Rewriting the Script (Or, The GCSE and the Culture of Devised Theatre in the UK, Pt. 2)

During my first week abroad, I attended a devised performance created by Complex Youth Theatre. Much of Ireland's theatre education culture revolves around extracurricular programs that aren't attached to schools. Complex Youth Theatre (CYT), for instance, is managed by a larger arts organization in Dublin 7 -- the North West Inner City. Many of these youth theatres have similar programming. Students meet once a week (every Saturday for CYT) to attend a workshop. (CYT offers an introductory drama workshop in the mornings and an advanced drama workshop in the afternoon. The advanced workshop leads to an annual public performance.) Youth theatres tend to work with small groups of students to maintain the intimacy required for successful theatre-making. Frequently, these programs receive far more applications from interested students than they have spaces available. The highly-competitive Dublin Youth Theatre (DYT) only has about a 30% acceptance rate. However, many of these programs have policies where students who come back to audition multiple years in a row (thus showing their dedication to the program) will eventually be accepted. And since students are allowed to enroll in a youth theatre from ages 14-22, they have many years to enjoy their membership and take advantage of training opportunities.

This year marked the centennial of the 1916 Easter Rising. If you're unfamiliar with Irish history, the Rising was when Irish nationalists declared their intention to separate from Great Britain and form the Irish Republic. While the rebellion was suppressed and its leaders were executed, the push for independence gained momentum and, in 1922, the Republic of Ireland was established. In honor of the occasion, the government distributed funding to arts programs that were creating work about the Rising. This meant that every weekend, the members of CYT would gather and learn about their country's history. Together, they created a short work (about 30-45 minutes) that examined the Rising through a historical lens -- giving equal weight to both the Irish nationalists and the British loyalists. DYT, meanwhile, will be taking a different approach later this month with Rising, a collaboration with documentary playwright Helena Enright that explores "what revolution means to young people in Ireland now."


Meanwhile, in the UK, students were also creating devised works this summer. I had the privilege of attending the kick-off of Open Court, the three weeks when the Royal Court "hands over the keys" to young producers, artists, and playwrights so that they can curate an entire mini-season of new works. In their words: "Pushing boundaries and taking over the entire building, Open Court will spill out of the stage into corridors, offices, rehearsal rooms, the bar & kitchen and online." The programming for this year includes new devised and scripted works by young artists, as well as installations and panels and concerts (not to mention workshops and other educational events). The Royal Court has long been known for their dedication to the development of young playwrights, particularly ones giving voice to issues confronting Millennials and Generation Z (which will get its own nomenclature eventually). Open Court is specifically curated by the Royal Court Youth Board, a group of students (ages 15-19) who are interested in arts administration and dramaturgy. Obviously, I'm going to try to get into a youth board meeting during the Fulbright program because there's nothing that interests me more than authentic student leadership in theatres.

The performance that I saw at Open Court was called Follow Me -- the culmination of the Royal Court's annual collaboration with Pimlico Academy's Year 10 BTEC Drama class. Based on the talkback afterwards, the program seems similar to our in-school teaching artist residencies. (Interestingly, the parents emphasized repeatedly how the students had come to think of the Royal Court as their theatre -- something that's dissimilar from traditional teaching artist residencies [which usually have little connection to the host theatre] and that has interesting implications for developing future generations of arts patrons.) Pimlico Academy, which was once a failing school but has since been rated "Outstanding" by OFSTED, works with Royal Court staff to create devised works about topics that are important to them. Follow Me dealt with the Internet. Upon entering the theatre, you were labeled with an Emoji sticker by Young Court staff and told to keep your cell phone on. Unfortunately, the performance used neither these Emoji stickers for audience interaction/collaboration nor the cell phones, to my knowledge. (Since I had an international number, they couldn't really call/text me.) Definitely some missed opportunities.

In Follow Me, students were encouraged to share their thoughts on online relationships, video game violence, and even Anonymous and hacktivism. (They frequently shouted out the refrain of "BANG! And there goes the poor," mocking quick fixes for economic inequity.) While the students' analyses were somewhat cursory, the act of being able to share their voices onstage obviously had a huge impact. In the discussion afterwards, one of the students said that working with the Royal Court boosted her confidence and gave her a platform to be heard. She believed that working with the theatre company created a powerful relationship for teens who frequently struggle to connect. (During this discussion, the theatre teacher at Pimlico Academy talked about how strict adherence to the GCSE curriculum meant a push towards memorization in schools and that fewer teachers saw teaching drama as a desirable job. She also noted that there wasn't universal access to theatres in schools; instead, students were pushed to join youth theatres that charge a membership fee. As someone who views both the GCSE and youth theatres and being two "stand-out" parts of the UK's arts education system, I really appreciated the dissenting opinion -- especially one that so strongly echoed issues in the US around standardized testing, teacher recruitment/retention, and equal access.)

