtime. A tight piece is normally well edited and believe it or not, assessors can clearly see evidence of editing in the exam room.

In rehearsal, Georgie always struggled to breathe at the right moment, resulting in flat spots with her tone and pitch as she ran out of breath at the end of sentences. I think she mastered this aspect well on performance day as the piece was very text-heavy. I loved Georgie’s use of conflict between Rubenstein and rival Arden and her very effective use of contrast both within and between scenes. Finishing with a bit of pathos was a nice touch, also. Georgie did us proud, but to her credit as a performer, she said to me afterwards she lost focus with her character a few times and had to quickly ‘jump back in’ before anyone noticed. Well, that’s another golden rule of solos, don’t be too harsh on yourself. In this case, I certainly couldn’t spot it, but it shows you how ‘in tune’ she must have been with what she was doing on stage.

Third on the list was Daniel Heron from Haileybury College performing the character of Pride. In the middle of this performance, I was so impressed, I said to myself ‘I’d pay money to see this’ …. and then realised I had! But you know what I mean. This performance was simply sensational. I do not think I have ever seen a student show a more effective example of exaggerated movement in performance in all my teaching career! As a necessary convention for this character, Daniel exaggerated his movements so judiciously, it was scary. We saw excellent use of rhythm and timing of dramatic movements, beautiful use of voice (great tone and diction, throughout), strong characterisation and a nice touch with the ‘whiteface’ and darkened eyes (made even more powerful at the very end with the smearing of the makeup and the blood capsule). As a postscript, I can confirm Daniel certainly had all of my senior Drama students a little frightened (myself included). His presence was ominous and his costume was great (loved the bowler hat). He reminded me of a performer in a seedy underground war-torn nightcub performing vaudeville and cabaret to a smoke-filled room.

Fourth on the program was my own student Grace Berne from Avila College performing the Country Women’s Association Member. Grace and I had a hunch from the very outset in developing this character last year, that there was no mention of comedy on the prescribed structure and that perhaps very few students would interpret it comically. Of course we were hoping this would give us an edge in the exam room by taking risks and attempting to pull this one off in a very humourous manner. If the truth be known, I don’t think Grace interpreted it any other way and maybe she had made her mind up it was going to be comic, very early on.

Let’s put to rest the unfortunate microphone pack incident when it fell to the floor midway through her performance. Poor Grace copped a bit of grief from the stage crew afterwards, as by leaving the microphone pack dangling and hitting the floor, she didn’t please the sound department! A seasoned performer may have gone either way with this one. Sure, it is easier said than done to pick it up and place it in your pocket in character. In her head, Grace reviewed this option. But her performance was highly physical and tightly edited with little room for ammendments midstream. Also, the fact that the pack was actually clipped to the top of the centre rear of her pants, just didn’t make collecting it off the floor and popping it back securely an easy option. Instead she sneakily adjusted a few larger movements from there on, was fully aware of its presence and location whilst continuing to perform and didn’t let the audience know one iota that, as performer, she was at all concerned with what had happened. Sort of like ignoring it, but fully aware of it at the same time, which was just as tricky as collecting it up off the floor as the alternate option. I thought Grace did a great job handling this situation and I applaud her for here mature sense of performance under difficult circumstances.

Back to Grace’s character as the CWA Member. I believe she successfully demonstrated great comic timing, had a well written script and craftily incorporated the song from the musical Chicago into her performance by leaving some words in the chorus unaltered (as they made perfect sense in a new context) and changing others to suit the plot and themes of her scenes. You have no idea how many times Grace rehearsed this performance. To say she was a perfectionist is a serious understatement! Grace also used well what I consider the most difficult (and vaguest by VCAA definition) theatrical convention in ‘lyrical and symbolic’.

Next up was Gabriella Luiz from Toorak College performing Precious Ramotswe. Gotta admit, in retrospect, this had to be one of the toughest characters on the exam last
year. It certainly surprised myself and one of my students in its complexity. Firstly, Gabriella proved to any doubting Drama student or teacher that one can successfully perform an outstanding solo in plain blacks. The deliberate lack of identifying costume, when many students no doubt opted for colourful robes, didn’t undermine her performance at all (however, I would have preferred to have seen her not use the blacks, nevertheless). This solo incorporated a wonderful use of prop in the folded paper. It was used so well for various things and I especially enjoyed the ‘talking mouth’. Gabriella also displayed effective use of accent (although it did appear to waver in and out a little), strong chararacterisation and good physicality throughout her performance.

