Immersion in history through drama9:34, 14th March 2016
Samantha O’Reilly, head of drama and lead practitioner at Coombe Boys’ School in New Malden, demonstrates the potentials of cross curricular learning through the medium of drama.
In October 2014, the National Youth Theatre’s chief executive Paul Roseby remarked about drama at GCSE that ‘by engaging other subjects in the value of drama I believe it will gain respect, not just from those who practice and preach it, but from those who don’t currently “get it”’. Surprisingly, something in Roseby’s comments struck a chord with me. Even in a school where drama is valued, there are staff and parents who need persuading and convincing of its place. Roseby’s argument appeared to suggest a formalising of crosscurricular learning through the medium of drama in a way which enhanced the learning practice of other subjects. As a lead practitioner this really excited me; I have led on cross-curricular learning bringing numerous subjects together to deliver ‘themed’ learning days. What we had yet to do, however, was enhance the learning practice of other subjects through the drama medium. With my interest sparked, I proceeded to engage colleagues in other departments in conversation. I shared Roseby’s ideas of stimulating subjects by actioning stories and re-enacting, essentially taking the practical side of what theatre is and applying it to all subjects. It did not take long for our head of history to be fully hooked!
Keeping the memory of the Holocaust alive 27 January 2015 marked the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau.The creative concept was to employ the theatre-in-education unit our Year 13 BTEC students were studying to create a performance that would educate all Year 9 boys in the reality of the Holocaust. In Roseby’s words, we were going to ‘revolutionise the way welearn’. What emerged from the very early rehearsal period was the concept of ‘immersing’ the audience into the performance. We wanted to enhance the learning of the Year 9 boys and wanted our audience to be a part of the story we were telling and to be positioned firmly in the middle of the action.
The immersive nature of our show began as the audience arrived. Once in the performance space, students were issued with an ID tag and then separated either left or right to be seated behind barriers on a traverse stage. The ID tags outlined the name, age, year and place of death of those who had lost their lives in the Holocaust. From the very beginning of the show the audiences were able to play witness to the events without the distancing factor of a proscenium stage. The performance demanded a lot of our Year 13 actors, who multirolled throughout, as they tackled Kristallnacht, life in the ghettos, executions and finally the journey to Auschwitz itself. However, it was their ability to transition seamlessly from actor to in-role facilitator that enabled our audience to be pulled into the world created.
The most dramatic aspect of the show relied heavily on a multisensory theatre experience that put audience members right at the heart of the action. In order to create a sense of the horrific train journey to Auschwitz, the audience were corralled into the centre of the space and penned in by barriers. Film footage showed the loading of the trains and the disembarking at the camps, reminding the audience of the reality behind the discomfort they were experiencing.
Sound design was integral to unsettling the audience, while lighting aided the feeling of travelling over a number of days. Actors narrated throughout to ensure the audience had a real sense of shared experience. Some actors were penned in with the audience while others patrolled the outside of the pens. On arrival at the camp, audience members were sent to the left or right of the traverse stage and, with continued narration, the Nazis’ final solution was outlined. At a given point, smoke flooded the room to represent the gas of the chambers.
There is no question that the immersive techniques used made the Holocaust immediate and real, and had completely engaged all boys in their learning. It had created true emotion, fostered thinking and formed a platform for discussion. The unique shared experience of the performance had enhanced the learning practice of history through the medium of drama.