On Drama and Theatre in Mantle of the Expert

12th October 2019

A conversation: Luke Abbott and Tim Taylor

July 2019 – DRAFT

Over the years I have noticed you have begun to place an increasing emphasis on the different functions of drama and theatre in the development and exploration of Mantle of the Expert. Is this something you have become more aware of as your work has developed or is it something you have always known about?

Luke: I remember Gavin Bolton chastising us at a weekend residential in 1983 when he insisted that for teachers using drama in any setting (at that time, mostly secondary) we should understand more about how theatre works to develop contexts for learning. He was fed up with seeing so many children doing ‘drama on their bottoms’! In fact, he advised us to go on a course for actors and learn from them how theatre works. This conversation stayed with me as in those far off days, the battles between drama practitioners and theatre people was fierce. When I studied in depth with Dorothy Heathcote much was explained. It seemed we were all under a massive set of misunderstandings about theatre and drama in that we had little knowledge of the bonds between the two forms. Heathcote was adamant that theatre form was not about the usual orthodox understanding related to performance and spectacle.

Later, when I studied on her Master’s course, we read an extremely obscure article in the Diogenes magazine[1]. I am sure Sherlock Holmes would have read all the articles in the publications as they were so far ranging and edgy. One of them, by Tadeusz Kowzan, was ‘Sign in Theatre’[2] which he wrote in 1966. It had an explosive effect on me as I began to appreciate the seminal nature of what he had brought to the table – sign and significance. Semiology had become a big idea after Umberto Eco had put it on the map and here was an application of this new field of study to the world of theatre. Kowzan’s insight was that with sign comes the foreshadowing nature of ‘implication’. This woke an idea in me and for the past 25 years or so I have been brooding over the twin concepts of drama form and theatre form, trying my best to get some sort of grip on the nature of both, as I have a hunch something important is held in their atomic structure. The same hunch I had in the releasing of Mantle of the Expert on the educational community at a time when it stood a chance of survival. A bit like the Moses and the bulrushes metaphor or as others have said, protecting the new-born lambs from the cold winds.

Tim: I’d like to discuss with you your current understanding of the different functions of drama and theatre form, and how they operate within the approach. But before we start, can you clarify what the differences are between the elements of drama and the elements of theatre? My understanding is the following:

Drama Elements                                            

– Point of view – the people involved
– Location – where this is happening
– Time – when it is happening
– Events – what is happening
– Tension – what tensions are affecting those involved
– Now Time – events in the fiction are happening to people now
– Reflection – teacher uses various devices to allow participants the opportunity to reflect

Theatre Elements

– The deliberate use of sign – including words, writing, drawings, clothing, objects and actions by people
– A discussion on the implications of the signs – what might be happening, what does this mean
– That signs are representational (significant) – objects, people, words, represent things within the drama -‘as if it is…’

Luke: Well I think your first list concerning drama elements is an amalgam of the orthodox frameworks of the received opinion regarding ‘drama’. The medium of drama as I think of it, is very precise and if I may say, a little more selective in its make-up. The matters in hand are not ‘what they look like’ rather it is more like what the participants have to create internally. If of course it was just spectatorship then your list is fine as ‘what it looks like’ will be uppermost. However, in the form of drama that we are talking about we have to hold the essential nature of the expressive nature of the drama in the manifestation of group creativity rather than group re-enactments, or indeed spectatorship events.

The critical element of the form any drama takes is the most essential ingredient-in other words it is conducted by people for investigating people. It is the closest art form to the human condition as it takes the real-life day to day living experiences of people and puts them into a fictional frame that can be stopped and started at will.

