Teaching drama in 106

(I’ve been meaning to put up the following since the workshop I did in February (I think). Since we’re almost into April, this might not be that helpful, but I’m hoping it sparks some ideas and conversation. Anyway, here goes…)

If I had to select my single primary aim when teaching drama, it is to have students approach and understand it on its own terms, rather than viewing it similarly to prose or poetry. To that end, here are a few of the approaches that I utilize, which I find not only facilitate the above end but also allow me to achieve a number of other things I want in the classroom.

(1) Begin by asking students their answers to the question of “What makes drama different from poetry and prose?” For the students who have little or no interest in drama, modify the above and ask them, “What—beside boredom—comes to mind when you think of drama? How do you visualize it?” The primary benefit of this step is to put preconceived notions on the table. Not only does that allow me to address (and, if needed, correct) such notions, but it provides useful material for me to reference back to during later discussions, as I build on—and/or take apart—these preconceptions.

(2) Emphasize issues of performance and the fact that plays are usually written to be staged, not read. Ask students to consider how the issue of staging/performance changes the authorial role. What about the (usual) lack of an authorial voice, since all one has are characters? How does staging affect the meaning of a text? Raising these issues has multiple benefits and aims. It causes students to begin thinking about issues of genre, authorial intent, context, etc. Or, more precisely, in my classes (since I usually introduce drama at the end of the second unit), it builds on and revisits issues that I have already brought up with poetry and prose, but in a different context. Additionally, I find it very useful to connect such elements to student writing, since it is an easy segue from issues of, for example, authorial intent and context within a play to their role in student papers and the students’ need to be aware of and negotiate such issues.

(3) Segue from performance and staging into the issue of the audience and spectatorship. Ask students to consider what role the audience has in the nature and effects of a play. Ask them, “What is different about being an audience-member for a play and the reader of a poem or short story?” Such considerations not only reiterate the issue of genre, but also lead easily to discussions regarding perspective, ambiguity, the fluidity of literature, etc. They too can be usefully connected to issues of student writing in this course. I like to try and make students aware of issues of audience in their papers, so this approach helps, plus it usefully underlines the connection between what they read and what they write, even if doing so in dramatically different genres.

(4) Introduce and discuss the use of conventions in the plays we read. Ask them to consider, for example, what makes a particular play (like Ibsen’s A Doll’s House, which I’ve used this semester) seem realist? What are the elements that we accept or take for granted, even though they are not inherently realistic or are actively unrealistic? Since convention is an area students sometimes have issues fully grasping and, often, have little knowledge of, I often ask them to think about other forms of visual entertainment that they are used to, e.g. television and movies, and examine their conventions, connecting them to those that we find in the theater. Again, the subject of theatrical convention reemphasizes the issue of drama as a distinct genre, while allowing for more awareness of the variations and changes in drama between different periods and sources. In general, I find that an awareness of convention in literature also tends to facilitate better contextual and critical thinking on the part of students. It can also easily lead to—or build on—discussions of convention in the genres of poetry and prose too.

The above are some of the things that I will virtually always do when teaching drama in 106, usually with a fair amount of success, including with students who are initially resistant to or actively dislike drama. Some of these approaches are also emphasized by the paper assignments. Besides the usual thematic analyses and close readings of texts, the following are three options that I have used (in this case with A Doll’s House and Othello, the plays I am teaching this semester), which have elicited some interesting and effective papers.

 Sample assignments:

1. The effect of a play on the audience can be drastically altered by decisions in staging. Pick one segment of A Doll House and describe how you would stage it, making sure to explain why you would make the decisions you do, how those decisions would affect the perception of the play by its audience, and how that perception fits with the contents of the play.

2. The texts we read in Unit Two were all considered very radical in their time for their depictions of marriage, for their questioning of gender roles, etc. but they also have a presence in our time. A Doll House is still one of the most produced plays in the world, and Gilman and Chopin are still read and (as in this class) studied. Take one of the texts and analyze how its ideas fit (or don’t) with our time and contemporary conceptions in 2014 America. Have we progressed enough that the same concerns are immaterial? Are there any areas where the same (or analogous) issues remain?

3. Write a scene (or part of a scene) that you think would fit with the rest of A Doll House or Othello. The scene (which should be at least 500 words long) should be accompanied by an explanation (at least 750 words) of why you think it would fit with the existing play and how you think it would contribute to our understanding of the themes, characters, etc. What would be gained by making this addition?

