Monday, 20 March 2017

Directive-Response-Response: complete lesson plan


- a strategy for collaborative creation
Workshop by Carl Robinson (with Cat Leclerc)

This workshop has been written for teachers here, but could easily be adapted for students learning about devising.

Directive-Response-Response is a strategy for collaboratively developing creative work, be it drama, art, music, writing or otherwise, in which students’ contributions are remixed and re-imagined by the collective over multiple iterations. The resulting work which is produced becomes ‘inextricably linked’ to each and every contribution which formed it, creating a rich and complex product at the end of the process. Touching upon the ideas of some contemporary performance makers (Goat Island/Forced Entertainment) and visual artists (Richard Serra), the workshop will be grounded in modern creative practices and principles.

This workshop is intended to give a basic introduction to the ideas and principles of some key contemporary performance makers (context here) and visual artists and provide participants with some exercises and techniques which can be used in a range of creative classes, not just the arts.

Photographs or other images (evocative images here)
Music (playlists available here)
Extract of non-fiction text (examples here)
Extract of fiction text. (example here)

Note: The timings stated here are shorter than the ideal, in order to fit into the 90 minute session time. Ideally you would take 2, if not more, sessions to complete these activities and to repeat presentations but with different music and in different styles allowing participants to experiment with timing, tone, speed, intensity, etc.

Step 1- First Directive -5 mins
Divide participants into groups of 4.
Give each group one of the four stimuli pieces (a photo, some music, non-fiction, or fiction). They read/listen/view this directive for 2 minutes, then give immediate statements of meaning (see Critical Response Process here).
  • I saw…
  • I heard…
  • I noticed…
  • I felt…
  • It reminded me of…
  • I wondered...

Step 2- Considered Responses -10 mins
Individually, participants respond to the their group’s directive by creating a new piece of art which is inspired by it.
✭ This could be in the form of a poem, a dance, a song, some music, a photo, a drawing, a list of words, some instructions, etc. The art should be inspired (directly or indirectly) by the directive.
✭ It does not need to be a ‘finished’ piece after 10 minutes, in fact it’s best to encourage participants to leave their work unfinished and incomplete so it can be grown by someone else in the next step.

Step 3- Group Sharing 1 -10 mins
✭ The group comes back together to share their work with each other.
✭ This sharing can be informal or formal, but it is worth keeping in mind that performance material often works best when it is ‘delivered’, with some ceremony. Participants might want to present their work (even if it is unfinished) in a formal way.
✭ Each individual presentation is followed by immediate statements of meaning.

Step 4- Response As New Directive -15 mins
✭ Individuals now select some or all of the material created in step 2 (by others, not their own material) and grow it. They can change, edit, add to, depart from, develop the material in any way they choose. It becomes the inspiration for a new piece of art.
✭ In the same way as step 2, individuals create a new piece of art in any medium they choose. It doesn’t need to be the same medium as they worked in for step 2, nor the same as the medium of the material they are currently responding to.  
✭ Richard Serra’s verb list can provide interesting suggestions of how to develop material. Try adding friction to a song, or hooking and heaping your movements.
✭ Any attachments to the first directive should be put to the back of the mind in this step. Allow new connections, themes and ideas to emerge from the material that the other participants have created.

Step 5- Group Sharing 2 -5 mins
✭  The small groups get back together to share their work amongst themselves.
✭  If there is time available, give immediate statements of meaning. If not, go straight to the next step.

Step 6- Compose -15 mins
✭ Each group must now compose the material they have created into a structure that makes sense and rehearse it ready to present to the whole group.
✭ It can use some or all of the material, including the material created in step 2 and/or the original directive material (if useful).
✭ Parts can be organised sequentially, overlapping, juxtaposed, etc.
✭ This is a short amount of time, so quick decisions must be made. The piece doesn’t need to ‘make sense’ or have a concrete narrative running through it. It’s just a structure within which the material can be shared.
✭ Finally, if there is time, groups should consider the beginning and the end of their presentation, thinking about the way that they will open and close their performance with a *full stop*.

Step 7- Full group sharing -15-30 mins
✭ Each group presents their work, using any materials/music/staging that they were able to throw together.
✭ If there’s enough time, allows the audience to offer immediate statements of meaning after each presentation.

Step 8- Reflect -5-10 mins
✭ What is challenging, exciting, surprising about working in this way?
✭ Which ideas, themes, thoughts emerged unexpectedly while working collaboratively?

✭ Which are the other mediums of creativity that this can apply to?

