Students, Teachers and Thinkers, Uncategorized

Musings on Architecture and Drama

I was flipping through a small book on architecture a few weeks ago, called 101 Things I Learned in Architecture School (by Matthew Frederick), and began contemplating the links between designing buildings and designing dramatic narratives. Both require a vision that must be distilled. Both must fit within a given context, and must suit their audience.

A few lessons in architecture seemed especially relevant to drama… (Students: Which of the five most resonates with you? Why?)

#9 Sense of place.

When my students begin working with script fragments, we first imagine the space in which these people and moments reside. Before exploring The Laramie Project we looked at a map and at a historic guide of Laramie. Before The Crucible we also started with maps, and with artifacts, such as printed (and artificially aged, by yours truly) PDFs of signed confessions from the Salem trials. These space-based pieces initiated invented background scenes, like space based emotional research.

#14 Architecture begins with an idea.

#34 Frame a view, don’t merely exhibit it.

#53 A good building reveals different things about itself when viewed from different distances.

Of course, any dramatic or creative work requires an idea, an initial seed. In terms of framing our dramatic work, form is key. How do we frame our story so it’s cohesive, while ensuring the conventions we use actually suit or enhance our story? When does it make sense to use tableaux, rather than silent movement, or vice verse? And any good art should reveal different things from different distances, in the way that re-reading a good book years later reveals different things, about the text, but also oneself, then and now.

#81 Properly gaining control of the design process tends to feel like one is losing control of the design process.

When gaining control feels like loosing control… especially relevant to drama, to any creative endeavour, and, ahem, to teaching itself. A little chaos, to me, means things are happening, ideas are flexing and stretching, and things are moving forward, through choice towards decision. As the text notes,

“Being genuinely creative means that you don’t know where you are going, even though you are responsible for shepherding the process. This requires something different from conventional, authoritarian control…”

And when you trust your ideas (and students!) and allow for some freedoms, good things usually grow.


Growth in Toronto. New buildings are always going up. A shot I took in August 2013 after a short Porter flight.

Students, Teachers and Thinkers, Uncategorized

More Indie Music for the Drama Classroom

I’ve written about using music in the drama classroom before. But after using the same (awesome) songs semester after semester, the songs I know work so well, for both warm-ups and for silent scene exercises (emphasizing gesture, facial expression, and movement), I needed a change. Beirut’s Gulag Orkestar came on in a café last weekend, and I felt a nervous tick coming on… it was the sound of being at work while sipping my weekend Americano. Not good.

It was time for some new music. Thankfully, my husband knows way more about music than me and had piles of recommendations. Here are the ones I chose. Some are ideal for drama class warm-ups, or even as background music for writing exercises, some are more narrative, and almost have imagined stories embedded in their tone, pacing, and mood…

For warming up:

Sneeze, by Andrea Parker. She literally samples her own sneeze. It’s rhythmic, atmospheric, yet light and almost meditative. It speeds up a bit as it goes. (Her song The Swamp would also work wonderfully…very electronic and again, atmospheric.)

Stripes, by Bell Orchestre. Pulsing and with a BEAUTIFUL central French Horn part. I am partial to the French Horn, as I used to play it.

For acting and scene development exercises: 

The Fifty Minute Hour, by The Hylozoists. The variation in classical instruments suggest a wide variety of characters, and the chromatic build helps establish tension that lends well to narrative. The end provides a lot of closure, too, in terms of mood.

The Man With the Movie Camera, by Cinematic Orchestra. This song is IDEAL. A good sign is that the album it comes from, “The Man with a Movie Camera”, was created to correspond to an old Russian silent film of the same name by Sziga Vertov (produced in 1929). The silent film was experimental, and was focused on a day in the life in Soviet Ukraine. (In 2012, the film was voted the 8th best film ever made.) This song is jazzy, and very mysterious. Here it is, below.

Teachers and Thinkers, Uncategorized

Creativity, Culture, and a new European Union Project

Once or twice a year I teach an ESL Drama class comprised entirely of new Canadians from Iraq and Syria. It’s a steep learning curve for these students, and for me. They are acquiring basic English at the same time as exploring drama, usually for the first time. They are also adapting to a new country, culture, education system, and working hard to move forward from living within a war. (Many of them barely remember life before the American invasion.) I’m constantly adapting our activities to their needs and interests.

