VCE Drama 2015 Written Examination: A Question of Style
VCE Drama students recently sat their final year written examination in Drama. In my opinion this was the hardest Drama examination in many years.
Section A – Question 1 – Non-naturalistic Solo Performance
The stimulus for Question 1 involved four images and a piece of text. Many teachers will have recognised the Shaun Tan image from his book The Red Tree and the publicity image for Andrew Bovell’s 2008 play When The Rain Stops Falling. Of course, students were not expected to have any knowledge of the original image source or context.
The five parts in Question 1 tested students’ knowledge of various dramatic elements, play-making techniques and performance skills in response to the provided stimuli. This question explores what happens when a person must deal with the unexpected and is forced to make changes when their reality alters in significant ways. Several of the image stimuli were surreal, with three of the four images involving fish.
Many parts to Question 1 were similar to previous years’ VCAA Drama exams and the sample exam for the current study design. “Symbolic use of object” and “non-naturalistic use of sound” in part d would have challenged some students. “One transformation technique” in part d should only have challenged students who had not sat previous years’ VCAA exams as practice, as this phrase has appeared on the Drama exam for the past few years. However, the term “transformation technique” and a relevant descriptor for it is not in the Drama study design. Examples of how this can be achieved are not in the Drama study design either, but instead are scattered amongst comments in numerous examination reports.
I would like to see:
- The term “transformation technique” included in the Drama study design with an appropriate descriptor to help define the term.
- Examples of various transformation techniques, such as those found in examination reports – morphing, melding, giving and receiving, using words, sounds, gestures, and objects – included in the Drama study design with descriptors for each, as I have attempted here on The Drama Teacher.
Section A – Question 2 – Devised Non-naturalistic Ensemble Performance
The current Drama study design lists Brecht’s Epic Theatre, Grotowski’s Poor Theatre and Artaud’s Theatre of Cruelty in the revised descriptor for Non-naturalism:
Non-naturalism is a broad term for all performance styles that are not dependent on the life-like representation of everyday life and is based on the work of Antonin Artaud (Theatre of Cruelty), Bertolt Brecht (Epic Theatre) and Jerzy Grotowski (Poor Theatre). It can allow an actor to explore and present ideas or stories conceptually. Non-naturalism does not seek to re-create life as it is lived, but is focused more on passing comment on, or responding to, aspects of the real world. Non-naturalistic performance can occur in any space and is not dependent on specific resources. Non-naturalistic performance work might include the manipulation of both naturalistic and non-naturalistic conventions.
When the new Drama study design was implemented in 2014, the VCAA published the Summary of Changes to the Study Design document. Here, the work of Brecht, Grotowski and Artaud as essential learning in the VCE Drama course is made clearer:
Non-naturalism is defined as a broad performance style based on the work of Artaud, Brecht and Grotowski and defined by the non-naturalist (sic) use of stagecraft, acting style of the performers, use of dramatic elements and use of conventions including transformation of character and/or time and/or place and/or object. Across the study it is expected that learning activities will introduce students to the characteristics of the work of Artaud, Brecht and Grotowski and, as appropriate, to other practitioners whose work features non-naturalistic performance styles.
The current Assessment Handbook for the Drama course also states in relation to Unit 3 Outcome 1 (the development and presentation of a devised non-naturalistic ensemble performance) that teachers need to:
ensure the student … has knowledge and understanding of non-naturalistic styles of performance including the work of Artaud, Brecht, Grotowski and other practitioners as appropriate to the stimulus material
Previous Drama examinations have offered students the choice of naming one non-naturalistic drama practitioner and/or performance style they wish to explore in Question 2. This occurred on the VCAA Drama written examination in all years from 2007 to 2013 in the previous incarnation of the VCE Drama course. In 2011, students were asked to choose any two non-naturalistic drama practitioners/performance styles. Similar to past years, the sample Drama exam for the current Drama study design and the 2014 VCE Drama written examination both asked for the candidate to list and discuss one non-naturalistic performance style of their choice in Question 2. It is clear a pattern has been established.