*          *          *

I could continue expanding on the subject, but I think it would be better to wrap up now and see what sort of ideas, questions or concerns other people have about teaching drama in general or specifically about the issues I have mentioned above.

Have at it, folks.

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4 thoughts on “Teaching drama in 106

  1. Shil, these are great ideas! Very helpful in teaching drama. I really like the idea of having them think about convention in other forms of visual entertainment (like television shows, etc.) In fact, I have just completed a unit where students had to relate a short story to a film, so moving into this would a great way to pick up on a discussion of convention and the visual in order to begin applying it to drama.

    I’ve also considered selecting scenes and having students act them out, perhaps on a volunteer basis (or for extra credit). It seems that something like that would bring the works to life more. We’ve done readings of important scenes but nothing that they formally stage and present themselves.

    This post is very inspiring!

  2. I agree with Stacie–Shil’s suggestions for teaching drama are indeed inspiring! I attended his workshop earlier in the semester, and so I have already begun to implement some of his suggestions. I can say unequivocally that they have helped me facilitate really meaningful discussions about the genre–discussions that I haven’t had in the past when beginning a drama unit.

    In my current drama units, I began by asking students to brainstorm what they think of when they think of drama as a literary genre, as well as what distinguishes drama from other prose forms. In all of my classes, this led to a lively discussion that covered many aspects, including issues of performance and staging, of dialogue and character development, speech, etc. By drawing on students’ prior experiences reading and watching plays, we were able to talk about conventions shared by most plays as well as particular stylistic nuances that shape specific plays, such as the open-ended nature of stage directions, such as in the play we read for class, David Henry Hwang’s _Trying to Find Chinatown_.

    I supplemented this in-class discussion with a short clip of two different versions of the same scene from August Wilson’s _Fences_. (You can find it here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jE2dDmMGfa4). This 5 minute clip juxtaposes two very different performances, including the “performance” of each respective audience, and this opened up further discussion of what we had just covered–it really helped bring to life what we were discussing and provided concrete examples to help deepen students’ initial thoughts on the subject.

    I also showed a short clip from the Hwang play (a college student performance), and this also opened up a lively discussion exploring how the actors and their performances, even what they wore on stage, compared to what the students envisioned when they had read the play prior to watching the video. Another really productive activity.

    I have yet to experiment with Shil’s essay topics offered above (which I do plan to do), but in all, I can say that taking this approach to really examining what makes drama, drama (and what distinguishes it from fiction–from a writer’s and a reader’s perspective) has led to much more substantial discussions on this genre than I’ve experienced in the past. The simple opening questions I posed to my students above, coupled with the short video clips, really helped create a meaningful introduction to this genre, and I am exciting to continue building on this new approach to teaching drama in the future.

    Thanks, Shil!

  3. Late response, as seems sadly usual with me nowadays. I’m glad to hear you liked the post, Stacie, and very gratified that the workshop was beneficial for your classes, Tatum.

    Re. Stacie’s comment about selecting scenes and acting them out, while I haven’t done it this semester, I have sometimes made it a requirement for students to sign up in groups for classroom performances. They could pick any segment, where each of them had at least a dozen or so lines, and then perform them in class. Students who were uncomfortable with doing much in the way of performance could just do readings from the text, but there was extra credit for memorizing the lines, using props, and otherwise pushing themselves. However they decided to do it, they had to think about issues of staging, since I would ask them to explain how and why they decided to conceive of the scene.

    The above exercises usually worked out very well, with students tending to get more adventurous as time went on, and they generally provided an effective way to get students thinking about performance and drama as a genre, as well as staging issues specific to the particular text and period.

    A semi-related exercise I’ve also done is to pick a particular scene and have everyone do a short writeup (at home) of how they would stage it and why. And then, in class, as a group we laid out a part of the classroom as a stage and tried out different variations (and combinations of them) that people had come up with. This exercise was a lot more comfortable for students than the previous one, since now they saw themselves as stage managers and directors rather than actors, and it was also much more of an activity for the entire class, with students jumping in and out of the discussion, one or more people making suggestions while others enacted them (sometimes involving lines, sometimes just doing physical movement on stage), etc.

    In multiple classes, I found that students enjoyed such activities more than they had expected, got thoroughly engaged, and learned a lot more about drama as performance than they would have. And, now that I am writing this and the weather is improving, I am totally going to do the second activity in all my classes (one of which I took to the amphitheater this afternoon).

    So, Stacie and Tatum, thanks for making me think of the above!

  4. Pingback: Teaching Drama in 106 (Spring 2015 version) | Deep Down in the Classroom

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