Tuesday, 7 February 2017

Pedestrian Movement As Dance: complete lesson plan


"I’m not a dancer but that doesn’t stop me dancing."

A workshop for generating movement and choreographies from a range of everyday movements and gestures.

Ideally you would take 2, if not 3 sessions to complete these activities and to repeat presentations but with different music and in different styles allowing participants to experiment with timing, tone, speed, intensity, etc.

Warm up 10 mins
✭     ‘Twisting wrists
Starting with arms outstretched in front, curl the fingers in. Slowly add in body parts while continuing to twist and articulate previous parts. Once the whole body is twisting and walking bring the warm-up to a close.

✭     ‘Kittens fighting
In pairs. The kittens have to try to softly touch their partner on different parts of their body, while trying not to be touched themselves. Remind participants that kittens have very soft paws, also that they need to keep an awareness of others around them at all times. This emphasis of this activity is on warm-up and building a good pair/group dynamic, not on competition.

Group choreography from sport 40 mins
✭ Individually, select 5 short movements from sport. These can be from the same or from different sports. After selecting the 5 movement, ‘abstractify’ each by changing one element of the movement to make it less recognisable and more ‘dancey’. No need to order them.

✭ After developing the 5 movements, select the best 2. In pairs, teach each other the 2 moves.

✭ Pairs meet pairs, teach each other the 4 moves.

✭ The groups of four order the movements and make a routine that lasts 4 counts of 8. The routine should be easily repeatable, even if this means adding in a count of 8 to walk back to the starting position.
Optional- one movement must last for 8 beats, and one movement must last for 2 beats.

Presentation 1 15 mins
✭ Present the dances but with different styles/moods of music. Students have to work with or against the music, but maintain group timing.

✭ If given more time, the presentation of this exercise works best when combined with solos and students present with a group space and solo space, like in the following activity.

Solo and group dances combined 60 mins (minimum)
✭ As a whole group, in a clearly visible place write a 10 point list short of gestures/movements.
e.g. 1. Turn head
2. Raise hand
3. Put head in hands
4. Smile
5. Stand up/Sit down
6. Move behind a chair
7. Put your hand on someone’s face
8. Close eyes
9. Cross/uncross arms/legs
10. Clench fists

✭ Set up a bench or a row of chairs for 3-5 people, on the stage. During the presentation participants can choose and complete movements from the list. There is no limit to how many times each movement is completed, if at all. There are moments when a pause is also necessary and eye contact can be key. Except from a set action like a Smile, neutral faces is also necessary.

✭ For now though, put this exercise on hold before presenting to work on the solos.

✭ Give each participant a small piece of paper and a pencil to write a directive for a dance or movement solo. Participants choose one of two options:
- Write a well-known body related metaphor or figure of speech
e.g. My heart is breaking
        My legs have turned to jelly
        Keep your chin up
        A pain in the neck
        Butterflies in my stomach
        I’m head over heels
        I have a fire in my belly
        Brain Freeze
        There’s a thorn in my side
- Write a short description of nature or otherwise
e.g. Butterflies in grass
        Water rushing over a waterfall
        Spinning endlessly through Space
        Being kissed all over
        The building of Mt. Everest
        Lava bubbling and then cooling
✭ It may be useful to remind participants that they are writing a gift for another, and that the receiver of their directive should be inspired but not restricted by it.

✭ After writing, in a circle everybody passes their paper to the right. Give participants a few minutes to try out their new directive. The emphasis of this is not on developing a literal/mimic representation  so the audience are able to understand what the directive said, but on finding an abstract representation of it, that captures some of the essence or feeling of the directive, but is not necessarily easily recognisable.

✭ Now prepare the performance space. Define a group and a solo area like this:

Presenters start in the group area and complete gestures from the 10 point list (as above). This continues throughout the presentation (usually the length of a song). At any time though, a single presenter can move to the solo area and present their solo representation of their directive, for as long or as short as they feel necessary. When they have finished their solo, they can return to the group area and resume their gesturing.

Thursday, 2 February 2017

Pina- Pushing a pin into it


The work of Pina Bausch and the Tanztheater Wuppertal has had a profound impact on my work as both an artist and a teacher. If you haven't seen anything of their work, then watching the 2011 film Pina is a jaw-dropping, heart-awakening place to start.

Among so many of her ideas and principles there is one that particularly stands out and continues to define my idea of performance- the idea of evocative images instead of illustrative.