People are necessary otherwise the medium is defunct. Now there is also the element of the fictional. Drama happens inside a fictional context. It follows then, that in drama, the people agreeing to make it happen, agree to adopt fictional representations of people or human beings so as to stand in the shoes of imaginary others, to embark upon an investigation of some sort. These people also agree to create the events as if it is happening in the now of time. The events will be shrouded by an immediate or long-time coming tension of some sort that will affect the people somehow. Naturally the people creating this set of fictional events will want to stop sometimes for a discussion on what is emerging and take steps to trial or retrace their steps to get a better view on the matters that are under scrutiny. So, reflecting on matters unfolding is also essential, as it is in all art.

So, a more precise list would be:

  • people together
  • people agreeing a fiction
  • people taking a different point of view within the agreed fiction
  • the fiction agreed has some sort of tension to be tackled – major or minor
  • it all happens in the now – time make believe mode
  • it is possible and desirable to switch into a reflective mode to process the meanings as they emerge

In terms of theatre though I think your list is accurate. My observations to date, from my practice, help me conclude that both drama and theatre use ‘as if’. The minute, however, we start to use objects – the actual space of the activity, artefacts, or others signs – beyond their functional use, we begin to inhabit the realms of theatre form, in which such objects start to represent fictional and significant matters that transcend their original use and begin to carry deeper invested meanings – which, in turn, works to aid those participating into investigations and revelations of the human situation being created.

Furthermore, the elements of theatre are to do with the significant projection of make believe so that the factors associated with make believe are deeply affecting on those involved in the creation of the fictional setting(s). I am referring to the selection of a linguistic register[3] used by the person in role, the signs they emit when they are in the ‘as if’ mode, the heightened sense of focus used to carry meaning, and a commitment by those involved to subsume their disbelief in order to assume a state of ‘almost belief’. (This, of course, is paraphrasing Kenneth Tyan’s notion that drama and theatre can only take form if participants or performers willingly suspend their disbelief. Which is an act of will).

Language and sign then take command of the actions and context. This is usually seen as ‘acting’ skills, but actually represents much more, in my view, especially in classroom dramas. In tandem with the Conventions of Dramatic Action[4], the art form of theatre begins to take up its place with drama elements as above, enabling the actions of the people involved to become very close to a theatre spectacle, from the outside. Theatre form can of course be witnessed from the outside in or the inside out depending on the positioningof the people in the room. Dorothy Heathcote had a lot to say on this matter and it is a complex area of human behaviours and social framing, as in Irving Goffman’s[5] writing. In his treatise on Framing in social structures (Frame Analysis, 1978[6]) the implications of his insights gave us some bearing as to how we as humans respond to each other depending on the social frame we inhabit. His revolutionary thinking at the time enshrined the term ‘frame’ and the significances of points of view. This was a critical new concept but one that had been lying in wait for so long. Obviously the work had deep implications on the social learning the system of Mantle of the Expert as the fictional framing was another form of parallel experiences. Because Goffman wrote ‘Frame Analysis’ some time ago, this does not mean he is out of date! We have moved on in our understandings but his seminal work in the 60’s and 70’s is still resonating today. As is M.A.K Halliday’s[7]work on linguistics, which can help us to distinguish between the different demands language codes might enable if we apply his six uses of language. Later, Halliday began to uncover theories of learning through language structures applied in learning. The implications in terms of the work of developing ‘make believe’ situations become apparent as roles are deliberately brought into active fictions, challenging the leaners’ preconceptions by modelling society’s structures and social encounters.

Tim: You’ve said before that the elements of drama and theatre are like ‘two sides’ of the same coin, that drama can’t exist without the use of theatre and visa-versa. With that in mind, would you say that drama is about ‘what’ is happening, and theatre is about ‘how’ it is represented?

Luke: As we saw at the weekend workshops, this seemed to be a helpful way to sum up the matters under scrutiny but as I’ve said above there is a lot more to it to take on.

Tim: Of course, theatre in the classroom is very different to theatre in the theatre – there is no stage for a start – what other aspects would say make it distinctly different.