The idea of "handing over the keys" to young artists really resonates with me. One of the things that I took away from my trip to the UK is the power of an arts organization having "a room of one's own," as Virginia Woolf would say.

During my time abroad, I also volunteered at the International Youth Arts Festival in Kingston upon Thames. While working box office, I had the opportunity to watch a new devised physical theatre work by JADA Theatre School. Property of Society explored gender dichotomies and how they can limit self-expression and self-representation. While the performance dipped into transgender issues, I felt that it focused more on individuals whose gender presentation simply wasn't "traditional." (For instance, there was the question of whether, for the masculine-of-center girl, her feelings were provoked by society privileging male thoughts and actions. I really expected this to be articulated in the talkback afterwards, but no one addressed it.) These young artists created some really stirring images -- like young women being physically constrained by harness-like bra-straps and a young man having his image literally reflected back at him (through a series of mirrors) by every member of society. Once again, I wanted the talkback to dig a little deeper into these issues (especially considering the power of the material being shown onstage), but, regardless, it was obvious that working in devised theatre really pushed the students to reflect on how our society functions and what we can do to improve it.

JADA Theatre School's phenomenal devised physical theatre work, Property of Society.

While I do have some background in physical theatre, watching JADA made me really want to explore how dance and drama can intersect outside of the traditional musical theatre structure.

I strongly believe that drama programs in the US lean too heavily on scripted work. The devised theatre that I saw being created in the UK was exceptionally powerful -- and, more importantly, engaged students in thinking about their history, their politics, and their society. During my Philosophy of Education class in grad school, the professor used to ask us: "To what end, education?" Why have we made schooling mandatory? Why does it matter if students have a solid grasp on core academic subjects? Because eventually, these students will be the ones responsible for the public good. And, in order to handle that responsibility, we need to make sure that they understand how the world around them operates. Devised theatre deepens that understanding and starts them down the path of solving (or at least grappling with) our world's problems. If we want our students to be politically involved (and, as the US has notoriously low voter turnout, I think that we must), then we need to use every opportunity available to start them down the path of civic responsibility. Devised theatre is one path that our schools are not taking full advantage of.

Rewriting the Script (Or, The GCSE and the Culture of Devised Theatre in the UK, Pt. 1)

This post kicks off a series about my recent travels across the UK and Ireland. When Uncommon Schools asked me to start their first Brooklyn-based theatre department, I did what any "good" charter school teacher would do: I looked for a standardized test from which I could backwards plan. (Oy.) Fortunately, this did not backfire and result in me creating a curriculum where students bubble in multiple choice scantrons or shoot back scripted call-and-responses. Because the test that I discovered was the UK's GCSE in Drama.

Let me preface the following by saying that I'm sure there are problems with the GCSE. Even during my short stay in the UK, I heard teachers complaining about these summative assessments. But when I compare them to what we have in the US, I'd gladly take the GCSE any day. The assessment consists of:

- Written paper (40% of total score): The written paper has three different parts. First, the student writes about a practical performance-based experience that she had during the course. She considers the skills that she developed as a result of her participation, analyzes the rehearsal/production process, and evaluates the effectiveness of her own contribution. Secondly, the student studies a scripted play (from a reading list provided by the GCSE) through practical workshops. He's asked to complete tasks like reading an excerpt from the script and explaining the acting choices that he might make onstage or describing a costume that he might design for a specific character. During this activity, he needs to prove that he has a thorough understanding of the social, historical, and cultural context of the play. Finally, the student needs to write about a live theatrical production that she attended -- engaging with theatre as a critic as well as a practitioner.

From The Abbey School's final GCSE performances. "We initially had to choose a stimulus out of four to work from, with both groups eventually choosing ‘The Nightmare’ due to the many ways in which this title could be interpreted."

- Practical work (60% of total score): Students have to create a piece of theatre. For a standardized test.

You can go back and read that last sentence again. I'll wait.

