Keeping Students Engaged in the Year 12 Drama Solo Performance

As many Year 12 students in Victorian schools are on the verge of starting their solo performance examination in VCE Drama Unit 4, some teachers may be wondering how do they keep their students engaged in this task over many weeks? Here’s a few tips I use to keep my own students engaged.

Choose The Right Solo For You

Choosing the right solo is critical to this exam task. With normally ten characters to choose from, students need to select a solo that is going to keep them interested and challenged for about three months.

For some students it is DP3 that catches their attention. This section of the solo performance that lives outside the world of the main character but is linked thematically, can be a huge amount of fun. It can also involve a lot of research and brainstorming just to get going. It can often be many hours before a single word of script is written for DP3, but the challenges are exciting with freedom to choose a number of options for inclusion in this part of the solo. Hard work is usually rewarded in DP3.

Other students are heavily attracted to a particular sub-section of the performance style. While all solo examination character choices are to be performed in the style of non-naturalism, every year a handful of these are also prescribed an additional style where aspects of this must be demonstrated. Over the years, these have included well-known styles such as such as epic theatre, musical theatre and physical theatre, to more obscure styles such as Japanese horror and Cabaret Voltaire.

Students can also attach themselves to a solo exam choice based on the dramatic element or convention prescribed. These change between character choices and are logically connected. Conventions over the years have included caricature, exaggerated movement, pathos, satire, fatal flaw, stillness and silence, and puppetry to name just a handful.

Still, others choose a solo structure for their performance examination based on the prescribed stimulus such as a novel, play, artwork, television show or film.

Whatever attracts a student to a solo character choice doesn’t really matter, as long as it helps to engage them in the task for weeks to come.

Employ All Play-Making Techniques

One way of keeping engaged with a solo performance that covers half of Drama Unit 4 is to keep mixing things up by employing every one of the play-making techniques in the performance-making process.

I always advise my students to start by researching all characters (though not necessarily to the same degree). Otherwise, how do you know which exam characters to discount? They are then usually requested to narrow their choices down to just three. We now have an academic conversation analysing the pros and cons of each of these three choices, attempting to place them in preferential order. We then discuss the risks associated with each of these choices and whether the student is prepared to undertake any of them?

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Risk in a solo performance exam is good. Students must get out of their comfort zone. However, all risks must be calculated. There is such a thing as taking too much of a risk for your skill set. There is also such a thing as playing it too safe and taking few if any risks at all, which rarely results in A+ scores being awarded. Many believe researching ends relatively early on. Smart students realise while researching may taper off after a while, it should never just end a few weeks into developing the solo. It is a continual process with little bits of research maintained late into the rehearsal period.

Brainstorming is a key factor in the play-making process. Whether students doodle, undertake a mind mapping activity, draw charts, write options on cards to place down and re-order, discuss possibilities with a critical friend or the teacher, brainstorming is a natural part of solo performance development. Most students undertake brainstorming without even knowing it. Smart student keep a checklist to ensure they have actually undertaken the process adequately.

Technically, scripting is not a prescribed part of the play-making process for the solo performance. How a student devises the solo is completely up to them. Students are free to just use improvising to develop their solo performance if they wish. However, the benefits of writing a script are many, so I think it would be fair to say the vast majority of students write a solo script. But the script is going to be utter rubbish if researching was not done properly. It’s all well and good to say you’ve read the novel as the prescribed stimulus for the chosen exam character, but good luck developing DP3 without solid research under your belt first!

Is there such a thing as a good balance between scripting and improvising? Sometimes it depends on teacher influence. I know, for example, that I am less organic than other drama teachers, so my influence with students tends to focus more on scripting than improvising. A heavily scripted solo has its strengths and weakness, though. Students sometimes find it difficult to be flexible with their script because it is so rigid, often becoming unworkable. They struggle to make changes to their script during the play-making process. The backbone the script once offered has now become a right royal pain in the #%@!

On the flip side, purely improvising a solo also has its pros and cons. Many students enjoy the freedom improvising offers. If they can get over the embarrassment hurdle of improvising material in the classroom with peers and can focus on the task without being easily distracted, then improvising generates enormous amounts of creativity and can reap huge benefits. Completely improvising a solo, however, may be too much. Does it offer enough structure? Is improving too loose?

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Finding a balance of time spent both improvising and scripting is probably the best option. Students should know their current skill set when starting the solo task. If you’re a strong improviser, then tip the balance in that direction. Do the opposite if you enjoy the process of writing scripts. Sometimes, students script first, then improvise along the way in bits and pieces when they are stuck or when a scripted scene isn’t working. Mixing up the two keeps students engaged and motivated, constantly trying out new processes.

You can’t develop a solo performance without rehearsing. This is where students will naturally employ both improvising and scripting (as the spoken word). This is also where many students forget to use the play-making technique of editing. When rehearsing, students need to be organised and set themselves mini-goals. Aim to learn all lines and moves at least one week prior to the scheduled exam, lock it in and employ refining, if not done so already. Editing should never be a last-minute task. Students should avoid at all costs having a 14-minute solo performance at any time, much less a few days before the exam. The examiners will stop all students at 7:00 minutes and editing should be done on the fly during rehearsals. Recognising good material from useless material as you develop it is much more difficult than reflecting upon your solo at the end and then cutting. But the process of editing the solo as you develop it is far easier than chopping a solo in half the week before the exam. Which would you prefer? The answer is a no-brainer. Effectively refining the solo cannot occur without the process of editing. They go hand in hand.

In Summary

If a student makes the most appropriate character choice for their interests and skill set, then employs all seven of the VCAA-published play-making techniques during the roughly three-month performance-making process of developing the solo, their engagement should be sustained throughout. There can be so much variety when students use all of the play-making techniques. They may appear at first glance like they need to be employed in stages and an agreed order, but many students use four of five play-making techniques in a single rehearsal lesson at school.

The solo performance process can be tiring, academic, frustrating, challenging, long, inspiring, highly analytical, and emotional. The process is different for every student, yet the outcome at the end is the same for all – perform the solo as an examination on a scheduled date and time. Keeping students motivated and engaged is crucial to their success in this task.

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