Luke: Well-theatre in the classroom is not about the orthodox ‘performing’ or ‘spectating’. In a classroom depending on how you look at it-there is a stage of sorts, as Peter Brook taught us in John Heilpern’s account of the journey of the theatre troop. (The Conference of the Birds, Faber 1977) Heilpern cites many examples of theatre as spectacle on such things as a large cloth, inside spaces created by audience, wooden sticks and so on. In his travels in Africa the stage is only a space where something involving people and fiction can occur… so classroom carpets and a bit of chalk are pretty good substitutes! I know what you mean though. The only real difference in classroom theatre form and spectacle is the function of the learners. Are they watching and re-enacting? If they are then the class are mimicking the orthodox stage and this may be essential for matters in hand, but little to do with the drama as expressed above. Passive receivership is perhaps what we are talking about as opposed to dynamic group creation together and in the now perhaps?

Tim: I’d like to look at an example to illustrate the way you think about using drama and theatre for learning and how it manifests in the classroom. On the last weekend course, you introduced a context based on the story of Snow White, where the participants created a team of apple growers working for a Queen who had nefarious plans for their apples. Could you describe how you might have introduced the apple growers to the Queen using the different elements of drama and theatre?

Luke: The hole I dug myself at the weekend was that the sharing of the frame beforehand with the participants teachers, set off uncontrollable narrative rabbits! This had the un-nerving effect on the tensions. They relaxed away as the participants invented the context that they apple growers were the queen’s servants. My fault entirely, I would have avoided doing this if I had the chance to teach it again!  But as we all know, part of the skill set is being able to dig ourselves out of holes we make for ourselves. My narrative plan was that the queen’s agent would come along to well-known orchard growers of fame, to acquire an apple that, by implication, could carry the death of the daughter of the queen. Had this been with a class of children there would be no issue as we would assume a position of ‘neutrality’. Growers who carried on their work in a land adjacent to the queen, until the messages and ultimate threat of destruction of the orchard, was unveiled and so on.

Let that be a lesson for me!

Some examples of signing the queen into the context.

In the structure the queen would be seen in Conventions of Dramatic Action – convention 2. There are many ways for the role to be observed by utilising the Conventions of Dramatic Action list especially in the 1-8 section. The beauty of them is that the selection of a particular convention carries with it totally different implications! For example, where would a portrait of the queen in her laboratory be seen? For what purposes would it have been painted would be a means to deepen the class’s understandings of how theatre works as we would be able to dissect the matters by implication in discourse with them in some form.

Tim: Could you explain what kinds of learning you were looking to develop?

Luke: Well for me with a class of year 2 or 3 children the growing of things would be a great piece of classroom science work. Lots of words like species and variety would have to be examined and testing out things. For example, the strange oranges available for eating and the variety used in marmalade production (Seville) and all the species of citrus the class could grow and research into. As for the context, this carries a possible deep set of circumstances around jealousy, getting one’s way whatever the costs, trickery and recognising manipulation and the motivations of a powerful person who can order people to do terrible things. This is the play for the teacher (in Gavin Bolton’s terms). For the class we would be using a fictional context around a story we know (Snow White) for our writing as we would need to record everything going on to let others be warned if we were forcibly evicted. In geography we would be exploring the climates of the Mediterranean with ours and spot the differences with a close exploration and study of global warming. Naturally we would as a class take actions as necessary to slow it down-perhaps by communications and tree planting in and around our school and homes. In the work we would also look at the ‘Disney-fication’ of stories and explore and create other ways art can interpret story and the fictional people inside it. Music would feature a lot, as we would use The Listeners by Walter de la Mare, as Chamber Theatre with a choice of music to accompany or to incorporate by live performance.

[1] https://journals.sagepub.com/home/dio

[2] https://www.mantleoftheexpert.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/07/TADEUZ-KOWKANS-OPUS.pdf

[3] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Register_%28sociolinguistics%29

[4] https://www.mantleoftheexpert.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/07/conventions-list-dh-revision.pdf

[5] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Erving_Goffman

[6] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Frame_analysis

[7] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Michael_Halliday


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