Tuesday, 27 October 2009

Living Newspaper

I've always been fascinated by Living Newspaper. A theatrical form presenting factual information on current events to a popular audience, made famous by the Federal Theatre project in the 1930's (amongst other incarnations). But more than that, Living Newspaper has historically urged social action, creating propaganda by using agit-prop theatre and multimedia.

The links to Brecht and his work are obvious and it's difficult to discuss this without alluding to his work and style of Epic Theatre. I remember sitting at University during my Applied Theatre degree like a sponge, drinking in all the information. As a practitioner I had long believed that Drama had powerful social influence. But Brecht was an example of a man who truly embodied these beliefs. Living Newspaper was an example of this idea in practise.

More than anything it is an example of Drama making ideas/thoughts/information accessible for all. An ides that is very common - conference after conference, workshop after workshop, class after class is concerned with using Drama to open up a topic, Drama in the classroom, Drama in the Community and using Drama as a tool for change. All the way back to pioneers like Dorothy Heathcote and Gavin Bolton who believed Drama could be used in any classroom, and on any subject.

Anyway, back to Living Newspaper. I've used my own version a lot recently. Taking the basic principles and incorporating a body of work by North East Theatre practitioner Sheila Stewart who works with children and adults with learning difficulties getting them to create their own environments using newspaper and masking tape.

The level 1 Theatre Arts students and Joint Hons students have been creating pieces of theatre using newspaper articles as stimulus, finding other supporting material, then creating props, costumes, set (and even giant parachutes) out of newspaper.

The topics were as diverse as Social networking and body image, to pressure, the Iraq war and paedophilia. But I was always amazed with the sensitivity these students showed about their chosen focus, and how much opinion they shared on each and every article.

It makes me pleased to be a Drama teacher, because the students in level one begin to question the world. And this is what makes their transition to Higher Education so exciting - so tangible. For me it's good to see that students are still being driven by their curiosity and belief in Drama and the huge body of work and knowledge that surrounds it.

'Living Newspaper' has been an interesting task and one which has seen the students be creative, inventive, focussed and involved. And I've been very pleased with the results.......

Wednesday, 21 October 2009

Cherry and Ham

I forget to say............On going to Newcastle I went to see Chekov's 'The Cherry Orchard' at The People's Theatre. I know the People's people really well and have done a lot of work there myself over the years. It was good to see some familiar faces on stage and in the production team and to be in a familiar theatre.

I was immediately struck by how much I love this play! Chekov seems to encapsulate so much about human feeling, expression, nature and life that it's impossible not to swept along with his words. He does for me what Beckett always wants to, present us something which is 'real' and shows us the 'dreariness' of our own lives, but with much more wholesome and complete results. I can see why we use it so much in our lectures. There's so much in the lines that is to be drawn out, speculated upon and ultimately explored.

As for the show, it was a first direct by my friend Ben and he did a good job. There's a lot of people in the play and it is a huge undertaking. It's also good to see people taking risks now and again, Ben choosing not to stage the play conventionally but in a stylised way. Bringing the cast on as a group of travellers who tell the story, and creating a set which looks like an old run-down home. Whether they all paid off, I'm not entirely sure. But I think it shows a lot of imagination and potential as Ben continues to grow and develop.

It reminded me of how much I like directing and also, how important voice work is in Directing a play and getting the best from your actors. Voice is not to be confined in the warm up; and should not even be confined to accent or articulation work. But truly used as a means to get your actors to communicate the story through the words, connect to the text, and explore their body and voice through performance in a way that other disciplines don't. I can't wait to get started on Arabian Nights and use the techniques that I am so confident about. And show the actors what good there is in using Voice work as part of their performance work every day!!

On the second note.................Ben and I have found a house and we are soon to be residents of Ham (of Mark Griffin fame). From then on we can start to feel like real dwellers of South est London and begin to plan our new lives in this new location with good roots and foundations. Very excited!!! And can't wait for the old fashioned piano parties already.

