As many readers of The Drama Teacher know all too well, the solo performance examination in Unit 4 of the Drama study in the Victorian Certificate of Education (VCE) is one of the most daunting tasks a student can undertake. It is indeed a monster, where students choose one of several prescribed exam structures to research, write a script for, rehearse and perform.
For several months the student is both actor and director, blocking themselves into the space, using their drama teacher as mentor and advisor, while as artist they create the work. Most importantly, when a VCE student walks into that exam room in October to see 35% of their final year’s mark in Drama disappear in a 7-minute whirlwind of nerves and excitement, they want to feel they truly own their creation.
At the end of the day, the solo performance exam in VCE Drama is a masterpiece. It is a brilliantly designed task that demands academic rigour from even the most capable student. The sense of achievement at the end of the task (regardless of the final grade) makes the solo performance a challenging, yet rewarding activity over many weeks.
Some of you may have been fortunate to see a wonderful performance by Nick Eynaud of Loyola College, Watsonia, at this year’s Top Class Drama concert (Friday) and later at the Top Acts concert, as well. Nick’s polished and sophisticated performance of The Performer from the 2010 VCE Drama solo performance examination structures won rave reviews from students and teachers, alike. But have you ever wondered what is needed to create such a fabulous performance and exactly what was required over several months of preparation? Below is an article by Nick that charts his journey, step by step, in the creation of one of the year’s best solo performances. Students visiting The Drama Teacher should find it both informative and inspirational. I highly recommend VCE Drama teachers get their students to give this article a good read in the lead-up to the creation of their own solo performance in Drama.
The VCE Drama Solo Performance by Nick Eynaud
I attended one of the Top Class concerts when I was in Yr 11, and as each fantastic performer finished their piece I became more and more nervous. By the end of the performance, I felt like giving up Drama. I couldn’t see myself creating a solo anywhere near as good as what I’d seen that day but as I spoke to more and more students who were doing, and had done, VCE Drama I was surprised to find that every single one, without exception, had experienced the same ‘I’ll NEVER be able to do that’ feeling when watching the Top Class concerts. In the end, I made the best decision I could have. I decided I would work towards achieving my best in the drama solo, instead of aiming to be like those I had seen. As it turned out I finished up with a solo I was proud of and it earned me not only an A+ but a place in the Top Class concerts and then Top Acts Concert.
Here are my tips, for each step of the drama solo process.
Choosing the solo
- Before you look at the solos, think about what you WANT to do in your solo? You’re the only one who’s going to be in that exam room with those assessors on the day. What would you LIKE to be doing on that day? Something serious that explores and issue that means something to you? Something historical and fascinating? Something unusual and strange to help you stand out from the crowd?
- Go with your gut instinct, even if you get nothing from the initial read through of the structures. Research a little bit about them, see if anything grabs you then. If you really struggle to choose, spend a night on each solo. Research a little bit and then come up with 30 seconds of drama for each one. Hopefully you’ll discover something you didn’t see before and the right solo will come screaming out at you.
Personal note – I wanted something funny, something that would allow me to sing and dance, something interesting and something that immediately sparked my imagination. I was very lucky to find ‘Climate Change: The Musical’ as one of the topics for the solos. However, the choice may not be so clear for you.
The most important point is that research does not have to be boring!
- Start with your stimulus given to you on your prescribed structure. It may be a book, a webpage, a movie or a painting. Whatever it is, find out everything you can about it. It is very important that you show directly in your solo that you have been influenced by the stimulus. List the key ideas suggested by the stimulus. Your prescribed structure will dictate several ideas that must be covered. In your solo. List these. What are the connections between the two lists?
- If your solo is about a well known topic, look up jokes or funny comics about it on the internet. You will most definitely be able to use anything you find that you really like.
- Look for references to the ideas in your prescribed structure in other literature or movies and TV shows.
Personal note – one way in which I referenced my stimulus material was taking a spoken line about a frog in a boiling pot from ‘An Inconvenient Truth’ and dramatising it, acting as the frog and illustrating this metaphor.
This is the most difficult part of the solo process. It is very important to remember you will create some of the worst drama work you have ever created in the first few weeks. Do not stress if your solo seems impossible at this point. If you stick with it and don’t give up, your work will grow until you suddenly have so much material that you’ll have to cut back what seems like almost all of it.
- Get a folio/notebook/scrapbook, there is no way you will remember everything without one.
- Start coming up with little scenarios, create characters, design a costume, create a movement sequence ANYTHING. Just start doing it. Most people will spend too much time sitting on the floor saying ‘Oh, I just don’t know what to do!’ This is the biggest waste of time. Even if you just sit and talk with someone who is doing another solo, they may say something that will spark an idea. Write down anything you come up with on the first few pages of your book.
- Start to script things, get them up on their feet. Drama classes are a great time to try a hundred different ways of staging a scene. It is very important to be working with your prescribed structure. Your performance style, dramatic element and theatrical convention will clearly steer you in the right direction, DON’T ignore them, they are worth a fair chunk of your mark.
- Work out the big picture. It’s time to work out exactly what you want to do with your solo. This is no time to be vague, make a decision and stick to it. If you spend half of your rehearsal time working without knowing what you’re trying to tell the audience and how you want to make them feel, then you’re wasting a lot of time and energy.
Pick a prop early in the process and work with it all the time. I’ve seen solos where you can just tell the prop was jammed in there at the last moment and has very little relevance.