Students create work in two "controlled assessment options" (which include devised thematic work, performance [including improvisation and physical theatre], theatre in education, and technical theatre). The amount of time allocated for each student is five minutes -- so a group of four would get twenty minutes total for their performance. All technical theatre/design work must be used in an actual performance -- so if you're a student whose "controlled assessment option" is lighting design, you need to actually plot, gel, hang, focus, and operate lights for a group's final performance. Teachers are expected to provide skills-based instruction and feedback during the groups' rehearsal processes. Teachers keep records of the students' contributions and send these documents in to the test-scorers as part of their assessment. (That's right. The GCSE uses teachers' observations and comments as part of their standardized test scores.) Students also share the written work that they complete during rehearsals/production meetings and are partially scored on that ("process") as well as the final outcome ("product").

From King's College School Wimbledon's final GCSE performances, 2014. "This year’s pieces were Shakespeare’s Hamlet and Euripides’ The Bacchae: two great meditations on the conflict between body and soul. Both groups drew on chorus work, movement and song in bringing the verse drama to life."

(DISCLAIMER: All of my information on the GCSE comes from test prep guides that may be outdated. I ordered as many of them as I could from but, admittedly, there weren't many that could be shipped to the US. I'm looking forward to observing actual GCSE Drama classes when I return this winter, as well as hopefully chatting with a representative from AQA [Assessment and Qualifications Alliance] -- the organization in charge of testing in the UK. Can I just mention that this quote is prominently featured on AQA's website? "Being a charity means our focus is always on what benefits education -- and any money we make gets invested back into education." Can anyone tell me why the US doesn't create a non-profit organization[s] to create our state/federal tests instead of relying on massive profit-generating corporations like Pearson?)

While students can choose to perform/design scripted works for their final GCSE project (like in the photograph above), the GCSE has helped develop a culture of devised theatre in the UK that promotes student engagement in and reflection on social and political issues. There are certainly schools in the US that utilize the devised theatre model -- but nowhere near as many as in the UK. (In the US, devised theatre tends to be used for the occasional production, as opposed to being the bedrock of the department. During my high school career at Buffalo Seminary, we only worked with devised theatre once and even that production was rooted in student-written texts from the AP English Literature class about the American Dream [responding to a curriculum featuring The Great Gatsby, A Raisin in the Sun, and Death of a Salesman]. All of our other productions were completely scripted works.)

Obviously, the GCSE is a huge departure from our standardized tests. I can't figure out why we haven't adapted this model. A practice-based standardized test seems like it would help meet the needs of teachers (who have been pushing for portfolio-based assessment in lieu of standardized testing for years), parents (who have become so opposed to drill-and-kill standardized testing that opting out has become a national movement), and students (who hate filling in those little bubbles with No. 2 pencils). Yet, for some reason, we persist in administering tests that feature cut-and-dry A-B-C-D answers, along with dull and/or nonsensical reading passages. (Pineapples, anyone?)

"Never Say No -- Unless It's Dangerous or Illegal" (Or, Fulbright Orientation: Days 2-4)

While I've been a little bummed about missing the beginning of Uncommon professional development (seriously, you guys went to Brighton Beach without me?), being able to spend this week in Washington, DC with the Fulbrighters has been incredible. I know that we're surrounded by diversity in NYC, but being able to collaborate on a daily basis with the best and brightest teachers from Botswana, Chile, Finland, India, Israel, Mexico, Morocco, New Zealand, the Palestinian Territories (first time Fulbrighters!), Singapore, South Korea, Taiwan, Vietnam, and all across the USA has allowed me to get so many different perspectives on education. This afternoon, the Fulbright Distinguished Awards in Teaching (DAT) staff hosted a session on barriers to participation in this program. Like most US teachers, I won't be receiving pay from my school or district while I'm on the Fulbright program. I thought that I was "overcoming challenges" because I'm giving up my apartment and spending four months crashing on my friends' sofa-bed. Then I heard about the two Botswanian teachers who had to visit their country's Ministry of Education every single day in order to get their Fulbright authorization form signed. (They finally got the form signed -- on the day before they were scheduled to leave for Washington, DC.) I heard about the Palestinian teacher whose employers refused to sign her authorization form because, as they repeatedly told her, there was no way that she would ever be allowed to leave Gaza -- regardless of the US Consulate's involvement. (Obviously, she did leave Gaza.) And I heard about the Finnish teachers who were required to take a TOEFL test in order to even apply for the Fulbright program. And that TOEFL test cost €300. And the results expire after two years. These teachers have moved mountains, and I could not have a deeper respect for them and the work that they're doing.

