(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.
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?
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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.