- Walk around your house, pick up any items that are of interest to you. Try them all out. Most schools should have some sort of collection of props. Go and have a look and play with all the things there. The prop does not have to be relevant to the solo itself at all. I saw a brilliant solo last year where a girl used a candle as 100 different things, but never as a candle. She made her audience forget it was actually a candle.
- When you find the right prop it should feel right. When you pick up the right prop, you should suddenly get a great idea about how you could use it. Never try to force a prop into the solo you have already created. You may have to change a few things around. Let the prop generate ideas for you.
Personal note – I didn’t have a prop for weeks. I tried with all sorts of crazy things and had almost settled on a silk scarf when I brought in a top hat to be a part of my costume. It suddenly occurred to me that this could be my prop and about 4 new ideas instantly popped into my head. I decided I would cut the top surface of the hat off, so that it was a flap that could open and close. When my friend Alex stuck her hand through it and said ‘cuckoo, cuckoo’ I knew I had found the perfect prop.
Bringing It Together
One day you will turn up to class, ready to come up with another 5 seconds of work and the teacher will out of the blue announce to the class ‘Only six weeks to go guys!’ Don’t cry! Of course you will feel completely overwhelmed at this point but do your best not to let it get to you. Forgive yourself for a day or two of creative paralysis where you achieve nothing – it’s part of the process but do not indulge in hysterics where you are so “stressed” you do nothing for weeks. Keep creating!
The day will come when you realise you have so much material you have to cut back.
- It doesn’t all have to be scenes. The best drama solos always have little segues between scenes that make them smooth and interesting.
- Motif is one of the most interesting pieces of drama you can use. Have a repeating idea throughout your solo. It is the perfect way to keep the audience (the assessors) engaged with your solo and can be very interestingly symbolic.
Personal note – I used the cuckoo clock idea with my hand being a bird popping out of my hat. Each time it popped out, I made a different warning/alarm sound and they grew in volume and emergency. I would then follow each one with a statement showing people ignoring the warning (we’ve got plenty of time, turn that damn racket off etc). This was one of the parts of my solo the assessors liked the most.
By this point, some people have half an hour of material (it’s not as impressive as it sounds, most of it won’t be very good) and some have just enough. It is a very good idea to be over time at this point. I suggest having about 15 minutes of good material before you start polishing and cutting back.
Remember, you only have 7 minutes. They really do put a 7 minute timer on the second you start talking, if that timer goes off they will not let you continue. If you haven’t covered one of the dot points, or shown everything you need to show and the timer goes off, you could lose a LOT of marks.
- Read the assessors guide to learn from the previous year’s students’ mistakes.
- Make your solo go for somewhere near 6 minutes and 30 seconds, less if possible. This looks like such a short amount of time for all the work you’ve put in, but you can fit so much into 6 minutes.
- Start cutting down. Type out your full script on the computer. Reduce the dialogue as much as possible. The drama assessors hate too much talking. Say the vital things, say the funniest things, the most poignant and the most relevant things. It can feel really hard to sacrifice your work but you have to be brutal.
- Rehearse your solo until it is over rehearsed and then rehearse it 40 more times. It really does show. One of the things you always notice at Top Class is that every solo looks so polished, rehearsed and smooth that you barely notice the odd character transformations and can clearly follow the disjointed time sequences.
- Teachers tell you that your solo should be finished and ready to go about 4 weeks before the solo assessment day. We all know this is highly unlikely. Of course by 4 weeks out you should be rehearsing like crazy. Adding little bits, getting rid of other little bits. Realistically your solo should be ready 2 or 3 days before the assessment so you can spend those last few days just running it over and over until you couldn’t possibly forget any of it.
Personal note – I admit the night before the drama solo I cut out two segues because I was worried it would go too long. It was the right decision.
So many students make the mistake of neglecting this part of their preparation. Far too many students opt for theatre blacks thinking it is neutral or professional. It is seldom either.
- Take some time to pick the right costume. Experiment.
- Symbolism is an important element in many prescribed structures and costume is an ideal way to meet that criterion.
- Do not wear theatre blacks (or black leggings) unless it is particularly appropriate for your character.
- It clearly stated on the assessors report last year that the drama assessors want students to be more careful with their costume selection. Your costume will be seen the whole time so make it interesting, appropriate and symbolic.
Personal note – I chose to have a symbolic costume for my solo. I decided to dress in the style of the ‘tramp clown’ I picked earthy coloured suit pants and blazer, then put coloured patches all over them, I wore rainbow striped socks that I destroyed with scissors and dirt and I wore iconic ‘tramp clown’ makeup. I wrote on my statement of intention that I had made my costume symbolic of the earth, once beautiful but destroyed over time due to neglect and mistreatment.
On The Day
- Your solo is done. If you know it is the best you can do then try not to worry about screwing up. Your nerves will show. Be determined to perform it exactly as you have dozens of times in rehearsal. Drama is always so much more interesting if you’re enjoying it.
- Arrive early, not on time.
- Get ready slowly.
- Warm up.
- Walk through your solo.
- Don’t indulge any sudden inspiration to add or change anything
To help with nerves, put yourself in the assessors’ shoes. They aren’t waiting for you to screw up. How wonderful it must be for them to watch a solo they can just sit back, enjoy and write 7, 7, 7, 7, 7. Go in there and show them exactly why you spent all those months working so hard, doing all that rehearsal and sacrificing all that time reading this ridiculously long article.
I’ll see you next year at Top Acts. Chookas!
Article by Nick Eynaud. Images and article published with author’s permission.