Bausch wasn't your average choreographer, with a pre-planned vision of every piece she made. The work was driven by the dancers in the Wuppertal, by their thoughts, feelings, expressions.

There's a great section in Royd Climenhaga's book on Bausch where he references a time while she was working on the piece Walzer (1982). Bausch asked the company to explore the idea of a display in a natural history museum.

"In museums you can see where they collect animals, stuffed animals. You can see how they are preserved and how they stand there, the animals. or with insects, how they mount them so that people can look at them. An ensemble member questions, Do you want us to put it into words? and Bausch responds, No, I want you to do it, or do it to someone."
 (Was Tun Pina Bausch und Ihrer Tanzer in Wuppertal? 1983)

Climenhaga goes on to explain that Bausch wants to capture the pain of being mounted by a pin, or perhaps the discomfort of viewing such animals mounted in that way. She doesn't want her performers to recreate the image, it's too literal. You can imagine some novice students making the same mistake as some of her ensemble members back in '82 they tried to re-create the moment by pinning one of the others to the wall, and often we see students translate a prompt such as this into similarly literal expressions.

She wanted her ensemble to understand that  "It tells us about the feeling, but it doesn't give it to us. It's illustrative rather than evocative." She doesn't want to create an experience "where we may say "Ah, I get it, it's like animals in a natural history museum," because then you either get it or you don't, but in either case the image stops there, once the connection has been made."

(Climenhaga, Royd. 2009. 'Pina Bausch.' Routledge Performance Practitioners: 111-113)

This principle of "Don't show me the feeling. Give me the feeling!" is critical when devising work to have impact. It's turns one-dimensional scenes upon which the audience is but voyeur, into an opportunity for us to make our own connections and to experience the piece for ourselves.

If you don't know the work of Pina Bausch and would like to know more, then the film is a great introduction which you can follow up with Royd Climenhaga's detailed guide on her work. The book also includes many practical exercises to get your students creating in the same ways as the Wuppertal. Finally, although Pina sadly passed away in 2009, Tanztheater Wuppertal still performs many of her pieces all around the world, so if you can get to see it live, I would highly recommend it.

Monday, 12 September 2016

Inclusion, Challenge and Success


An article written by Jacqueline Tordoir, the parent of a previous ISB student, and published in Dutch in the blog of education Think Tank- NIVOZ. You can check it out on this link:

ISB Middle School's recent production of The Jungle Book

My daughter Daniela went to the International School of Brussels. The mission of the school is: everyone included, challenged and successful.  Of the three mission components, “challenge” is the one Daniela has been covering since she was 3, when she was diagnosed with a brain tumour. Although her one-year intensive hospital treatment is now a distant memory, Daniela’s learning difficulties are a daily challenge.

My daughter was enrolled as a pupil in the ISB’s ‘Special Education’ programme, where she spent most of her school hours in a small class of six children. For Dutch and Drama class, she participated in lessons in the mainstream Middle School. While relishing her periods in the mainstream, she found it hard to have the label ‘special ed. kid’ attached to her and despite the wonderful guidance of her special ed. teachers, she often wondered why she couldn’t be like her peers and fully participate in the mainstream programme. The gap between the education levels at both sections is large. My daughter hovered between the two, intellectually, emotionally and socially. It was tough. Together with her teachers, we were on a continuous quest for the other two mission components: ‘inclusion’ and ‘success’.

Eventually we saw it happening: inclusion, challenge and success seamlessly rolled into one when she performed her part of ‘Wolf 3’ in the school’s The Jungle Book production. I spoke to her drama teacher to find out more about his pedagogical approach. He involved around 40 pupils in his production of The Jungle Book, 26 were stage performers. Others were involved in costumes, backstage, masks, makeup and stage design. It took 48 hours of rehearsals over four months to prepare the play, with three performances at the end. In total, the students presented their work to nearly 500 audience members.

When rehearsals started I had noticed that it took my daughter a while to get into it. She showed no particular enthusiasm for going to rehearsals. Her drama teacher confirmed that she was withdrawn and frightened to make her voice heard. She would cower in a corner rather than step forward, whisper rather than speak up or shout out. He recognised her challenge: She was the only special education student in the group and together with another child, the only one from the lowest grade, grade 7; all the others being from grade 8 up to High School grade 12.

So how did we end up with a smiling Wolf 3, beaming on stage, exclaiming that this was the best time in her life, hugging and kissing her fellow thespians while gracefully receiving compliments on the delivery of her lines and her true-to-life wolf performance throughout? Better call her drama teacher.

