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“A wonderful alchemy” – How lockdown solutions can improve your drama lessons

The pandemic has compelled drama teachers to innovate in a host of exciting ways – now let’s make the most of that creative spark in our studios, says Matthew Nichols

  • “A wonderful alchemy” – How lockdown solutions can improve your drama lessons

Last Christmas was a long time ago now, but I felt properly festive one evening earlier this year, as I picked my way through a selection of Quality Street, carefully preserving the colourful cellophane wrappers as I did so.

Why? Because when a colleague suggested that chocolate wrappers could be used in place of drama studio lighting gels, in combination with the light of a smartphone, a whole world of possibility opened up before me. I quickly set about creating a new scheme of work for my students, whereby they would create their own miniature puppet shows using home-made props, coloured lighting and their practical performance skills.

From grimness, ingenuity

My recent book, The Drama Teacher’s Survival Guide, draws on my experiences of teaching drama in secondary schools over nearly two decades – but all the experience in the world couldn’t have prepared any of us for the challenges our profession has faced over the last 18 months.

The headaches of trying to deliver socially distanced drama in a face-to-face setting, or through a computer screen, has seen us having to rethink what we do, how we do it and what sort of outcomes we might realistically get. And yet, throughout this grim situation, seeds of ingenuity have been sown.

Whether it’s repurposing chocolate wrappers, recreating much-loved theatre and movie posters using software packages or using laptop cameras to record ‘CCTV footage’ for performance pieces, the drama teaching community has become more creative and resourceful than ever. We should celebrate this, but also learn from it.

Wonderful alchemy

Now that we’re back in our drama studios, we need to breathe life back into our subject and allow it to once again take centre stage in our students’ educational lives. To do this, we should start thinking about what actually worked well during lockdown – which ideas and practices can we take forward and incorporate into our existing delivery of the subject?

As well as using makeshift tools to achieve theatrical lighting, my own classes are now exploring verbatim theatre, using the experience of lockdown itself. During remote learning, my students worked on developing their own characters and monologues in isolation using verbatim techniques.

What I hadn’t anticipated was the wonderful alchemy involved in combining these monologues into one coherent piece and cross-cutting between them, in effect creating a portmanteau performance.

Making the months count

This is an approach I’ll definitely be adopting and implementing again when it comes to devising future projects. What other tasks can be completed by students in isolation, before being merged together in order to produce something bigger and more ambitious? It’ll certainly help get round the problem of persistent absentees.

I’m not pretending that remote learning has been much fun – but if nothing else, it’s been a salutary reminder of the vitality and spark our subject provides.

I’m relieved to finally be back in a drama studio – even a messy one smelling slightly of feet. What matters now is making the last year and a half count. I want to add what we’ve done and picked up along the way to our existing arsenal, and use it to strengthen our reserves and develop our creativity – as we all work to restore the sheen to a subject we love and care about deeply.

Matthew Nichols is head of drama at Manchester Grammar School, a drama education consultant and Series Editor of student editions of plays for Methuen Drama; his book, The Drama Teacher’s Survival Guide, is available now (Bloomsbury, £17.99); follow him at @matthew_drama

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