This is the first year I am teaching a Grade 9 IGCSE Drama class. In october, 2014 I did an online intensive course on the IGCSE Drama Syllabus and requirements, and I have been trying my best to prepare my 24 students to their exam while getting myself familiarised with the requirements and assessment criteria used by IGCSE.
One of the components of IGCSE Written Examination is based on a pre-released “extended extract from a play (or an abridged version of an entire play) taken from repertoire from a variety of genres, countries and periods. Candidates should study the extract to enable them to understand both the text and the practical aspects of production. It is recommended that they perform it, at least informally. Candidates will not be assessed on their performance of the play.” (from the 2016 IGCSE Drama Syllabus).
Two years ago, the play selected by IGCSE was “The Memorandum”, by Václav Havel. This is the play I’ve chosen to study with my Grade 9 students as a practice before their official examination next year. On their Written Exam, and on the mock exam I’m planning on giving my students this year, students will be required to answer 6–8 short-answer questions on the extract from the play (20 marks), and to answer one longer-answer question from a choice of three on the extract from the play.
Below, I am sharing an outline of how I am planning on approaching the work with “The Memorandum” with my class!
* as I have not had the chance of trying this with my class, please consider this a reflection on a plan, where I try to anticipate what issues I might face along the way.
Presenting the play:
To introduce the work we are about to start, investigating the play “The Memorandum”, I decided to use a different approach. Being Brazilian and having Portuguese as a first language I will produce a “memorandum” written in Portuguese and, as students walk into the class, using some Process Drama techniques (teacher-in-role), I will welcome them to the lesson greeting them in Portuguese. The classroom will be settled as to invite them to sit in groups of five (chairs are pre-arranged, forming four circles in different corners of the classroom). Using only Portuguese (and lots of gestures as well!) I will ask students to sit in the chairs and present each group with a copy of a heavy “memorandum”. In the first page, they will be able to read, in bold large letters, the word “MEMORANDUM”, however, as soon as they turn the page, everything will be written in Portuguese.
At that point, I will turn on the classroom projector, and on the screen they will see projected a web address to which I will point, indicating I want them to open their computers and visit that specific page. The web address will direct students to a new classroom blog (which later will be introduced as the class Process Online Journal), where they can read (in English) some instructions. There it will be said that the school has made the decision that each teacher should use only their mother tongue to provide instruction to the class. The Board has decided that exposing students to multiple languages will only benefit them and that full immersion is the best approach to this shift, meaning no translation will be allowed in classrooms. Exceptions can be made under specific circumstances but special requirements need to be followed. By then, I expect students to be firing up different question, which I will ignore, pretending not to understand. The post on the blog will ask students to go though the “memorandum” they were given and, by the end of the lesson, as a group, share with the class if they are either pro or against it. Students will also be told that the memorandum provides the setting of new rules, expectations, class syllabus and assessment criteria, so they must be very careful with making a decision. At that point, a timer (20 min.) will be set on the screen, and each group should start discussing their own methods for approaching the task.
At this point, this group is used to the teacher using Process Drama techniques, so the suspension of disbelief should not be an issue. If the group is not familiar with it, the teacher might face more resistance, students not willing to embark in the process drama, however that is not the case with this group.
By the end of the time given for groups to work, I will ask (always using Portuguese!) each group to present their vote. I anticipate some groups will use Google Translator (some of them might immediately know the language in use is Portuguese, for others it can take longer to guess), some groups might have fun trying to pronounce the words and trying to find the ones that are similar to English, some groups may decide to just go with “no” since they might assume that they don’t need to really understand what is written, it is probably supporting this “change”, so they will be against it!
At this moment I will break the teacher-in-role and ask the class (this time in English) what did they think of the activity, how did they feel not understanding what was being said and being asked to make decisions without truly knowing the content of the material provided to them. Following the class discussion, I will ask them to go to our new class blog and share their thoughts as a blog post.
When students walk in to the following lesson, they will see in the projector the text on Appendix 1*. After everyone has walked in to class, I will ask for one of the students to read the text out loud. Students will be invited into a class discussion about the connections they could see between this plot and what have happened in our previous lesson. They will also be encouraged to share their first impressions on the topic outlined (interesting, weird, unusual, fun, boring…). I will tell the class we are about to start investigating a play called “Memorandum”, written by a man named Václav Havel. I will inform the class they are going to be divided into three groups, and I will tell them their groups (7 or 8 students in each group). Each student will get a copy of the play’s Act One and they will be sent to do a dramatic group reading of it.
Working with the play:
The following lessons are to be divided as follows (depending on the activity it might take several lessons to accomplish it):
- Introduction to Theatre of the Absurd:historical context, main play writers and other relevant tittles
- I provided a list of sources and each group was responsible for researching and presenting one of the topics
- Understanding the play’s context: Communism in Czechoslovakia
- In their groups, students will be asked to watch a video using videonot.es (which allows them to simultaneously take notes)
- Students have to write their impressions as a blog entry
- Second dramatic reading: how does our approach to the text change after gathering historical and aesthetical background?