I love these classes. Drama can be especially exciting for those who’ve never had the opportunity to explore it before. I’ve noticed, anecdotally at least, that upon arrival many have little experience working creatively in a structured environment, as a team. Their in-school learning has occurred in traditional, student-at-the-desk, teacher-led, rather than student-led, settings. (Whereas I created skits based on set parameters with my peers as early as Grade 1. I clearly remember bossing around my peers, generously deciding I would be their “director,” for a first grade skit about Little Red Riding Hood…)


A soldier in the the Al Awad region of Iraq, in July 17, 2008.

When we begin activities, my students who have been educated mostly in Canada fly away and find their own space in the room, and immediately begin brainstorming, negotiating, debating, decision-making, and creating. Of course, it’s rarely an entirely smooth process, but it is an ingrained process none the less. My newer students, however, when initially taught a new drama form and given a set of criteria, seem struck by the amount of freedom and choice they have, initially looking very stressed out and asking “but what’s the right answer??” There is no “right” answer. There are endless answers.

This isn’t to say these students aren’t creative – they are. But perhaps exploring creativity in certain collective contexts is not intuitive. It is a taught, learned skill, and the teaching of it might be rooted in culture, or in our culturally infused varying education systems.  It’s a steep learning curve, and after a few weeks (or more) of sometimes tense group work, students slowly learn to negotiate and share ideas in this new way, aiming to reach whichever dramatic learning goals I’ve set.

Given this experience, I was interested to learn about the recently launched EU-funded CREATIVE project:

 ‘Creativity across cultures’, led by researchers at the Otto Friedrich University in Bamberg, is addressing the need to better understand creativity, and particularly the roles played by education and culture. 

Individual differences in creativity have been investigated in the past, and education has generally been seen as a determining factor in enhancing creativity, innovation and competitiveness. But project partners say the specific role of culture in creativity is still largely unstudied. 

This gap in the research is surprising, given the growing importance of globalisation, multi-national and presumably multi-cultural organisations. Insights into the influence of culture on creativity in these settings could be quite useful.

I’ll be curious to see what sorts of tangible conclusions are unearthed – if certain cultural norms (and culture so often informs and shapes educational realities) generate specific creative styles more readily. Could this information help teachers better acclimatize new students to local, Canadian creative spaces? Conversely, could this generate unnecessary and unfounded assumptions about students’ strengths or weaknesses? In either case, being aware that we’ve all been cultured to learn in specific ways, and that we might think and approach problems and solutions differently because of this, seems useful in a world where most of us learn and work with people from so many countries and cultures. 

Last month, my students presented a short, original Christmas-themed piece, and I felt like a proud parent watching the degree to which their confidence with the language, and with dramatic expression itself, has grown since we first met in September. When the piece ended, they all burst out in song – guys and girls alike – in a way my peers and I wouldn’t have, especially as teenagers. One thing many of my students have brought with them is a willingness to sing, confidently, without restraint. This might be cultural, or it might just be them, a happy coincidence. Either way, it worked. Perhaps they’ve combined the best of both worlds.

Yesterday, I saw this Timeline of Violence, created by the Canadian International Council, regarding civilian deaths in Iraq. It was a stark reminder of the different contexts in which we all grow up. When our individual creativities are cultivated in such disparate contexts, it would make sense that we bring different strengths to the table. In any event, my students have taught me how lucky I am to teach them, and in a safe space – and have reminded me that worrying about creativity, though so important, is also a luxury.

Resources, Students, Uncategorized

The Tango Dancer

Yesterday, we discussed and experimented with the art of mime. Here is an example of a mime piece by Marcel Marceau, world famous mime artist… Why do you think this drama form is valuable? How could mime be used in more modern forms of drama? Consider Marceau’s words, “Do not the most moving moments of our lives find us without words?”

Feel free to check out some of my thoughts on mime from my previous post here!


I am enthralled with this making-of clip. My ESL Drama students recently spent a few weeks working with Romeo and Juliet, using the No Fear Shakespeare Graphic Novels version of the play. We read and discussed sections of the play as a group, with student leaders translating into Arabic at times. They created their own scenes, in their own words, to explore alternate possibilities and outcomes. (We also discussed “Romeo and Juliet” themed incidents in today’s world, such as a family feud in Egypt that was covered by major news outlets a few years ago – I saved a hard copy of the article torn from the Toronto Star. A young Muslim woman and a young Christian man were in love, and their families were vehemently opposed to their relationship. Fighting and deaths resulted.)

