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SecondaryThe Arts

KS3 drama – How can shy students be persuaded to perform?

Photograph of figure concealed behind comedy and tragedy masks

Drama lessons can be difficult for those reluctant to perform – but their experiences in the studio can help them in many other subjects…

Martin Matthews
by Martin Matthews
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SecondaryArt & Design

“Turn those gas taps off and put that Bunsen burner down.”

As my words echoed across the lab, I looked frantically for the gas isolation valve. This wasn’t a science lesson, but actually Y9 drama last thing on a Friday, back when I was an NQT.

The only room available that period had been a science lab overlooking the staff car park on one side and a brick wall on the other. It confused the heck out of my Y9s too. “We can’t do drama in here, sir – it’s for science.

The obstacle course presented by assorted stools, raised desks and ominous gas-related fixtures did admittedly make a conventional drama lesson more difficult, but not impossible. Though the brick wall metres from the window seemed an apt metaphor for the response I typically received most weeks from this particular class…

As is often the case, the hardest part of the lesson was convincing the Y9s that our time together in this hour designated ‘drama’ was worthwhile, and that everyone could get something out of it – from the outstanding performer, to the shy child hiding behind stacks of science textbooks using a tripod for a shield.

It’s often struck me that the students – and perhaps even staff – most in need of drama, or who might appreciate its value the most, tend to be those who are least forthcoming in engaging with it.

Scorching ordeals

Many years have passed since I was an NQT. In England, we now live in a world of Ebacc and STEM, prompting people to increasingly ask ‘What is drama, and what is it for in schools today?’.

When we speak of ‘drama’ are we referring to the study of ‘pure’ drama or theatre, such as we might find at theatre studies A Level? Are we talking about the broader performing arts and what students will need to apply to acting school? Or are we seeing drama more as a device for helping students learn and grow?

Drama should, and usually does have a place on the school timetable as a subject to be studied and engaged with, but it can also exist across the curriculum.

A little-known playwright once noted that “All the world’s a stage, / And all the men and women merely players” – if true, then we all should do more to appreciate the importance of drama in our lives.

But how can teachers of drama – or indeed teachers of other subjects – help encourage students who aren’t ‘natural’ performers to stand up, perform and realise that they can grow and develop into more confident human beings?

We can measure qualifications, but we can’t measure the process children go through in terms of their development as a ‘performer’. It takes time. Sometimes, it can hinge on one-on-one support a student receives from a teacher. Others may come to appreciate the joys of working with peers that drama provides. Or it can come through the many scorching ordeals that humans journey through from childhood to adulthood.

Students can struggle in drama mainly due to nerves, or a simple lack of desire to engage. Having said that, though, the students in your drama class will inevitably run into other teachers. English teachers trying to get students to complete speaking tests. Science teachers expecting presentations on set topics. History teachers wanting verbal contributions in group discussions – the list goes on.

Little jobs

Whatever your subject, you’re a teacher of human beings. Encouraging students’ confidence in their own ideas, and ability to speak in front of others whilst deepening their critical thinking, takes time and careful nurturing. Some students will inevitably require more support than others, and often, your response will have to involve putting yourself out there first and leading by example.

Over the years, I’ve been known to tell some students, “If you’re worried about how you’ll look, you’re not going to look half as daft as me – so come on, let’s try this…

Now, not all students are going to become the next famous star of stage or screen, and nor should they put pressure on themselves to be. Instead, it should be about setting realistic goals. A wise person once said to me, “You’ve not got a big task – just lots of little jobs.

Applied to drama lessons, these ‘little jobs’ can be used first to help students build up to the performance they want to deliver: ‘Job 1, stop hiding in the costume cupboard. Job 2, stand up. Job 3, relax your arms. Job 4, work on this… .’ Just lots of little jobs.

The ‘Hollywood effect’

I’m often inspired by a collection of four lectures by Peter Brook, published as the book The Empty Space. In it, Brook talks about the dangers of what he calls the ‘Broadway Crisis’, which leads to a ‘deadly theatre’. Everything looks great, from the costumes, to the lighting and the famous actor playing the lead role – but something isn’t right. The play just
isn’t good.

This prompts me to think about the spread of what I call the ‘Hollywood/X Factor’ Effect’ into our schools, where students’ conceptions of ‘performance’ are inextricably linked with fame and stardom. They want to raid the costume cupboard; use numerous coloured lights onstage; assemble elaborate sets and have their favourite songs playing in the background.

As Brook reminds us, all that’s really needed for a piece of theatre to be engaging is for an individual to cross an empty space. Sometimes, starting with that very simple premise can help all students, especially those most scared of performance, to focus on what they need to – themselves, and the little steps they need to take to improve their work or confidence.

Acting confidence

This doesn’t just apply to students, though. Some years ago, there came a knock on the door of my office (i.e. the cramped, windowless cupboard sandwiched between the drama studio and the outside corridor). A history teacher – who had previously often complained that we were making ‘Too much noise’ in our lessons – walked in. “Just wondering”, he said, “if you’ve got some drama I can do?

With your class?” I replied.

No, for me.

He went on to explain how he’d often spent lessons not knowing how to perform at the front of the class, and wanted some tips on how to ‘act like a confident teacher’.

Every now and then, teachers can benefit from stripping away the paraphernalia associated with ‘great teaching’ – the fancy PowerPoints, beautiful displays, impeccably marked exercise books – and consider how they want to approach that notion of crossing the empty space. How should they stand there, and build faith in themselves to perform and engage their audience?

In many ways, we all know how it feels to be that shy student at the back, because nearly every teacher will have once been similarly shy or nervous themselves at some point. Many still are.

I’ve taught in secondary schools for nearly 20 years. While I can’t definitively answer the question of how students and teachers can become performers in drama – or anywhere else – I do feel the words of the late theatre education pioneer Brian Way have some resonance here; that ‘drama is to simply practise living’. Maybe that’s a good starting
point for us all.

Help them open up

• Ask the students to speak to you and listen to them carefully. What barriers are stopping them performing?
• Set students achievable goals – ‘It’s not a big task, just lots of little jobs’
• Celebrate little wins with students
• Remind students that we all feel nervous, that it’s part of being human and that nerves can be good by driving us on
• Set rules for your drama/teaching space that will ensure all participants are included
• Drama is fundamentally about a person’s continued development – and it’s for everyone

Martin Matthews is a deputy department leader of English at an 11-18 secondary school, having previously been a head of drama and temporary head of English

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