(A teacher from Morocco presenting at Fulbright Culture Night.)

One of the first workshops that we attended at Fulbright Orientation was called "The Art of Crossing Cultures." Last month, when I was traveling through the UK and Ireland, I frequently found myself getting frustrated. This workshop helped me realize that some of my frustrations were due to minor differences in the values and beliefs of our countries. (The facilitator gave us this example of a common UK miscommunication: "If a British person tells you there is 'a spot of bother' down at the warehouse, this means: A) There is a small problem at the warehouse. B) The warehouse is on fire, and we've lost most of the contents." The answer was B. The British tend to understate situations.) We analyzed where each of the different Fulbright DAT countries fell along five cultural assumption spectrums: the locus of control, the importance of face, management style, concept of rank and status, and communication style. I knew theoretically that there are some cultures that believe in an external locus of control (i.e. "some things are just meant to be, no matter how hard you try"), but until I saw so many international teachers identifying on that side of the spectrum, I never really thought about how that belief could impact someone's everyday life. I'm so used to America's "pull yourself up by the bootstraps" mindset that I have a hard time envisioning anything else. It really jostled my entire worldview -- which is the entire point of international exchange. (Also: Our conversation about monochronic societies [ones that have undivided attention, like the US and the UK] vs. polychronic societies [ones that have divided attention, like Latin America and the Middle East] was fascinating. If you're not familiar with these terms, definitely look them up on Google. MIND. BLOWN.)

(Teachers from New Zealand singing in the Māori language. Jessica Stovall, who traveled to New Zealand in 2014-2015, is wearing traditional Māori dress, complete with a Piupiu dance skirt.)

The facilitator (Craig Storti) also pointed out some quirks that Americans have. When we read a pretend exchange between an American (Bill) and a Finn (Sirpa), Storti said: "Bill is a good American -- and as a good American, his starting point isn't reality." I realized that my starting point isn't reality either because, like so many Americans, I'm a die-hard optimist. THE GLASS WILL ALWAYS BE HALF-FULL. His advice to international teachers visiting our country? "If you're in the US, be happy. You don't have to actually be happy. Just act happy."

(A teacher from Singapore demonstrating some Tai Chi moves with her daughter.)

(And teachers from India and Botswana even joined in!)

Visiting the UK last month made me re-think the subject of my inquiry project. (More on that in a future blog post.) One of the million amazing things about the Fulbright DAT program is that the committee selected your inquiry project -- but they also selected you. They believe in your potential as a researcher, as an author, and as an innovator. They understand that as you continue to learn more about your host country, your inquiry project will grow and possibly even change. Hearing firsthand from the alumni panel about how some of their inquiry projects ended up being much different than they'd initially planned (thanks especially to Anne Ward and Jessica Stovall!) really inspired me to be flexible about my inquiry project instead of limiting it to what I created months (or even years) ago. Having so many alumni at Fulbright Orientation was definitely the most helpful component. I was especially lucky because Courtney Reynolds, who was in residence at the University of Glasgow in 2014-2015, was one of the UK representatives. I found out all about my housing situation, what my class schedule might look like, and how often I'd be able to travel around the UK (answer: all the time). Having some of those questions answered made me feel so much better. While receiving a Fulbright is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, there are a lot of stressors involved in moving abroad -- even if it's only for a couple of months. It feels great to know that some of the basics (housing, utilities, etc.) are already taken care of. (Shout-out to the University of Glasgow for clearly being one of the best Fulbright university placements!)

(We went downstairs for a "pub experience" during a breakout session. The other Fulbrighters couldn't find us and wondered if we had "Brexited.")

The most valuable advice came from Dr. Holly Emert, the incomparable Program Director of the Fulbright DAT program. First of all, I cannot say enough amazing things about Holly and the rest of the Fulbright DAT staff. They were so extraordinarily patient with me -- even when I kept sending them emails that were the academic equivalent of an annoying toddler on a road trip: Have selection decisions been made yet? Have selection decisions been made yet? Have selection decisions been made yet? If you decide to apply for the Fulbright DAT program, I cannot overstate how much you will enjoy working with Holly, Becky, and Angelica; they are complete rockstars.