Following our scene work, we watched Baz Luhrmann’s 1996 version of the play, Romeo + Juliet. My students found this version captivating – the combination of raw emotion coupled with its carnivalesque atmosphere meant that even students who were just beginning to learn the English language could follow the story and feelings.

So, now I’ll share this clip with you, and them – to remind us how much goes into the creative process. Also, it boggles my mind how immediate the transformation from person to character is, in film. Growing up in theatre, I suppose I’m most familiar with chronological, immersive, dedicated spaces of time where you act…and then…the play ends! (And you do it all over again, start to finish, the next night. And the next!) It’s a joy to watch a very young Clarie Danes and Leonardo DiCaprio playfully practice their lines in a half-built pool wearing track suits. Their joy, in acting, is apparent.

Also, fellow “young” teachers…not going to lie, realizing how young both actors were when they filmed this made me feel slightly…old?!

Students and colleagues, enjoy!

While my Grade 11 class explores Theatre of the Absurd, I thought it important to share this video. We discussed Godot yesterday, and experimented with its opening scene. We contemplated the idea of waiting for something that never arrives – and the connections between absurdism and existentialism (the philosophy the explores the idea that human existence is inherently absurd or meaningless). This video, however, shares a different interpretation of Godot, that highlights comedy and play. Its important to remember that interpretations can be very divergent – and this is a good thing!!

Students, Teachers and Thinkers, Uncategorized

Realizing Truth in Fiction

When I was in high school I had an agenda with weekly quotations in it. One was by Sarah Polley, and since I can’t find the original, I’ll paraphrase: sometimes, there is more truth in fiction than in our very real lives. I loved this quotation; it resonated deeply with me. Fiction sometimes expresses feelings or fears more concisely than we can, or it helps us better understand things we’ve already experienced. We learn truths about ourselves through other stories.

Very simply put, a work of fiction is an imagined story that engages us, entertains us, or teaches us something. I know fiction has impacted me. For example, I think fictional teachers played a small role in inspiring my understanding of what it means to teach, and even in my decision to teach.  Anne of Green Gables, Professor McGonagall, even Dunny Ramsay from Robertson Davies’ book Fifth Business are all very different personalities who approach their vocation passionately, but differently.

What stories have stayed with you since childhood? Which characters were so real, they’re with you still? Some may be obscure or specific to the time in which your childhood took place. There are, however, some characters we all know: Cinderella, Red Riding Hood, the Little Mermaid, Snow White…and most of these stories are hundreds of years old. These stories are entrenched in our childhood and speak to universal truths: fear of the unknown, vulnerability, the need for companionship and love. In my Grade 10 class, we will soon explore these stories, their original (sometimes horrifying!) forms, and their transformation into often sweet and charming childhood tales. Then we’ll adapt them, creating modern re-tellings.

Before we do this I want you to be aware of certain similarities and patterns that appear in stories, called archetypes. These are fundamental characteristics of stories or characters that reappear in many narratives, from all over the world. Consider the “Evil Stepmother” archetype, who appears in Cinderella, in Snow White, and even in Harry Potter (if we consider Aunt Petunia)! Why does this type of character keep appearing? (Are we unfairly taught to fear women in positions of authority? Or is it because mothers are innately powerful?)

Or think about the symbol of water as an archetype, a symbol that appears over and over again in similar ways. Water is often seen as life-giving, connected to creation, or to cleansing and rebirth. It is used as a symbol in these ways in many cultures from around the world, from many different millennia. That means that for thousands of years, people who had no way to contact each other wrote stories using water in common ways. Does this mean this archetype speaks to a universal truth?? A truth only discovered through fiction?

As we delve into fairy tales, we’ll consider similar story elements, patterns, and major characters and where they came from. Then we’ll take these characters and connect them to our world as it is today. Which characters do you remember from your childhood? Which books have you read that spoke strongly to something you’ve felt or experienced? Or that you’ll just never forget? Which fictional stories are most real for you? Share your comments below, by clicking on the link on the left-hand side of the page, near the top of this post…

Maybe one day I’ll master her discerning gaze…