His key message was trust. He considered that his first task in starting off any theatre production was to work on building trust for creating what he called the “ensemble”, the group coherence and collaboration. He worked on trust by means of various exercises. His aim was to make everyone feel part of the whole, to get everyone to feel that they too have something unique to contribute to the group and that difference is not just OK, but something to be cherished. He reckoned very few children will feel entirely confident at the beginning of rehearsing for a play and likewise in this group, my daughter was not the only one to feel fear and inhibition. The group also included children who had only recently learned to speak English for instance. Through trust-building exercises, children eventually ended up trusting themselves and each other

My daughter’s drama teacher’s next step was to create a safe environment in which children were encouraged to take risks and to reflect openly on each other’s endeavours through giving critical, non-judgmental feedback. Children thrived by sensing that none of the feedback given was personal, that each comment served the purpose of increasing their skills and the quality of the group effort as a whole. Risk-taking was cultivated by giving children exercises to stretch their imagination, asking them to perform the impossible. Everyone took part no matter how hesitant they felt about taking risks. The secret was in the approach. How can you not take a risk when you are asked to work out a way to turn yourself inside out, or to find a way of seeing the back of your own head?

Another key to this teacher’s success was creating an environment for active participation. For his productions, he saw his role as a facilitator rather than a director. He used the creative input he got from the children to build the play. There was a script, but it was flexible. ‘Children have excellent ideas, I would be mad not to take them on. The process is more important than the end-result’, he said. All children in The Jungle Book were active agents in building it, they were treated as competent partners in shaping the process and the end-product.

So where was my daughter in all this? When her teacher noticed that his trust-building exercises did not have an immediate effect, or at least not as much as was required to make her an active participant in the process, he intervened. A small push did the trick. He took her aside and told her that she needed to be brave. That without her taking action herself there would be no reaction. That she should give the others the opportunity to learn from her, from her energy, from her physicality and that they in turn could help her with their feedback and with remembering her lines and “prompt” whenever it was needed. They were messages for trust and risk-taking with a safety net supplied. It worked. The next rehearsal my daughter acted out an angry wolf. Buoyed up by the feedback she received she continued to develop her role from strength to strength. No prompting was needed at any stage….

If it’s true that “all the world’s a stage”, Carl found a way of bringing the stage into Daniela’s world and answered our quest for inclusion, challenge and success.

Jacqueline Tordoir

Thursday, 8 September 2016

Artist Toolbox: Sticky stuff


It's early in the year and you are building an ensemble in your class. Would you like to hear about an activity which you might not have heard of? Sure you would!

Well, the first activity I have for you is called the Helium Stick, and you could use it in pretty much any class or group to help build teamwork and communication.

  • First, get the group to line up in two rows which face each other.
  • Introduce the Helium Stick- a long, thin, lightweight pole with tennis balls stuck on the ends.
  • Ask participants to point their index fingers and hold their arms out.
  • Lay the Helium Stick down on their fingers.  Make sure that everyone's index fingers are touching the stick.
  • Explain that the challenge is to lower the Helium Stick to the ground.
  • The catch: Each person's fingers must be in contact with the Helium Stick at all times. Pinching or grabbing the pole in not allowed - it must rest on top of fingers.
  • Reiterate to the group that if anyone's finger is caught not touching the Helium Stick, the task will be restarted. Let the task begin....
  • Warning: Particularly in the early stages, the Helium Stick has a habit of mysteriously 'floating' up rather than coming down, causing much laughter.
  • To be successful the group needs to calm down, concentrate, and very slowly, patiently lower the Helium Stick - easier said than done.

students working on the challenge

A success? Great!
Would you like another one? Even greater!

This next activity is a good one for partner work and can be extended into performance material as a further step.

  • First, split the group into pairs. Preferably with partners they know the least.
  • Give each pair two (30cm) sticks
  • Students hold the sticks between their index fingers and try not to let them drop.
  • They are not allowed to pinch or hold the sticks with their other digits. The pressure they put on the sticks with their index fingers should be enough.
  • Challenge the students to explore the range of movements they have with these restrictions: Can they twist around? Step over the sticks? Lay down together? Balance?
  • After 5 minutes of exploration, ask them to share their best 'stunt' with the group. If they're trying something particularly difficult, commend them on going all out for the glory!

