The VCE Drama solo performance process can be daunting for many students, so this post aims to offer students and teachers some direction on how to best tackle this rigorous and highly academic performance exam. It should also prove relevant to teachers and students of younger year levels, or those studying drama and theatre in states of Australia other than Victoria plus elsewhere in the world, as much of this information is transferable to similar tasks in other curricula.
The Victorian Certificate of Education annually produces the solo performance examination for students undertaking Unit 4 Drama in their final semester of secondary school. This year’s exam is due to be published soon. For those unfamiliar with the task, I recommend looking at last year’s exam before reading on: 2015 VCE Drama Solo Performance Examination.
A number of years ago, I posted a series of seven articles on The Drama Teacher offering advice for the solo performance process. You can find these by trawling through the archives using the search function on this website. This post aims to summarise the most relevant parts of those previous posts into a single article while updating information at the same time.
The solo performance process begins with familiarity. Students need to be familiar with previous years’ solo performance exams before they begin their current journey. Pay close attention to:
- the overall structure of how the exam characters are set out (opening sentence/s, dot point one, dot point two, dot point three)
- commonly used terminology (create, recreate) and the use of the singular and plural
- prescribed non-naturalistic conventions for all characters (transformation of time, place, character and object)
- the types of sources exam characters are drawn from (fiction, film, history etc.)
The current solo performance examination, when published, should not look foreign to the student when seeing it for the first time. A sense of familiarity with new and exciting content is what a student needs to see. Many (but not all) students these days perform past Unit 4 Drama solo exams in Unit 2 Drama as part of their Australian Drama course, so some students may already be aware of much of this information by the time they enter their final year of Drama at high school.
If you want to gain an edge over the competition, then start early. The earliest possible time to start thinking about the actual exam content is the exam publication date. Students can access the exam themselves, or wait for their teacher to give it to them in class at later date. The 2016 solo performance examination is due to be published here in the April bulletin on Thursday 14 April, but may appear earlier than this date on the Victorian Curriculum and Assessment Authority (VCAA) Drama exam page. The exam paper is published two to three months before most students will begin working on the task with their teachers, and there is another three months or more after this time before the exams are performed for assessment. This represents ample time for students to start research behind the scenes. It is common in my Year 12 Drama class for students to be researching solo exam characters in their spare time for enjoyment even before they have performed their Unit 3 Drama ensemble performance. Who said you have to wait until you complete one major task in Drama before you start another? Why can’t you start preparing for Unit 4 Drama before you finish Unit 3 Drama if the final performance exam is available?
To the uninitiated, exam instructions look boring, but these are a very specific set of rules outlining examination conditions, how to complete the Statement of Intention form given to examiners on exam day, advice for students in the exam room and other important notes. Pay particular attention to the maximum exam time for a performance and the advice under subheadings for each section of the exam structure, including what constitutes the opening sentences and dot points one, two and three.
Past Examination Reports
At this point, a student should be familiar (at least in theory) with the components and guidelines for a practical solo performance exam. Now is the appropriate time to read several (not just one) past examination reports. These documents usually take the format of general comments, followed by specific comments for each of the characters on that year’s exam. Even if a student simply reads the general comments section on a number of past solo performance examination reports from the assessors, it will offer so much valuable information as to what assessors were looking for in candidates’ performances, what they loathed seeing, what inspired them, what scored high marks etc.
The solo performance examination assessment criteria has already been published prior to the current exam publication date. It is set for an extended period of time (in this case the years 2014-2018, equivalent to the accreditation period for the current version of the VCE Drama study). Before embarking on choosing a character for this year’s exam, students should familiarise themselves with the assessment criteria the examiners will use. This will normally require unpacking by the teacher with further explanation in the classroom.
The Unit 4 Drama solo performance examination normally has ten character structures to choose from. My students know one of the most important aspects of this exam is choosing the right character. Don’t choose a character that requires you reading a long novel if you don’t enjoy reading (because you’ll probably need to read it at least twice), or a musical theatre character if you can’t sing and dance. One needs to go with their strengths to a certain extent. You’d be a fool not to. My students present me with two or three character choices that interest them. We then discuss the pros and cons of each choice. I leave the final decision with the student. The first part of research actually occurs at this point. Many students just throw away potential character choices with little care. How do you know if a character is unsuitable for you if you don’t do at least a little bit of research on it first? My top students always do some research on every exam character, discount a number of the characters during this process, then follow my guidelines and narrow it down to a final two or three choices, eventually resting with one character after teacher consultation.
Once a character is chosen for the exam, the student needs to do some heavy research. Firstly, remember not everything can be located on the Internet! Students wishing to achieve a high grade in this task go old school and visit municipal and even university libraries. It is not uncommon for one or two of my students to get an older sibling to borrow several books on their behalf from a university library, while others sometimes visit the State Library of Victoria on a weekend to view books and take notes (no borrowing). Occasionally, a primary source may be available (a living person relating to the character) and an interview may need to occur.
