Friday 23 June 2017

An awfully big adventure

A play that offers a fresh perspective on World War 1 will tour the country from August this year, marking the final year of the centenary commemorations. Education Gazette meets two educators who believe in the power of live theatre as a learning experience.

Live theatre allows students to experience the purpose, conventions and wonders of the artform in an authentic content.
An Awfully Big Adventure is a play about war. World War 1, to be specific.
Aimed at children, this piece of live theatre is touring around the country for its final run before the end of the centenary commemorations, and looks at the big themes of war through a very human story.
An Awfully Big Adventure focuses on the tale of two young men: one a keen enlistee off on the adventure of a lifetime, the other a conscientious objector shipped to Europe for further punishment for non-compliance. The two then meet on Flander’s Field, by way of Gallipoli and the Western Front.
Capital E is a non-profit organisation in Wellington that delivers a range of arts education programmes, including the National Theatre for Children. In August and September this year, the organisation will take An Awfully Big Adventure on the road, performing in theatres from Whangarei to Invercargill.
Capital E is unique in that performances are done in local venues, rather than at schools. This offers students the benefit of an authentic theatre experience, including lighting, sound and sets. It also aims to strengthen connections between local venues and the young people in the communities they serve.

Live theatre for learning
Much has been written on theatre’s potential to build empathy: the proximity and sometimes interaction between actor and audience holds a power that film or television struggles to achieve.
Wellington drama teacher Emily Goldie says it’s this closeness that is exploited to great effect in
An Awfully Big Adventure.
“World War 1 is a complicated subject but the play doesn’t mince words or try to protect children from the truth of what it was all about,” she says.
“It respects the audience’s ability to cope with difficult subject matter, covering the historical context and creating some fantastic sound and lighting effects to communicate the ideas.”
Emily, who currently runs a parent education programme and has taught drama at both a primary and secondary school level, believes theatrical experiences offer something that other storytelling formats can’t.
“In live theatre a child can use all five senses to understand an idea or feeling,” she explains.
“You’re there with the actor right in front of you – you can see the sweat and tears. And therefore, you’re closer to the experience and the story that is being told. It’s raw and personal.
“As soon as you enter the theatre you’re giving students permission to leave the reality they know and come into a different one. Whereas in film, you are removed a bit.”
Emily says theatre offers a different way of viewing a story, in that an audience member chooses what they will see or focus on, as opposed to a film that cuts away to show a certain frame.
“It’s about being immersed in the whole thing, rather than just one scene at a time. You can choose to watch an actor that isn’t speaking at the time – theatre is magic like that.”
Inspiration to perform
Year 7–8 teacher at Paremata School Sally Ratchford took her class to see An Awfully Big Adventure at the beginning of the centenary in 2014.
She says the play’s script was cleverly constructed in such a way to highlight the similarities between all soldiers caught up in the fighting, and to show the confusion and horror of the situation, without being graphic.
“It wasn’t too emotionally wrenching for the students, but it did show the reality and horror of the situation.
“There was a moment where the soldiers on one side were having a conversation, and then the same chat was repeated by those on ‘the other side’. It was a very humanising element to the work.”
Sally and her teaching team tied the themes of the play into a wider media studies unit, in order to explore how persuasive language and imagery influenced society during wartime and linking this to how the media affects us now.
From this, students learned about the context in which media such as war propaganda is created and gained an understanding of how military service was viewed at the time. Students could draw links from this learning to the play’s portrayal of two main characters: one a keen soldier, and the other a conscientious objector.
“We were looking specifically at how texts are shaped for different purposes and audiences. As part of our reflections about the show, we talked about the same kinds of things – what was the author trying to tell us/share with us, make us think about, were they trying to influence us in any way and if so how did they do that?”
Sally also explored the teaching resources that accompanied the play, and her students studied maps, recipes, letters and newspaper articles from wartime, and produced artwork and pieces of writing from this primary material.
“We looked at some letters sent during the war which were published in our local paper as part of a series commemorating the war. The students then wrote similar letters from the perspective of soldiers,” she says.
An actor herself, Sally says drama plays an important role at Paremata School.
“I’m very pro-live theatre for children – I’m involved in our local amateur theatre, and find it an amazing way for children to get engaged right across the curriculum. So it is something we prioritise here at Paremata School.”
Like Emily, Sally believes theatre as a medium has great potential for student engagement.
“I think this is because it brings the action closer, you can see the real emotion and therefore children can really imagine themselves going through it. Sometimes audience involvement is possible, and that keeps them really engaged as well.”
Inspiration to perform is another strong element of theatre, she says.
“I’ve noticed my students will come away with ideas for how they might use the same techniques and ideas in their own performances. For example, we went to a play last term, and the kids loved certain techniques such as the actors borrowing our bags for the show, and they wanted to do that in their own drama.
“They also carefully notice details of the costumes and props and get inspired for their own productions. It’s easier to analyse the elements that make up a play, than those in a film – and so there’s more to take away and think about.”
 
 
An Awfully Big Adventure tours the country in August and September. For more details, and teaching resources, visit
www.capitale.org.nz/portfolio-posts/an-awfully-big-adventure.

 
 

Student outcomes
Live theatre allows students to experience the purpose, conventions and wonder of the artform in an authentic context.
The New Zealand Curriculum recognises that learning takes place outside the classroom, and as such, authentic environments are essential to the relevance and meaning of certain experiences.
By attending a play in a professional theatre, and having space and time to discuss it afterwards, students are learning to identify ways in which dramatic techniques and conventions combine to create meaning both in their own work and that of others.