  • First, split the group into pairs. Preferably with partners they know the least.
  • Once you have done this, if you want to take it further, ask students to practice three moves, which are combined into a routine or phrase. 
  • They practice with the sticks but when they share their phrase with the group they will do it without the sticks. In performance they must still have the same concentration as if they were still using the sticks however.
  • As an added twist, students can experiment with changing the length of the imaginary sticks. What happens if their stick is super tiny or really long? What happens to the phrase if the sticks shrinks or grows half way through.
  • Add some interesting music and watch what happens...
  • Ask the audience to feedback with their interpretations of the performances. Did the performance remind them of anything? Were there stories that emerged? A particular theme or idea?
If one or both of those activities is a new one to you then I'm happy! They certainly provided my students with some important learning moments.
And remember, if you get stuck, use a stick to get unstuck!

(Yeah, I just made that up.)

Wednesday, 31 August 2016

Character alignments: a geek teacher's guide


I love Eric Molinsky's podcast Imaginary Worlds, a show about 'imaginary worlds: how we create them and why we suspend our disbelief'. It's a curious geek's guide to a deeper side of pop culture and well worth a listen if that sounds like your thing.

I just listened to the episode titled Why They Fight and was fascinated to hear how a part of the role-playing game Dungeons & Dragons has influenced a lot of pop culture since the game was released and I realised that this system for categorising characters would be a great drama activity, so don't switch off just yet!

A big part of DnD is building your character, giving them traits, personality, history, skills etc. Alignment is a categorization of the ethical and moral perspective of a character. There are 9 types of alignment, which can be explained in various nerdy diagrams available in a quick google search.

The alignments apply to so many well-known characters from Harry Potter to The Muppets, from Batman to Animal Farm.


Molinsky's personal pick of characters also make a lot of sense to me and he clearly describes how they fit their alignments in the episode:

As you can see from the diagrams, so many characters fit into these alignments and it is when two characters fall into different alignments that we get great stories; see Batman vs The Joker, Captain America vs Iron Man, Harry Potter vs Lord Voldermort, Aladdin vs Jafar. 

So I'm going to use this system with my students soon and ask them to create characters for improvisations which fit into the different alignments. Let's see what happens then...!

(See also Geek & Sundry for another simple breakdown)

Thursday, 25 August 2016

GCSE Bitesize: A Mantra (but that's probably all)


Today once again, British 16 year-old's received their GCSE exam results. I remember that time in my life and now as a teacher I find myself reflecting on the value of it. With exam changes, increases in difficulty and always a controversy never far from the news, I can't help but wonder why Britain persists in holding these exams.

Nobody should denigrate the achievements of those who received their results in the past few days. The problem lies with the exam, not them. GCSEs are obsolete and have been for several years. Exams at 16 were invented when the majority of children left full-time education at that age and moved directly into the labour market.
-Peter Wilby in the Guardian

The period of time before my own exams at 16, spent cramming, revising and worrying probably didn't do a great deal for any success in my life since. Most of the things I learnt in school and remember now were things taught to me by passionate teachers in learning situations that cannot be assessed in any sanitised, three-hour long exam.

However, there was one idea from this period that has stuck with me and defines much of how I approach challenges in my life to this day and it came from the unlikely place of the BBC's free online study resource- Bitesize.

The BBC's GCSE Bitesize resource
This scheme offers students study resources which are 'broken down into manageable chunks' to try to help with the stress of studying for all their exams. Now it wasn't the program itself which helped me very much but the principle it is built on, that of the idea to break down a large, seemingly overwhelming task into small, easy-to-achieve parts. 

Now I'm sure I had come across that idea many times before that, obviously, but something about the slogan and the advertising that the BBC used in their campaigns stuck with me as a teenager. Since then I've adopted that approach whenever I feel the pressure of a large scary task, be it writing a dissertation, starting a new job or buying a house. 

Take starting a new job for example. It can be very scary when you think of the whole picture- so much to learn, new people to make good impressions on, so much to get to grips with. But if you break it down into 'manageable chunks' then it's not so bad. First step is to get on the bus and show up- easy. Then you have to walk through the door- walking's easy. Shake a hand and smile- simple. Sit through a fire-safety video- breezy. And so on... So whenever I'm feeling the pressure I just recite that mantra: 'Break It Down Into Manageable Chunks'

Nothing revolutionary, and not worth all the revision just for that, but a positive outcome for me nonetheless. 

I'm thinking about those 16 year-old's who now have their GCSEs behind them and those 15 year-old's who have it to come and I wonder why we still put them through it all... Although the BBC's catchy slogan worked with me there are clearly better ways to teach task-management skills to students and as for the rest, it's high-time the British government found a new path for secondary education.