Teachers' A-Level Theatre Workshop

Eyeing Up the New Specs: A workshop with A level Drama Teachers and University Theatre staff.

Workshop funded by The Friends Programme, Lancaster University

by Katherine Dodds, Theatre student

On 29th May, 2016, a group of enthusiastic secondary school Drama teachers from across Lancashire attended a workshop hosted by Lancaster University’s Theatre department. This event focused on how to tackle the changes in national specifications for Drama A Levels, due to come on-line in September 2016.

The event was facilitated by Sharon Leftwich-Lloyd, Lancaster graduate and experienced Drama teacher. The structure and activities in the workshop were led and created by Professor Geraldine Harris, in discussion with Sharon and Dr Graham Eatough, an award winning theatre director, and another Lancaster graduate

As an aspiring Drama teacher myself, I was very excited to be able to observe the workshop to gain a first-hand insight into how teachers approach all aspects of the school curriculum, including their teaching techniques and how they plan lessons. I found the workshop extremely beneficial for gaining an understanding of how teachers both make choices about the A Level syllabus and their techniques for exploring play texts with their students though both theory and practice

The day proved to be an excellent opportunity for networking, as well as for allowing participants to collectively discuss teaching methods, shared difficulties with exam questions and play texts, whilst receiving input from the specialists within the Theatre department at Lancaster University.

The day began with introductions and networking opportunities over tea and biscuits, before beginning the morning session of activities. The first activity introduced by Sharon Leftwich-Lloyd involved the teachers writing down one thing they were worried about in regard to the new Drama A Level curriculum, and one thing they were excited about. The aim of this was to see if there were common concerns that could be explored. The exercise revealed that some teachers were less familiar with certain texts and practitioners listed on the new curriculum and were eager to discuss how to approach them.

Next, two groups were formed to mind-map ideas and opinions covering specific texts and practitioners that teachers enjoyed and/or disliked teaching and teaching methods to approach them. These were all explored as a group, with the lecturers and teachers exchanging knowledge and ideas. Physical theatre was identified as a particular area which some teachers felt less confident in exploring with their students. Nigel Stewart, Lancaster’s Dance and Physical Theatre expert responded by discussing the Physical Theatre company Frantic Assembly, one of the companies on the new syllabus. He explained that they have a clear devising process, which is straight forward to replicate within the classroom as an introduction to Physical Theatre. He also informed participants about workshops offered by various Theatre companies, including Frantic Assembly, in which they might participate with their students.

After this, Theatre lecturers each gave a brief commentary on one text or practitioner identified on the mind maps, drawing on their specialist research areas. This led to a general discussion of how University Theatre lecturers might best support secondary teachers in delivering the new curriculum and also work together more closely in the future. It was suggested that more events like this one would be beneficial.

Lunch offered another networking opportunity for visiting teachers and Lancaster staff. During this time many personal teaching experiences were shared between all concerned around issues such as how to structure exam questions, and engage students with challenging play texts.

The afternoon session took a practical focus, which is an integral feature of all drama and theatre courses; including the Drama A Level. An exciting practical session was delivered by Dr Graham Eatough, who has directed works for the National Theatre Scotland, as well as being Artistic Director of Suspect Culture Theatre company between 1992-2009. This offered examples of how to explore both contemporary and traditional play texts of the sort that feature in the new Drama A Level syllabuses. We began by splitting into two groups, exploring a scene from Martin Crimps’ Attempts on Her Life. Within these groups, we had a director and a group of performers and each group was instructed to work on a different style and setting for the scene, with one group performing it as if it were a television news report and the other presenting the text in an ‘epic’ sense, as though it were a biblical story. Both groups then watched one another’s work and commented on aspects they found interesting and thought-provoking, such as cross-cutting of scenes and how and why this was more engaging for the audience. Many of the teachers at the workshop commented that they found this activity particularly useful, not least that it allowed them to gain an understanding of what practical Drama lessons are like from the student’s perspectives!

The next task involved more specific and detailed direction of the teachers as performers, and was used to explore the text Dr Faustus. Here, Graham used his directorial expertise to both discuss various aspects of the play, including the characterisation and staging, and then moving into a guided practical exploration with two participants working on a scene and focussing on use of space and on characterisation. This task related to elements of the A Level that involves students explaining how and why they would stage a certain play text.

Finally, the day finished with a relaxed discussion between the teachers and Lancaster staff about ways forward from this point. We went back to the concerns listed at the beginning of the workshop and found that many of these had been addressed. Questions relating to problems the teachers faced in terms of choosing which of the new A Level syllabi were discussed, and a final networking opportunity was given where the teachers swapped contact details, as well as learning resources.

Overall, the teachers appeared to find the workshop day useful. Several said they would be keen to attend similar events in the future and hoped to build a mutually beneficial relationship with the Theatre department at Lancaster University. One suggestion was that Theatre students at Lancaster University might be able to support A Level students by running workshops with them, and by allowing them to attend their performances. The Lancaster lecturers also found the day useful, as it enabled them to gain a clearer understanding of what is being taught during secondary school Drama and Theatre courses and the ways in which the students are learning, insights that will help them prepare for new intake of Theatre students at the University.

If you would like to join us at the 'Eyeing Up The New Specs' workshop in 2017 please get in touch to find out more, contact Morganna Monk.