Monday, 19 October 2009

If this is 'wrong' I don't want to be 'right'?

This weekend I went back to my Sunny (?) home town of Newcastle. It was so good to be back and see friends as well as telling everyone about my new job at St Mary's. But it wasn't all fun and games, I went back to deliver a keynote speech at a Secondary School to speak to a group of English teachers about 'Putting Fun Back Into Practise'. This is a subject which is incredibly close to my heart knowing the difficulties I had at school as a youngster. I didn't find out I was dyslexic until I was 22 and studying for my MA. This was a daunting prospect at this point in my career and I found it very difficult to adjust.
However, in hindsight I believe my dyslexia had a lot to do with the disenchanted feelings I had as a students in my younger years. Never feeling like I really fitted in, finding everything much harder than everyone else seemed to, finding writing a constant strain and struggle (look at me now! Writing for fun heaven forfend!). I didn't have much 'fun' in the classroom and have spent all of my teaching career so far trying to find ways that I can put 'fun' back into my own teaching and communicate with learners of all kinds through many different mediums. I try not only to teach the 'right' words and the 'right' ways to perform, but also enhance what I consider to be essential life skills; spontaneity, creativity, child like behaviour and imagination. All of which are at our disposal but need to be untapped.
I found Keith Johnstone's book 'Impro' an inspiration. He talks a lot about his experiences as a students and expresses much the same as I felt. Saying that if you feel like your inspiration is being quashed you will finally stop speaking for fear of being 'wrong' or of 'failing'. So I propose an education-wide banishment of the words 'right' or 'wrong'. Instead people should be free to experiment, play, explore and develop in whatever ways they choose. By doing this not only will our students minds be opened but as will the minds of our future leaders and people of important roles in society. By creating a world where we don't censor ourselves, where we ask questions about everything around us then nothing becomes 'taboo', nothing is 'naughty', nothing is 'bad'. Instead everything becomes a positive learning experience where we learn to choose, to be self advocates, be self aware and create our own boundaries of what is personally acceptable and what is not. Needless to say this was a little too much for my friends in Newcastle I feel. And what was more bizarre was that they seem to be scared of their own students?? A lot of the work was deemed too much, too 'over the top', 'not what the students would involve themselves in'. But, in truth, not anything that the teachers would be happy to try for fear of 'failure' or fear of being 'wrong'. And that is the crux. Can we banish these words in the classroom for our students if the teachers are using these words in regards to their own learning/teaching everyday??

I suddenly had a much greater understanding of my students frustration at Undergraduate level. And I think it will take a positive cultural and educational revolution to change it. Anything less may just be lost.

Any thoughts??

Tuesday, 13 October 2009

My first blog

How does one start a 'blog'????

I don't really get blogs. I don't understand the point generally. They seem incredibly self gratifying, talking endlessly about yourself and your own work. However, the more of them I read the more intrigued I get. 'What a good way to communicate to my students' I thought? 'What a good way to let everyone into my research thoughts' I thought to myself. So here I am!

I decided to write this blog to journal my thoughts, feelings, ideas, inspirations, activities and general random happenings as I begin my new career at St Mary's University. I hope my students find some of what I say interesting. I'll be putting lots of things up as I encounter them. Maybe it will start some discussions? Who knows??

Things here are going well so far. The students all seem very lovely and brimming with ideas and creativity. So much has happened already in the first four weeks that seems like possible blog fodder that I almost wish I had started this earlier.

Year ones are all very enthusiastic, working hard on their pieces. Looking forward to 'living newspaper' (which I am sure I will 'blog' about later).

Year 2's are proving really great to work with. Very thoughtful, lots of good work going on in sessions. Looking forward to seeing their assessments at Christmas and hoping that the Voice work will pay off!

Met the 3rd years for the first time last week. After Christmas I am directing their production of 'Arabian Nights'. Sounds good. They're excited, I'm stressed................but excited.

All in all a good first few weeks!