Volume 15 Editorial - NATIONAL DRAMA

Volume 15 Editorial

Welcome to the fifteenth issue of Drama Research! The articles in this issue describe three research projects, each located in a different genre of theatre: youth theatre, professional theatre, and site-specific community drama.
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Welcome to the fifteenth issue of Drama Research!

The articles in this issue describe three research projects, each located in a different genre of theatre: youth theatre, professional theatre, and site-specific community drama. Interestingly, the work in each different genre is centrally informed by the use of Process Drama, especially the use of drama conventions. The volume is a fascinating study in the varied use of a form of Drama which is usually associated with work in school classrooms and is a rare, detailed, recorded testament to how flexible and effective this form of working can be.

The article written by Dr. William D. Barlow and Tony Goode, Bennachie and me: a site-specific, promenade, interactive community drama project, devised and performed in the North-East of Scotland, provides an account of a remarkable community drama project centred on Bennachie, a range of hills in Aberdeenshire, Scotland. It is the north-east of Scotland’s foremost iconic landmark:

It is clad in heather, has granite peaks, pine trees, arable lowlands and the ruins of nineteen century crofting settlements (Oliver et al. 2022).

It is also a well-preserved archaeological site, with a wealth of archival records, of which the two researchers took advantage to inform the drama activities they organised with members of the local population. They also took advantage of a good deal of theory of site-specific performance, especially the writings of Tomkins, Koplowitz and Kuppers, evidence that the researchers were clear about their responsibilities. There is much to consider in organising a community to roam across a varied and quite rugged landscape, not least the personal safety and physical capabilities of the voluntary participants, as well as the educational and artistic aims for them; and this is well documented in their text.

Site-specific performances are a particular genre with some advantages: they have the exciting potential to,

provide a more appropriate forum for reflecting on and interpreting the relationship between performance, specific places in our worlds, and social contexts than theatre that takes place in conventional theatre venues (Tompkins 2012: 7).

And, as Casey (2001: 684) suggests:

In effect, there is no place without self and no self without place.

The production comprised eight scenes, each scene being devised by the participants: actors, musicians, Bailies, researchers, and musicians, facilitated by the two researchers, and arranged at different ‘stopping-off’ points in the varied landscape in order to feature different aspects of crofter’s lives in the nineteenth century, specifically a day in 1860. The audience, framed as members of the Poor Board evaluating if the crofters needed help, were released in to the 1.8-mile route in groups, the performances lasting about two hours in total.

Key to the facilitation of the encounters in each scene was the use of drama conventions, particularly those collated by Jonothan Neelands and Tony Goode in various editions of Structuring Drama Work (Cambridge UP). The researchers’ task in selecting drama conventions for the purposes of devising was,

to match form to content, to give participants effective understanding of the process and the creation of the meaning of their drama work.

It was therefore a great advantage to the project to have one of the authors, Tony Goode, as one of the researchers.

The study sought to answer the following research questions:

  1. Why do participants engage in local site-specific promenade performance?
  2. What are participants’ views on devising a local site-specific promenade performance through a drama conventions approach?
  3. What are participants’ thoughts on using site-specific promenade performance to enact local history?
  4. What skills do participants identify as being developed from participating in local site-specific promenade performance?

To elicit the answers to these questions, participants completed a written questionnaire approximately 4-6 weeks after the event to provide time for reflection. Some of their key responses are recorded here, providing us with great insight into why inexperienced community acting participants might join a local site-specific promenade performance and what learning, skills and understanding of their environment they obtain in doing so.

As one participant reflected:

I learned, or felt, during the process that the peat cutter I helped to portray wasn’t that different to myself. I’ve had to work most of my life, sometimes harder than others. I was born and grew up in Aberdeenshire, married young, (aye kirk’it) had three healthy children I’m pleased to say. This project helped me to remember some of my journey to here and now (P6).

We are fortunate to be able to include a video, The Day The World Changed, which gives a valuable record of the project in action.

This is a fascinating, well documented, well-resourced and valuable report into a remarkable, possibly unique, study of a community drama project at a specific site using drama conventions.

In his article, Għanqbut f’Moħħha: a practice-as-research project on the theme of fear, Tyrone Grima sets out to analyse how fear manifested in a performance of Għanqbut f’Moħħha (Cobwebs in her head) which is based on the short story by Henry James, The Friends of the Friends. Referring to the plotline of the original story Grima explains that,

In this context, fear was understood on two levels: the fear of the supernatural, but more importantly the fear of intimacy, which we interpreted to be the crux of the jealously of the narrator in James’ story.

Conducting this research project in his role of Senior Lecturer at the Malta College for Arts, Science and Technology (MCAST), Grima’s aim was to analyse how fear was manifested in the performance of his updated version of the story, seeking to identify the key components that could instil the sense of mystery and disquietude to a contemporary audience: an intriguing and elusive quest. At its heart are the questions:

Is fear socially induced (Tait) or is it the fear of self that finds its outlet in the theatrical expression (Aarohi Life Education)? Are we afraid in the theatre because the others surrounding us are afraid or because we have been genuinely stimulated by the action on stage?

Grima outlines the adaptation and modernisation of the Henry James story:

In our version of James’ story, Harry, a journalist, attempts to make sense of a mystery that has befallen his village. The protagonist of the story, Isabel, has inherited an antiques shop that had been closed down ever since her parents died tragically in it. On the opening night of the shop, her childhood friend Milly is photographed, triggering a supernatural experience as she looks towards the back of the antiques store. Isabel commissions a guard, Peter to ensure that nobody enters the back area, from where occasionally the crying of a baby is heard in the distance.

