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Teaching Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay in a second-year History of Early Drama course

Helen Ostovich

In the last ten years I have published three articles that have attempted to encourage instructors who teach drama as literature to include performance as a creative collaborative group effort at understanding a play through close engagement with research and rehearsal of a scene. I've been privileged to see a number of extraordinary student performances that more than met my expectations and thoroughly impressed their classmates, guests, and teaching assistants. Although my course is cross-listed with Theatre and Film students, the balance is usually 60-90 English students to 6-10 Theatre students. Most students have never seen a play in a theatre (although that is a bonus activity which some students take advantage of in the course), or performed as amateurs or in high-school productions. Most start from a position of ignorance, and learn intensively how to prepare a scene and how to become a receptive audience.

What I discuss and illustrate in this report is the theory and practice of teaching with performance, and its results in the particular illustration of Greene's play. I include student peer-reviews of the performance itself; two student essays from a group of five, articulating what they learned from the research, rehearsal, and performance; the marker's comments on the essays; and my additional comments on other student choices for this play. Since 2007, students have had the advantage of seeing this and other Queen's Men performances and interviews with actors on Performing the Queen's Men.

Previously published work on performance pedagogy

Syllabus and Pedagogy

The syllabus for English 2B06 / Theatre & Film 2BB6 is an intensive two-term survey (25 weeks) that includes medieval, early Tudor, Elizabethan, Jacobean, Caroline, and Restoration plays, changing on a weekly basis. Performance conditions and playing spaces form part of the theatre history of the course. The organization of reading and learning includes two hours of lectures and one hour of tutorial a week. The concept I'm working from is that students learn when they have to rely on their own wits and resources, trust their peers, and engage both theoretically and practically, individually and collaboratively, with course materials to produce original work.

The course is designed to have a creative flow energized by student-peer-professor interactions. Imagination and experience with a quantity of texts season that creativity and develop close reading skills that foster good judgment. Interactions move from large lectures (60-120 students), to tutorials (10-18 students), to performance groups (4-5 students), incorporating a range that moves back and forth from individual thinking and writing to collaborative thinking and revising that includes changes to the script itself.

The Lectures

Ideally, students come to the lecture having read the play(s) of the week. The lectures explain the play-spaces of the period, the audiences, the social, religious, and political history, and the pertinence to the play(s) in question. If the play introduces a new idea, or an outrageous character (e.g. Herod) or event (Slaughter of the Innocents), then the lecture speaks to staging problems and traditions, and the way meaning and affect erupt out of performance choices. Often lectures are accompanied by film clips from performances.

The Short Paper

Some of the students will have written a short two-page paper that synthesizes an idea they see working in one scene with a focus on one character, or one speech, or one prop. The argument or thesis should focus on one primary scene, but demonstrate awareness of the place of the scene in the flow of the whole play. It may happen that the student's idea of the scene will differ substantially from what I say in the lecture. That is GOOD: it leads to productive discussion based on student investment in the play. The student may lack historical background, thus accounting for the difference of opinion, or may have hit upon a genuinely new or unusual point of view that contributes to a valuable interpretation of the script. Students may want to discuss conflicting meanings in the lecture periods, or bring the problem to their tutorial, where several students will have written on the same play and will have thought about how to interpret the script. They write three short papers a term, or about one a month. No late papers are accepted, because the papers have to be marked for and discussed in tutorial.

The Tutorial

The tutorial group meets every other week, and writes on the play that occurs in that tutorial week. The alternate weeks without tutorial are intended for group work. In the tutorial of roughly 15 or 16 students, five to eight of them will have written a paper. The TA will have marked those papers. Before returning them, the TA tells the group what topics were addressed in papers (we post general topics on the class website for short papers), and asks which topic they want to discuss first. The students who wrote on that topic present their interpretations briefly, not reading but actually presenting ideas and demonstrating close readings, perhaps commenting on difficulties or on the difference of opinion given in the lectures. Students who wrote on the same topic respond to one another, and then everyone joins in. After some productive talking, the TA moves them on to the next topic. In my experience, these discussions tend to run themselves after a few weeks, with the TA only guiding the process, but never speaking at length. The good thing about these sessions is that students hear the difference between a well-thought-out paper and a half-baked one. They comment on how to fix up a weak paper, adding more evidence or developing the concept or relating it to another scene in the play. Such discussion has three great impacts: students get to know and respect one another, thus giving them confidence in expressing and evaluating ideas; students write stronger papers next time, anticipating critiques from their peers; and students in the performance groups for that tutorial reinforce their shared interests both in tutorial and in the smaller group, where discussion of differences in interpretation is absolutely vital. These impacts are both theoretical (shaping arguments to develop an idea) and practical (considering how staging can alter meaning).

The Performance Group

Within each tutorial group, three or four performance groups (four or five students each) will form. These groups have a very particular agenda to follow: selection of a play and a performable scene; research on the play; application of research to the scene; reading and discussing the whole play aloud as a group; rehearsals and experimentation; decisions on costumes, props and set (minimal but significant in representing the group's ideas); checking for clarity of voice and movement; performance before the classroom audience; finalizing the individual essays about what they learned about the play and performance from the experience. The process takes about six weeks to complete. It is the year's major assignment, worth 30% of the final mark. Each performance takes place in the classroom, in front of classmates and instructors (and sometimes guests of students, or students from the previous year). They complete a survey on each performance, evaluating what they saw and its impact on the meaning of the scene and the whole play. The TAs sum up the peer-reviews and send them to the actors, who should respond to serious critiques in the final essay, due shortly thereafter.

This process involves instructors and students in a lot of detail-oriented work, but for most of us it is also genuinely rewarding, exciting, and refreshing. I use a similar process in my Shakespeare course, and have used it also in smaller seminar courses. It is, I think, ideal for large classes, because it insists on the value of independent and small-group learning that combines theory and practice. It develops confidence in students and greater persuasiveness in argument, based on clarity of the idea supported by detail from the text.

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