Reflecting on different styles of teaching theatre. Which is best?
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Teaching is teaching? Not at all!

Michael Morpurgo, British children and youth author, once said:

It’s the teacher that makes the difference, not the classroom.– Michael Morpurgo

But how can you become a good teacher? Well, there are as many layers and ways of teaching as there are teachers are on Earth. Everyone has his/her individual style and that which makes it unique and productive in all its own ways. However, it’s important to position oneself in certain questions, which can be quite a challenge sometimes. The following is just one opinion to help you clarify what kind of teacher you are or want to be.

First of all, I want to depict three different approaches to teaching drama that I’ve experienced so far. All three theatres are very different, not only in their approaches, but also their offerings, size, employment structure etc.

Youth Theatre 1: Process-orientated

  • Here, I can definitely say that the process was the focus and with it the personal and social layer. The weekly training consisted of a lot of games and exercises for getting to know each other better, becoming an ensemble (especially in the first-year group), and pushing one’s own boundaries to the limit – thus surprising oneself with what they are capable of.
  • In this concept, the instructor was convinced that it is also beneficial to everyone to reveal the process and reveal all the intentions and aims which came/went with it.
  • After a game, it was often the case that he kind of had a tiny lecture about how it related to their lives. How it related to each individual and how it was gonna help them in the future.
  • It wasn’t just theatre. I could notice that they had a real philosophy and that you could understand the reason they were doing it. It was not just a job, it was so much more! It was a passion, a life philosophy and the wish to share all of this. To pass it on to young people and support them thus with strengthening their self-esteem, their endurance and self-assertion.
What worked?

What I really liked was the familiarity. The instructors would always be there half an hour before actual classes started. All members were more than welcome to drop in and have a cup of tea before starting. It was part of the concept and ensured that it was a social room, that there was time to chat about what was going on in everybody’s life, and to be asked for other opinions/consultations – just to ensure that nobody felt alone and everybody was supported. Of course, it was in a very relaxed and unforced setting.

I’d never experienced a concept like this before and I have to say I was a huge fan of it! It was always a great slow start to the session and of course, it was helpful for the instructor to gauge the current atmosphere and state of the members before starting with the actual session.

Youth Theatre 2: Product-orientated

Well, I guess this is the hardest one to describe for me as I just experienced their concept for six weeks. However, I know that they focus more on producing plays. The concept behind this is that everything from the process comes with the production. So, pick a play at the beginning of a term and rehearse it as much as possible until the show at the end of the term.

During this process, the kids are going to develop social and personal skills automatically as well. Some individual lessons were also focused on working to a presentation, even with an exam. In my perception, the method-related layer together with the content and aesthetic layer were targeted more like a very detailed analysis of the monologues, songs or presentations to be learned.

On the other hand, the lessons in smaller groups had more time to stick with single exercises and talk about them more intensely. Even though there was the clear aim of developing and performing a play at the end of the theatre season, they all enjoyed being able to spend at least some more time on the process itself. 

Youth Theatre 3: Mixture of Process and Product-orientated

This theatre also produced plays regularly with their members. They performed at the end of the entire theatre season – so end of summer term. Different from other Youth Theatres, enrollment was just possible once a year. This meant they were able to take more time in producing the play. Also, in the beginning, they had more time playing, trying different things and deciding on what topic they wanted to deal with in their play. Often, it resulted in kind of devising a play themselves where they improvised topics and found their own way of telling a story.

They would also have the chance to work more intensely on a play for interested advanced members (15 to 17 years). Here, I believe, they were even more accurate on the technical and aesthetic layer.

Sociocultural assertion

This is an institution I am currently working at. They also highlight the process as a sociocultural assertion which aims to support an integral personal development through the arts. Basic skills in different art disciplines are taught but they do not believe themselves to be a school for artistic knowledge. One specific group which should be involved are deprived social groups.

In the theatre project, I am currently working on the advantages of theatre as an interdisciplinary, collaborative art form which challenges every individual. Anyway, besides all the personal and social aims of the project, it is constructed to teach and improve German-Language for non-native speakers.

Where is my focus? 

  • Topic-focused: What is the content negotiated in class? Probably when teaching in school, using it more as a method to approach a certain subject.
  • Technical-focused: Gaining knowledge about aesthetics and methods. For sure the youth theatres, in general, are more focused on that. Also, if they do not claim to be a drama school, they are often also points of intersection to acting agencies or they help to prepare members for auditioning.
  • Social-focused: Group work is the focus: learning how to work together with others.
  • Individual-focused: Personality development: Who am I? What am I? Why am I?

Of course, you do not totally stick to one of these layers. It’s always a mixture and in action, you can’t clearly distinguish it all. Even if you are topically focused there will be some bits of technical or social and individual layers for example.

What your personal focus is on while teaching obviously depends on where you are working and with whom (youth theatre, school teacher, social worker, drama club instructor). So the context already sets the focus to a certain degree. But still, you have to make decisions yourself about which has the most priority. Why do you play theatre with people? What’s the purpose? How do you believe they get there? What do the participants (probably) expect when they enrolled for your sessions? What is theatre for you and how does it work in your eyes?

Important as well is that your personal view on theatre won’t change so quickly and thus will make you stick to some methods more than others. Still, it can vary from project to project or maybe even from group to group.

My tip for you:

Do not stop questioning yourself in your strategies of teaching. Keep doing it and do not get trapped in the danger of just doing something one way because you’ve always done it like that. Every once in a while, go over these questions (and I am sure you can think of more on your own). Answer them and check what changes might be necessary.

My position so far

I do theatre because I have experienced its effect for myself as an adolescent. It helped me a lot with believing in myself and improving all my personal and social skills. However, I gained technical, aesthetic and content knowledge as well. I believe in the process and that is why I am making theatre and I want to teach it. I see myself on the social side rather than the professional, technique one.

That does not mean the aesthetic and quality does not matter for me – it does. It’s just not my first priority to stage a perfect play. For me, it is important to take the time needed for the individuals themselves and the group-spirit. The presentation can be seen as a state of work though if wanted.

Although my work is process-orientated, I am convinced of the fact that a product, which means a performance in the end, is needed for having a successful process. The group has something to work towards and some processes can just be initiated by rehearsing for the end-performance or managing for the exhibition.

Katharina studies culture, aesthetics and arts in Hildesheim, Germany where she puts the focus on theatre pedagogy and cultural education. Beside cultural exchange work, youth work and culture management she worked and assisted in youth theatres in Germany, Ireland and the Czech Republic. Apart from teaching children she is also interested in projects with people who are non- German native speakers and are just about to learn the language.

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