Għanqbut f’Moħħha was devised with a group of five actors with the aim of a one-hour performance over three nights at the Valletta Campus Theatre, an intimate theatre in the capital city of Malta. In preparing for this performance, the American company, Piper Theatre, flew to Malta specifically to run a week of workshops with the cast. Some of these focused on Grotowski’s plastique exercises and some on Process Drama:

Process Drama investigates community and social issues, and hence this methodology was adequate for our work which was rooted in the dynamics of a fictitious village community, and which depicted social and psychological issues by exploring the fear of intimacy.

Five weeks of this intensive work resulted in a script that collated the ideas that they had created, a balanced mixture between spoken scenes and physical theatre.

To advance his research study, members of the audience received an anonymous online questionnaire, and the results were used to analyse whether fear can be conveyed in the theatre through a devised and physicalised performance. One limitation on this research was the adequate securing of anonymity of responses:

Malta is a small country, and the community of theatregoers is a closed circle. A number of the spectators are involved in the theatre industry.

Anonymity also limited the understanding of,

whether an aspect worked more with the younger audience members than with the older ones, or whether there were any differences in reactions according to gender.

Nevertheless, the project recorded here, and its research, remains an unusual and well documented study. As the author says:

Theatre serves as a vehicle and a container to express fear, and possibly by doing so, comprehending it better, and coming to grips with it.

One of the reviews after the show appears to bear this out:

Għanqbut f’Moħħha is one of those rare pieces that genuinely create psychological horror, slowly but insidiously instilling a very real sense of dread that is so much more effective than any ghostly apparition.

This serves as a testament to the strength and effectiveness of live theatre generally and that of Għanqbut f’Moħħha in particular.

Our third article is also set in Malta and is, likewise, a testament to the power of live theatre, this time with very young people. Steampunk Sparks: Antigone’s Rebel Heartbeat Revived by 11-year-olds by Isabelle Gatt describes and reflects upon,

a theatre practitioner/educator’s process in collaborating with a group of 11-year-olds to develop a production of Sophocles’ Antigone for the Youth Theatre Festival, Trikki Trakki, organised by Teatru Malta in March 2022.

The key question for the author was: How can 11-year-olds be effectively engaged in exploring Antigone using drama conventions, ensemble-building processes, improvisation and devising techniques to instil a sense of ownership in their performance of this classic play? Her article explores the reason why she selected and adapted a classic text to explore with a group of ten 11-year-olds: seven females and three males, and how, using drama conventions, she prepared the young cast for a twenty-minute performance for the festival. Gatt identifies one compelling political reason for the selection of Antigone’s story:

For me, Antigone is also a poignant tribute to the courage of female investigative journalists worldwide who fearlessly bring forth uncomfortable truths, even at the cost of their lives. Thirty-three female journalists had been murdered since 2017 and one of these, Daphne Caruana Galizia, was Maltese. The year 2022 would mark the fifth anniversary of her murder.

One challenging feature of this project was that it was, amazingly, carried out under the restrictions of COVID-19, including social distancing and the consistent use of Anti-Viral Protection Masks, which persisted until the week of the production. It was not the only challenge as her article reveals.

One key convention selected by the author was that of Teacher in Role.

Rooted in dramatic play, TiR finds its origins in the teacher naturally and purposefully participating alongside children within shared, imaginary worlds.

A dialogue demonstrating the employment of this powerful convention is included in her article demonstrating that,

TiR encouraged students to critically think about the moral dilemmas presented in Antigone and consider the balance between individual convictions, societal laws, and the consequences of their actions.

The dialogue that included here is a very valuable recording of the use of this convention for educational and artistic purposes. Gatt reflects on this process:

Integrating drama strategies into the process of developing a performance with students is time-intensive, yet it leads to a profound exploration of characters and enhances group cohesion fast which saves time later, when it comes to rehearsals.

The ‘Steampunk’ motif for the costumes, some of which the performers themselves collected, some supplied or enhanced by a professional designer, had a natural appeal for the young people; but it also resonated with the spirit of resistance in the young lead protagonist, as this rap verse encapsulates:

Rules are cool, we know they’re there,
But let’s mix in love, make it fair.
Polynices, in Thebes is his place,
A proper funeral, his memory we embrace.

The young cast’s description of Antigone as a ‘spitfire girl’,

a spitfire girl is emotional, gets mad fast, has a strong temper, and might also get a bit violent,

also gave a brilliant insight into, and understanding of, Antigone’s demeanour for modern young people.

The author describes in some detail the journey that she and the young cast make through many challenges, like one of the lead actors falling ill at a very late stage, a director’s nightmare, but which had its own revelations:

The fluidity with which each actor could take over the role of another and make it uniquely theirs was a captivating and fascinating aspect of this process.

Another challenge in working with people as young as these, was an ethical one about representing suicide, of which there are three in the original story. The author devotes a whole chapter to this sensitive issue and describes the way she came to a solution of the problem in ‘a Eureka moment’: please read on!

We are again fortunate to be able to include a video extract of the play, Antigone, which gives a valuable insight into the quality of the performances and commitment of the young people involved.

It is a detailed, well-resourced account of how to engage young people in, and prepare them for, a youth theatre performance. It is also an argument for Drama in school settings:

When Drama is granted adequate space in the schools, it helps develop skills such as imagination, negotiation, collaboration, exploration, rehearsal, questioning, reflection, problem-solving and acting.

I think we can all say ‘Amen’ to that!

Chris Lawrence

National Drama

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