(Fulbright Orientation Day 2, ready to go!)

At the end of Day 2, Holly told us: "Never say no -- unless it's dangerous or illegal." This advice was reiterated by alumni and facilitators alike. Go visit classes that are unrelated to your content area. Go to an out-of-the-way rural town to experience another side of education in your host country. Go to coffee with someone that a university colleague knows and thinks you might like (a blind academic date!). Everyone kept telling us that the Fulbright experience isn't just about conducting research and writing an essay; it's about experiencing your host country to the fullest extent possible. It's also about being an ambassador for the USA and sharing information about our country and our school's best practices. So even though I'm a homebody who would gladly spend all of my free time in an apartment with fifty cats (no shame in the kingdom), I'm resolving to "never say no." I am so excited about my upcoming trip to the UK, and I could not be more thankful to the Fulbright DAT team for providing us with an inspiring orientation week as well as this life-changing opportunity. I've been dreaming of that coveted Fulbright pin for almost eight years -- and I'm so thrilled to be able to wear it this winter!

(More good advice from Fulbright DAT alumni.)

Capitol Stuff, Old Chap (Or, Fulbright Orientation: Day 1)

I haven't updated this blog in over a month. When I stumbled off the Megabus into the Buffalo Bus Terminal (after already having endured a not-especially-comfortable Transatlantic flight), I basically went into hibernation. I've only dislodged myself from my heap of comforters and pillows to attend Fulbright Orientation in Washington, DC. Otherwise, I'm sure that I would still be buried in a landslide of hypoallergenic goose down.

This summer has forced me to ask one incredibly important question: "If Donald Trump were to become president, would I be willing to marry Calum the Attractive Sheep Farmer and relocate abroad permanently?" Surely, a lifetime of shearing Aran wool would be preferable to four years in Trump's America. (Especially if that deal somehow included a lifetime supply of Doolin fudge.) However, over the past few months, I've realized that I'm probably too much of a patriot to ever consider leaving the Good Ole USA. I used to think of "patriotism" as a dirty word -- one spoken by flag-waving Republicans with creationist bumper stickers on the backs of their pick-up trucks. But I've come to realize that there's many kinds of patriotism.

(This sign was parked outside of the White House. The first time I got teary-eyed during this trip to Washington, DC was when I saw the First Amendment printed in giant letters on the front of The Newseum. There's nothing more precious than our freedom of speech.)

During the first day of Fulbright Orientation, we had the option of taking a bus tour of Washington's monuments. Something you might not know about me: I cannot stand tourist attractions. I took a walking tour of Dublin's Southside and was mortified to be seen following a shouting man with a brightly-colored umbrella. Still, since I've never seen our nation's capital outside of TFA Summits, I figured that a monument tour might do me good. At the very least, it would allow me to meet some of the other Fulbrighters.

(Fulbrighters and family members at the White House.)

Reading the Gettysburg Address at the Lincoln Memorial, I was reminded of why I feel so strongly about this country. How relevant those words are even now, over a hundred years later. "Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal. Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure."

Former Fulbrighter Nicole Stellon O'Donnell wrote a compelling blog entry about our fixation on Finland's education system. Most of our research into Finland's best practices has focused on topics like their respect for the teaching profession and the agency/freedom given to their students. However, what we all-too-frequently forget is that Finland as a country looks nothing like the USA. Our country was forged, in large part, by immigrant groups that had wildly conflicting beliefs and values. The USA was an experiment to see if these groups (of divergent races, cultures, religions, languages, political views, etc.) could form a cohesive nation. Back in 1863, Lincoln saw our internal struggles as the means of "testing" that experiment -- and implored us to "highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain -- that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom -- and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth."

(Second time I got teary-eyed? The closing lines of the Gettysburg Address.)

The philosophical underpinnings of the USA are inspirational. One of today's speakers told us that Americans are eternal optimists -- something that puzzles other countries to no end. And yes, optimism is writ large on everything that we do. From the Statue of Liberty ("Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses, yearning to be free!") to James Brown ("You may not be lookin’ for the promised land / but you might find it anyway"), we believe that the world's full of opportunities and that there's a better tomorrow waiting just over the horizon. How could you not be inspired by a country like that?

That said, I also strongly believe that you should never say never. So Calum, if you're out there, feel free to give me a call. I have moderate proficiency in knitting.
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