Sixth on the program was Catherine Roberts from Thomas Carr College performing the character of The Resident. Catherine showed that one can happily perform a solo with little or no props. I enjoyed various scenes being enacted along the line of tape on the floor as she demonstrated good use of caricature and transformation of character in the performance. Aspects of this solo were very entertaining. A highly enjoyable and strong performance, but I would have liked to see a different costume, as the overalls didn’t do much for me.

Catherine was followed by Gemma Kelly from Kilbreda College performing The Shakespearean Character. This solo displayed two fantastic props in the oversized roses (for those of us old enough to remember, they sort of reminded me of the 1981 BBC TV serial of John Wyndham’s post-apocalyptic The Day of the Triffids!). This performance demonstrated a crucial factor when developing solos, in that a prop is relatively useless unless the performer interacts with it and manipulates it, particularly if it is symbolic. What a fantastic use of the petals being used for ‘he loves me, he loves me not’, then the symbolism of blood on the floor/street, followed my a masterful touch of ending the performance with the final petal of ‘he loves me’. The assessors must have also enjoyed the clever and very imaginative use of the performer’s eyes and lips being used in the cut-out holes of one of the rose petals. Nicely done! This was a strong performance by a performer who oozed prior dance experience in the space and wisely used this to her advantage.

Kimberley Ferguson from Brauer College performed Asahino Daigo with confidence. A hint of aerobics experience may have been evident here in a very physical performance. Kimberley showed good use of the main prop in the red rope/cloth and used it well when moving seamlessly between characters and scenes. I loved her expressive skills, excellent use of facial expressions in particular, and accent. There was also comic use of stillness and silence at pivotal plot points which was very effective. I have always connected stillness and silence to pathos and more dramatic pieces, but loved how Kimberley utilised this covention in a very different manner. If it were me, perhaps a more definable costume may have aided characterisation, though.

Aleece MacPhail from Damascus College performed Pride. Sorry, but I didn’t completely get into this performance. Enjoyed the oversized chair as a prop and Aleece obviously had an excellent performance to make it into Top Class, but I found her expressive skills a little unconvincing at times and a bit forced. I didn’t really find her characterisation/s totally believable, but nevertheless a good effort with some lighthearted moments of comedy sprinkled throughout.

Liam O’Kane from Beaconhills College had ‘star of the future’ written all over him! This hilarious rendition of The Security Guard character left much of the audience in fits of laughter. I absolutely loved his use of mini scenes along the stage apron involving the Queen and this performance must have simply knocked the assessors off their seats in the exam room! It demonstrated such maturity in the writing of the script and competence in the use of very strong expressive skills. His characterisations were consistent throughout and this was a highly entertaining and sophisticated performance that was, yes, comedy! Students often think comic performances lack substance. Well, this solo just threw that theory out the window. When you sit and watch a performance and crave for more of it once it has finished, you know it’s good. A fantastic solo!

The final performance was by James Simpson of Yarra Valley Grammar school with The Enemy Alien. You’ve got to hand it to James, as performing a piece timed perfectly to background music and sound effects not only takes a lot of courage, but precision. I certainly advise students against this, as the risk of performing too fast or slow on exam day puts you out of sync with your recording. But James proved it can be done successfully and he was clearly a confident performer. I also liked his vocal tones and expressive skills. This performance was quite physical in nature, demonstrating some dance experience(?) and effective transformation of place and mood.

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3 Responses

  1. Anonymous says:

    Fair enough. In my defence, the prescribed conventions were characiture and parody, so I wasn’t going for convincing. Each to their own… as it happens I hated the chair! I think it’s decaying in my brother’s shed somewhere. I thought the other performances were amazing.

  2. Anonymous says:

    Thanks for the honest review Justin. As one of the teachers of these students who didn’t get to see Top Class, but only heard about it, it was interesting to read your observations. It would be great to hear some students comments too!

  3. Anonymous says:

    I know the one thing I’ll be doing in my solo this year is definitely using a prop. From the 2 out of the 3 concerts I saw, everyone used a prop! What happened in the 2nd concert?

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