- Students are to share their thoughts on the question, after the second reading, in our Process Online Journal blog.
- Preparing the text for performance:
- As a group, choose a clear CONCEPT;
- Decide roles (5 actors – they will also have to decide who will play each character, 1 director, 1 or 2 designers);
- Present requirements: perform Act One; produce a Costume Portfolio for each Character; produce a Set Design proposal using Google Sketchup; keep record of the concept decided by the group (a one page paper outlining the concept and supporting the choice), rehearsal’s log and production notes in the Director’s Journal; regular reflective entries on the Process Online Journal blog.
- Process workshops: the idea of the workshops is to help students explore different possibilities, stretching their repertoire of possible ways of approaching character creation, the use of the space, subtext, relationships, character motivation, the impact of costumes/ sets/ soundtrack/ lights/ props.
- Creating a Character: all participate, directors and designers included
- Using the Space: all participate; however directors will step out to observe and take notes after the first half of the workshop.
- Using Google Sketchup: all learn how to use the software
- Watching and critiquing a performance: watch a video of a performance of the play and write a critique, identifying the concept, analysing acting choices (characterisation), set, costumes etc.
- Rehearsals, Building Portfolios & Director’s Journal
- First performance & first presentation of Portfolios for peer feedback
- Additional workshops
- Final performances & Portfolios/ Director’s Journal presentations
A Reflection on the process:
The sequence suggested above aims at guiding students through a creative process where they are motivated to explore and experiment while being provided with sufficient opportunities to develop and master skills while reflecting on their creative process. Students should feel empowered to make artistic decisions but, at the same time, understand the need of aligning their choices to a clear concept to be communicated to an audience. In order to come up with a clear, interesting concept that can sustain the group’s vision, students must have a in depth comprehension of both the historical period in which the play was written, as well as of the theatrical tradition it is part of.
I can anticipate students struggling with understanding the specificities of Theater of the Absurd, and I believe that being presented with other examples of the tradition and discussing the possible reactions they might have to an absurdist play might help set the ground for allowing students to connect to it. When I decided to start off the work with the play by placing students in a similar situation as the one suggested by Havel, it was motivated the conscious choice of providing them with the opportunity of experiencing what the characters in the play do, experiencing how “absurd” the situation was and how did they feel.
Some students might also find it hard to come up with a clear concept to guide their approach to the play. I believe that brainstorming possibilities, and watching videos of different performances of the play can help them expand the realm of possibilities, stretching their creativity to approaching the task.
Physicalizing the characters is always a challenge to my students, so that’s why it is my hope that the “Creating a Character” workshop based on Laban’s techniques will help them look at these characters from a different perspective. The same goes for the workshop on “Using the Space” based on Viewpoints, presenting the students with a new vocabulary and a new perspective of placing actors, set pieces, defining pathways and body positions on stage.
Finally, the decision of including both the Set Design and the Costume Portfolios as part of their task comes from the desire of assuring that my students develop a holistic approach to the creative process, understanding how everything is interrelated, connected; how the process of “making meaning” is based on the interdependence of all the audience can perceive – consciously and subconsciously.
The expectation that every student will be an active participant of the Process Online Journal, blogging about their creative process, about their learning process, is a tentative of establishing a channel of communication that lives beyond the walls of the classroom, beyond the few minutes each class lasts. By registering their thoughts, students allow me to follow their creative journey, identifying moments when I will need to interfere, recapitulate, slow down, review or deepen up my instruction.
I am extremely excited about putting all this into practice, and I look forward to the messy creative journey we are about to start!
Josef Gross is the Managing Director of a large bureaucratic organization. At the start of the play, he finds among his mail a memorandum that he cannot understand. It turns out to be written in a new language called Ptydepe (pronounced tie – depp – ay) and its usage has been authorized across the organization by Gross’s deputy, Jan Ballas, without the knowledge of his boss. The new language is so complicated that no one can read it and the attempts to try to understand it create much of the humour of the play. A classroom run by Mark Lear has been introduced for employees to learn the new language. For those who cannot understand it, permission has to be granted by Otto Stroll’s Translation Unit before any translations can be made.
Gross goes to the translation unit to ask Otto Stroll to have his memorandum translated. Despite being the Managing Director, Gross has no authorization and the request is turned down until approved by the Ptydepist, Alex Savant, an unpleasant man who is the world expert on Ptydepe. But Gross has first to present identification papers and these have to be granted by Helena, who mysteriously describes herself as the Chairman and can only grant identification papers to those who have not already received a memo in Ptydepe! Ballas uses the control of Ptydepe as a means of manoeuvring Gross’s ultimate sacking from the organization at the end of Act One by blackmailing him and threatening to reveal a very minor offence. During all this, the office staff appears obsessed with getting whatever food is available and the constant references to it reflect the shortages experienced in Czechoslovakia at the time Havel wrote the play.