The 2015 Drama examination, however, specifically listed three drama practitioners and their associated performance styles – Brecht’s Epic Theatre, Grotowski’s Poor Theatre and Artaud’s Theatre of Cruelty. Candidates were then asked to discuss conventions associated with these styles in relation to the creation of a non-naturalistic ensemble performance using provided stimuli. This represented a jump from previous years’ Drama examinations in that the three non-naturalistic drama practitioners and their associated performance styles listed in the Drama study design were specifically mentioned on the exam paper. It would be fair to say based on numerous recent exam papers, this was unexpected and a number of VCE Drama teachers and students were caught out. After this year’s Drama exam, one thing is now very clear – each of Epic Theatre, Poor Theatre and Theatre of Cruelty need to be studied in considerable detail, in both theory and practice, and with equal emphasis in the VCE Drama course in order to fully prepare students for the November written examination.
If you are a regular reader of The Drama Teacher, you may know that for the past two years I have prescribed three groups of students in my Unit 3 Drama class, each creating a devised non-naturalistic ensemble on these three different performance styles. The Epic Theatre group develop an ensemble performance from the same structure as the Poor Theatre and the Theatre of Cruelty groups. Whilst my students undertook theory and practical work on each of these three styles in both Year 11 and Year 12 Drama, in preparation for the VCE Drama written examination it is fair to say some of my students may have prepared more heavily for one of these performance styles, in anticipation of choosing to write about it on the exam. But this year the choice was not given. Thankfully, if caught off guard, some of my students drew on images in their memory of their classmates performing in one of the other performance styles for the Unit 3 ensemble performances, giving them a practical recollection under performance conditions of the various conventions of these styles in order to respond to Questions 2c, 2d and 2e. While these three questions were definitely appropriate to the relevant performance styles, responses with 8, 12 and 14 lines definitely required a thorough knowledge of the convention being discussed in order to receive full marks. I highly recommend other teachers experimenting with three ensemble groups in Unit 3 Drama, each performing the same structure in different styles (Epic Theatre, Theatre of Cruelty, and Poor Theatre).
I would like to see:
- Stronger and clearer language used in the VCE Drama study design in regards to the work of various non-naturalistic drama practitioners and performance styles that must be studied as a minimum in Units 3 and 4 Drama. For example:
- replace the words “based on the work of Antonin Artaud (Theatre of Cruelty), Bertolt Brecht (Epic Theatre) and Jerzy Grotowski (Poor Theatre)” with “Across the study it is expected that learning activities will introduce students to the characteristics of the work of Artaud, Brecht and Grotowski and, as appropriate, to other practitioners whose work features non-naturalistic performance styles” as found in the Summary of Changes to the Study Design document, or “knowledge and understanding of non-naturalistic styles of performance including the work of Artaud, Brecht, Grotowski and other practitioners” currently found in the Assessment Handbook.
The VCE Drama study design is the primary document teachers refer to and critical information such as this needs to be located within it.
Section B – Questions 1-6 – Non-naturalistic Performance Analysis
With a number of options available, once again this year we saw three short answer questions on the prescribed plays identical for all play choices, plus one extended response question unique to each play. My students saw I Call My Brothers and Beautiful One Day, responding to one of these on the exam paper. These questions should have got students thinking very hard about the performance/s they saw in Unit 3 Drama.
I have to say, while asking about an actor’s facial expressions in a performance is a valuable part of the VCE Drama course, for an expressive skill involving such detail, not all students’ situations were identical. For example, my students saw Beautiful One Day from the second-back row of the 400-seat Whitehorse Centre theatre. Not exactly a close-up view of the performance in order to analyse an actor’s facial expressions! Plus, Beautiful One Day was a powerful story performed by a cast largely consisting of Indigenous Palm Island residents, and not professional actors. Performed in the style of documentary and verbatim theatre, Beautiful One Day also was not your typical ‘theatre’ performance and facial expressions by cast members were not a highlight of this performance.
All of the questions in this section of the Drama exam were rigourous, which is a good thing. For Beautiful One Day, however, there was obvious overlap between the unique question in part d involving the convention of direct address and the generic actor-audience relationship question in part c. While an actor-audience relationship should be largely determined by conventions belonging to the performance style, the performance venue is also relevant. I found it interesting that the actor-audience relationship was asked to be discussed for a number of plays performed at multiple venues in different spaces, where I imagine student responses may vary widely in response to the same play performance.