Drama studios, just like rehearsal rooms, can be amazing places of creativity and imagination which are incredibly supportive. However, they are also places of honesty, risk and vulnerability, which can be uncomfortable and scary for many.
As we open up we may expose our personal feelings, experiences, beliefs and fears. For children and young people this may be something they are not comfortable with. I know I found the idea of potential ridicule terrifying when I first started doing drama, and didn’t trust peers and teachers enough at the time to let go of that.
As a practitioner I work with lots of school groups, but often only in one-off workshops and classes, so I am a stranger to them. Part of my job is to quickly gain their trust and create a safe and supportive environment in which they can be creative.
Whether we are performers, students or teachers, we all want these spaces to be positive, supportive and creative, but above all to be emotionally and physically safe for everyone concerned.
Here are a few ways to help students feel safe, supported and engaged:
Performing in front of a whole class can be daunting, especially for teenagers, so building up their confidence over time is important. I start with getting students to do things individually but as a whole group, and then half the class showing their work while the other half watches. I then get them working in small groups in projects which end in small groups performing for the class, before working in pairs and then solo. This process can build their confidence, get them used to performing, and gradually reducing their performance anxiety.
Creating a comfort zone
Not all students, or professional performers, are comfortable with all exercises we ask them to do, so creating a way out if they need it can be helpful. When using exercises like emotional memory, which can be challenging at the best of times, I always get students to start by focusing on a place where they do feel safe, so if at any time they feel uncomfortable they can return to it. In a more physical activity, there may be a physical place they can go to take a break if they need it. By creating a real or imagined exit to an exercise, I find that students are more willing to give it a go, and more likely to stay the course. Knowing the option to exit is there can be enough to make them not need it.
As an actor I know that 99% of jobs I apply for are cast based on every physical attribute from height and hair colour to age, gender and skin colour. In any other sector, most casting decisions would be deemed discriminatory.
Blind casting can be creative and inclusive. Pick roles out of a hat, play them honestly and truthfully to the character, and see what creative choices are discovered. It can also give students the opportunity to play a role far removed from their own self-identity and therefore a sense of distance, allowing them to embrace the role.
Mind your language.
What we say and how we say it can have lasting a impact. In drama and theatre there are, usually, no bad or wrong ideas, and therefore no good or right ideas either. Therefore, even saying ‘Good idea’ to some responses and ‘OK’ to others, may make students feel that their ideas are not good or right, and therefore may be more hesitant in the future.
Try to acknowledge all ideas equally using more neutral terminology like ‘interesting’ or ‘thank you’.
Drama gives us a creative freedom to challenge difficult topics in a creative way through other characters. Issues associated with equality, race, discrimination, threats or sexuality can be trigger issues for some but they shouldn’t be avoided. As a practitioner, when working on plays or projects based on sensitive issues, I try to remain impartial and play the role of a joker in a devising process to question, challenge and support new ideas and positive discussion.
Thinking back to the blind casting and performance anxiety topics above, getting students to debate a subject they are passionate about from the other perspective, or by exploring a subject through group work, can help students process ideas, empathise with characters who hold opposing beliefs to their own, and create challenging new work, all while addressing these sensitive issues openly.
We create bespoke workshops for schools on a range of performance styles, practitioners, themes and shows, plus we create CPD training based on our many combined decades in the industry. If you have any issues you need to discuss or get support with, please do get in touch.