Non Naturalistic Theatrical Conventions

While this post is aimed at assisting teachers of VCE Drama and their students, it should also prove worthwhile to teachers and students undertaking drama and theatre at all levels of secondary education in other states and countries.

A side note, first. In the Victorian curriculum, non-naturalistic performance styles are those that essentially equate to what teachers in other states of Australia or countries may refer to as non-realistic or anti-realistic theatre. And as we all know, contemporary theatre is often eclectic, a mix of both realistic/naturalistic and non-realistic/non-naturalistic styles and associated conventions. Indeed, the VCE Drama course acknowledges non-naturalistic theatre can include elements of realism/naturalism (eg. believable characterisation mixed with breaking the fourth wall).

Signs are popular in non-naturalistic student drama.

One of the difficulties for VCE Drama teachers and students is that while four conventions are highlighted as essential components of non-naturalistic theatre for students at Year 12 (see below), beyond this there is no finite list of conventions (nor should there necessarily be so).  The ability for teachers to compile a list of non-naturalistic conventions for easy digestion by their students in the classroom can sometimes prove difficult. So I have compiled a list from a few sources that may assist some people in seeing it all at a glance:

Non-Naturalistic (Theatrical) Conventions

The essential four in the VCE Drama course require students to demonstrate:

  • transformation of character
  • transformation of place
  • transformation of object (prop/item of costume)
  • transformation of time (2014 onwards) <currently “disjointed time sequences”>

VCE Drama solo performance examination documents (2007-2013) have included the following conventions to be applied by students in non-naturalistic ways:

  • stillness and silence
  • dramatic irony
  • exaggerated movement
  • song
  • caricature
  • heightened use of language
  • dramatic metaphor
  • satire/comedy
  • pathos
  • freeze frame
  • flashback
  • dramatic metaphor
  • fatal flaw
  • lyrical
  • live sound effects

I would add the following conventions (mostly belonging to Brecht’s epic theatre style):

  • direct audience address
  • fragmentary costume
  • placards and signs
  • narration
  • fragmentary set pieces
  • multimedia

Granted, the above conventions do look like a shopping list. Many require “unpacking” by teachers in the classroom to enable students to understand them. All of them should have definitions provided for students.

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While those conventions that have appeared in VCE Drama solo performance examinations do have definitions prescribed in the terminology section of the exam/s, some remain confusing to understand. Also, a couple of conventions listed above are what I would refer to as a genre or style in themselves and not a convention (comedy, satire), while others could be presented in both naturalistic and non-naturalistic ways (multimedia, caricature).

If teachers want students to understand some or all of these conventions in the final year of schooling, then they should be taught in advance. I recommend using a “backward design” approach, where the teacher sets the goals of desired results at a certain stage (eg. my students will understand as many epic theatre techniques as possible by Year 12 drama ), then introduce learning activities to allow this to happen (teach some epic theatre techniques at Year 10, a few more at Year 11, the rest at Year 12, along with revision etc.).

There should never be a complete and finite list of non-naturalistic conventions for our drama and theatre students. As a living art, theatre is an ever-changing, evolving form. I’m sure many teachers could add to the above lists or debate the worth of some conventions, but hopefully seeing many conventions listed at a glance will assist teachers in their quest to help students understand non-naturalistic theatre.

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11 comments on “Non Naturalistic Theatrical Conventions

  1. Hi Justin,
    I’m struggling to find similar lists for Theatre of Cruelty, Surrealism and Poor Theatre… can you point me in the right direction? or do you have any resources you are willing to share?
    Your Brecht lists are fantastic 🙂
    Thanks,
    Elizabeth.

  2. If u have a blend of stanislavkys ‘the method’ and brecht ‘epic theatre’ in one performance. Is it stil eclectism? Samuel from Nigeria

    • Samuel, for a performance to be eclectic it really implies a broad range of diverse styles. While method and epic are different, I’d think you’d probably need more performance styles than this to label it eclectic. Hope this helps.

  3. Hey Justin im doing research on non-realism theatre. If you have info. please do send me an email.

    -thanks

  4. hey justin,
    i would like a list with explanations of the common conventions of melodrama, is the possible?

  5. Hi, I’m really struggling with finding a way to show that I’m doing a flashback in my solo performance and I was wondering if you had any strategies for that?
    Thanks

  6. You could use queue cards or you could use a video or some kind of media – i used a video at the start of my solo piece when I did artaud last year. hope it helps 🙂

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