When using the web, my advice is to use it wisely. Manipulating how search engines such as Google produce their list of results for you can be very valuable. For example:
- choose search words carefully
- change search words if unhappy with the results
- refine searches by using the search tools in Google (available after the initial search) such as refining time periods, locations etc
- place a search phrase inside ” ” for the exact phrase only to appear in results
- image search (underrated when researching solos) – pictures are so valuable
- follow the trail of relevant images by searching the pages the images are located on, leading to potentially more useful information
- search only .edu websites for potentially more academic results > search > site.edu or site.edu.au followed by the search phrase
- Use YouTube for research – particularly good for learning regional accents for characters
Effective research directly relates to the quality of a student’s script (the next stage) and ultimately their final performance. My advice is not to underestimate the importance of the research phase. Examiners are always impressed with solid research evident through the candidate’s performance.
Scripting vs Improvising
Both scripting and improvising are play-making techniques students have at their disposal during the rehearsal phase. My concern about too much improvising is a potential lack of depth and sophistication. My fear about too much scripting is a potential inability for the student to be flexible with the highly structured self-written script. I do prescribe my students write a script, but highly encourage the freedom of improvisation in rehearsals. A healthy mix of both improvising and scripting may well produce the best results, but ultimately this is up to what suits the individual student best. As long as candidates are aware of the advantages and potential pitfalls of both of these techniques.
When scripting, far and away the best method I can advise teachers and students is to use Google Docs:
- sign up for a free Google account
- each student uses a Google Doc of their own to write their script (also good for brainstorming, research etc)
- the student shares the teacher in to the Google Doc so that both see the developing script
- for the teacher to edit a student script, the student must allow the teacher editing rights
- the student and teacher can write comments about parts of the script in the side column
- the student then marks teacher comments as ‘resolved’ when suggested changes are made
- the teacher can check what content has been altered or added to the script by the student
- all changes are time stamped, so good students can be praised and others encouraged to do better
- teachers can check student solo scripts 24/7, as they are always online and available
- if a teacher and student are both on the script document at the same time, use the chat facility!
- Google Docs can easily be exported to PDF in an instant and printed for rehearsal use.
Get Up and Rehearse!
Almost without exception, my best students over the years have done heavy research and written sophisticated scripts for their solo performances. But this doesn’t mean they were a talking head the entire performance. Nor does it mean they spent weeks and weeks researching to the detriment of valuable rehearsal time. Sometimes students do too little research and get up and rehearse too early, often resulting in shallow performances that lack the necessary depth the examiners are expecting. However, students can also spend too much time researching and scripting. Whether it be fear, anxiety, a lack of confidence, or simply an inability to manage time effectively, students need to be guided by their teachers as to the appropriate time to get up and start rehearsing in the classroom. Initial work is often clumsy for everyone, but at least the student is getting up and having a go. Refinement comes later in the process.
Focus and Discipline
When developing a solo performance, the more capable students understand what artistic discipline is. You cannot be disciplined with an individual practical task in Drama unless you can manage independent learning. This task requires the teacher to act more as a facilitator, going around the classroom assisting as many students as possible in a single lesson. The very nature of this format requires the student to work on their own, free of distractions in the middle of what is most likely a very noisy classroom. This will test any student’s focus. The best students cope with this. Often, these are the very students who are rewarded with the highest grades in the solo performance task in the class, because their preparation was effective.
Terrible word, right? Then students need to start enjoying the solo performance task and stop thinking of scripting, editing, rehearsing, costume making, and refining at home between scheduled Drama classes as homework. This isn’t homework. This is fun! But be warned, A+’s are not spawned from class-only rehearsals. Students should be equaling class time with home time during the play-making phase of the solo performance exam. The best students put in as much time at home as they do at school on their solos, every single week.
The solo performance process requires students to be analytical and organised, as well as highly imaginative and creative. At first glance, these skills appear at odds with each other, but this is not necessarily the case. Students can use all their creative processes simultaneously with time management skills. Write checklists, set goals, and meet deadlines for tasks to be completed. Students need to manage their own time for much of this task and marry their personal timelines with their teacher’s timeline so the task is ready for performance on exam day. We’ve all heard stories of students improvising and winging it on exam day. I don’t believe a word of it. The solo performance exam task is too mammoth to be developed at the last minute. Adequate time needs to exist in rehearsals for scripting, editing, re-writing, refining scenes and showing classmates, critical friends and teachers for effective feedback.
Risk-taking is often frowned upon in most academic circles and the business world. Why would you want to take a risk when you can play it safe? I usually ask my students why they would possibly want to perform their character like the other thirty interpretations the examiners have seen that week? As long as a student adheres to the rules set out on the examination paper, risks should be encouraged. But they must be calculated and well-considered risks, not careless or clumsy risks that work against the candidate instead of for them in the exam room. Teachers are always a student’s best source of assistance and advice in this area.
Sell Your Creative Product!
Exam day is a time for a student to be proud of what they have created and achieved with their solo performance. Most students are nervous on exam day, even the confident ones. But the best students know how to channel this nervousness into positive energy in the exam room. Students need to sell their creative product to the examiners and impress them with the quality of their solo performance.