On making English Lit students get up and perform – really well

Those of you who know a bit about me, my research and my teaching know that I am famous (particularly in the Department of English and Writing Studies at Western University) for making students in my honours-level English classes perform, all the time, for marks and not for marks. The point of our performances is to discover the story that human bodies tell about play scripts, which is often a very different story from the one that the script alone can tell. When I began teaching at Western in autumn 2005 I became quickly notorious as the woman who made groups of students stage scene studies and withstand Q&A sessions with peers every week. Every week! But the information, the pleasure, the strength, the joy that work provided was and has been pretty much endless, certainly for me and likely for a number of students now long graduated who have been kind enough to keep in touch. (A lot of those students just killed their Finals to boot, thanks in part to inspiring peer performances in class.)

When I moved to Queen Mary, University of London in autumn 2012, the shape of my teaching changed. A Drama Department is different from an English Department in so many ways; principal among these at QM was the focus on political, socially aware embodiment we promoted in every class we taught on our Honours BA in Drama program. In my studio classes I had to develop different approaches to teaching familiar texts: instead of relishing occasional performance, I had to figure out how to balance expected practice work with small-group learning about the theory behind the making. In my seminar classes, meanwhile, I had to find ways to incorporate performance research experiments without taking too much time away from our class discussions of readings, and without making those experiments seem like banal, poor relations to the more intensive work completed in studio. (I actually don’t think I succeeded on this front; something to aspire to in future, then.)

So goodbye said I to the weekly scene studies familiar from Western – there just wasn’t place nor reason for them at QM. But fresh challenges – namely, teaching critical and political approaches to performance to freaked-out first-year students who had just finished A-level devising and had no idea what was about to hit them – prompted fresh learning, for me as much as for them. I thought hard about how to shift the model I’d been using at Western to suit a QM first year audience. I met with the brilliant folks at Thinking/Writing, part of the QMUL library’s stable of resources. And I talked to people in my department – strong and well-loved teachers all – about existing best practices.

This is how, in place of my old, weekly scene study scheme (better adapted to students for whom performance is newly illuminating as an approach to textual exegesis), I came to institute a pair of mandatory performance workshop days for my first year class, “Performance Texts”. In each of these workshops, a different group of students (actually, four groups of students per day – it was a huge class) would present 10 minutes of work inspired by a specified text. (Including, for example, Kane’s Blasted, Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus, and Fugard’s The Island – eclectic as a mix, but all politically and emotionally challenging works.) One workshop happened earlier in the term, and was keyed to the first assignment; the second workshop happened closer to Christmas, and was generally a lighter affair because students knew what to expect (and that it would be fun!). In both cases, and across both classes in two different academic years, I can honestly say that I had four of the best teaching days of my life.

The workshop system – aided by the suite of fantastic exercises, including both free-writes based on students’ “critical moments” from each performance, and group discussion followed by a performer Q&A, both developed in conjunction with Kelly Peake from Thinking/Writing – worked better than my weekly scene study scheme ever had. Why? Basic chemistry: students were sharing a hot-house community environment, in which they were literally all in it together for two or so hours, and in which they had to work together and individually in a variety of guided ways. The energy in the room was high, the students’ level of engagement palpably strong, and the level of discourse impressive for a group of first-years, thanks in large measure to the writing exercises Kelly suggested we use to guide students’ engagement, channel their energy, and prompt targeted discussion. So, when I returned to Western this past autumn and resumed my place at the front of the Department of English and Writing Studies’ honours-level modern theatre class, I decided to import my new performance workshop plan rather than revert to the old scene study framework.

I knew straight off the bat that the biggest challenges I’d face in this new environment would be a brace of English and Writing Studies students who would be a) terrified of performing, and b) uncertain what was expected of them on this important day called Performance Workshop #1. The old scene study scheme had strengths and weaknesses, and one of its strengths was the normalisation of performance in my English classes. Performing is what you did, regularly; learning from class performances happened every week. Students figured out quickly how to read performance effectively – you had to or you were screwed. Under the new workshop system the stakes were oddly heightened, even though I try to chill the stakes in class whenever possible, the better to encourage creative thinking and risk taking. But I couldn’t avoid the fact that our first performance day would be loaded with risk for half of the class, the half that was expected to get up and show us something good.

How did we prepare for the big day? My TA, Madison Bettle, and I worked hard in the lead-up weeks to help students start acclimatising to the differences between reading plays as books and reading plays in performance. We looked at some clips from the outrageous, compelling, controversial Berlin Schaubühne adaptation of A Doll’s House, and we talked about what small moments of gesture, speech, light/sound change, or movement might do to communicate key meanings. (These small moments we named, after Kelly Peake’s suggestion, “critical moments” – moments in performance that create a spark, generate learning, provoke something worth pondering further.) Next we held a “scratch” day, playing with ad-hoc performances from Chekhov’s The Seagull, the text set for the first performance workshop. Students were unsure what to do, but the stakes were low: we were just playing, in order to see how student performances might work to make new textual meaning. Then, we watched Simon Stephens’ and Carrie Cracknell’s brilliant A Doll’s House for the Young Vic on Digital Theatre Plus and held a class interview with Hattie Morahan, the whip-smart, gregarious and generous star of that production; we worked on gaining deeper insights into how critical moments on stage are built, and the many ways we might perceive their meanings. And then, just like that, it was time for Performance Workshop #1.

The big day was this past Tuesday, and I have to say it was superb: another exhilarating day for me as a teacher, and a pleasure to watch, especially as students who were not performing communicated the inspiration their peers’ presentations sparked in them. Although in their reflection posts on our class blog the student performers generally talked about the stresses of getting together enough beforehand, of not having enough time over Thanksgiving weekend to prepare, etc, they also talked intelligently and with honest self-reflexivity about what they might do better next time, and how. Sure, some of the performances were more “theatrical” than others, but all demonstrated a level of commitment to the thought work expected of them that impressed me and Madison and generated plenty of healthy class discussion. Students wrote their own scenes, re-imagined Nina as a real seagull (and a male seagull to boot!), and created a retrospective of Irina Arkádina that gave depth, empathy, and warmth to a character we had too easily dismissed in class discussion as self-involved and retrograde. I’m about to turn from this post to preparing the groups’ marks for their work (gang, if you’re reading, they are coming!), and I’m thrilled that I’ll be able to reward these thoughtful student actors for strong and committed and thoughtful performances that genuinely pushed each of them, productively, out of their comfort zones and into a space of new learning.

With gratitude to all y’all in English 3556!


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