I have been participating in municipal, regional and national English school drama festivals with my primary and lower secondary school students for about four years now. By my count, my participation amounts to a total of ten editions, so I cannot be thought of as a beginner. However, I am certainly not an expert in the field, either. This article is meant to provide an insight into my present experience, with a view to sharing it with my more inexperienced fellow teachers and encouraging them to take up this kind of extracurricular activities.
In what follows, I will provide several tips necessary for the preparation of a good performance on stage, which I will subsequently comment upon and illustrate with specific examples taken from my own experience. I will then mention several possible drawbacks and emphasize the benefits of drama practice for students and teachers alike.
How does one turn a student into an ‘actor’ for the very first time? Here are some tips:
Finding those students who are particularly fond of drama may not always be as easy as it seems at first sight: some children or teenagers have very busy schedules and it is practically impossible for them to squeeze in yet another extracurricular activity. Some of the enthusiastic children may be shy and/or not particularly talented, so they have no real chance of getting a prize. However, if they are really hardworking, what they could actually get is a wonderful experience and a boost of self-confidence that would be a lifelong gain.
Contacting the parents and making sure they agree with their children’s participation in the festival
You may be surprised to find out that there are cases in which students want to participate in drama festivals, but their parents disagree (for various reasons), as well as cases in which students are reluctant, but their parents are pushy and insist on their involvement in the activity.
Check that they are available on that particular date and ask them to sign an agreement for the distribution of the photo and video materials taken during the festival!
Explaining to the students that preparation takes a lot of effort
Students should understand that they would have to study the text individually, rehearse it in teams/with the teacher and that constant adjustments will be made along the way.
Assigning the right text to each student or allowing them to choose one they prefer
Discuss with the students before deciding on a particular text! Some students, especially those in primary school, usually need you to recommend a text. Make sure you send that particular text to the parents, as well, since sometimes there is miscommunication between the child and the parent! Looking for a suitable text for the students should be done in accordance with the student’s age, personality, hobbies. So, if you do not know you students very well, try to find out what they are passionate about! My suggestion is that you choose funny, humorous, ludicrous passages, or texts that convey a positive message.
Other students may come up with a text they prefer. In this case, it is recommended that you go over the text and see if it is accessible to the student. In case the text is too long or too difficult for the student’s level, some adjustments might be needed.
Some students may even want to write and act out their own texts. For instance, I had two students in lower secondary school and one in primary school who came up with their own creations and were quite successful. They were very much appreciated at the drama festivals and even got prizes (the first prize included).
Organizing oneself, setting time limits and being flexible
When preparing for a school event, one has to have in mind the precise amount of time available for practising, so using a school calendar is advisable (thus, one can leave out the holidays and the days off more easily). Setting time limits for individual study and rehearsals is compulsory if one is to attain one’s goals. Also, being flexible when it comes to rehearsals is really important : the latter should be set by prioritising the students’ schedule.
Reading the text, checking for understanding and for any pronunciation mistakes
Students, especially those in primary school, are very likely to stumble upon unknown words. After having them read the text after you once, isolate the potential unknown words, explain their meaning and insist on their pronunciation! More often than not, students will not succeed in remembering the pronunciation of all the words (even if there are only four), so encourage them to use an online dictionary equipped with an audio recording of the words in order to get their pronunciation right!
Interpreting the text
More often than not, texts are not as simple as they may seem in the first place. Make sure students understand the message of the text, by decoding the devices used by the authors, i.e.: irony/ humor/ metaphor, or other figures of speech!
Encouraging students to reflect on the text and come up with an original interpretation
Acting enables students to experience a new world, to get to know themselves and the others better and eventually to identify themselves with the characters, each of them enriching the latter, by adding their personal touch.
Minding the artistic expression, voice inflections, pauses in speech, gestures and facial expressions, the movement on stage
There are audio and video performances available on the internet. Have the students listen to and watch them, by paying attention to all of the above-mentioned elements! Then ask them to reflect on these materials and adapt them so as to suit their own part.
Rehearsing in front of an audience at school and asking for feedback afterwards
Performing on stage is rather difficult for everyone, especially for shy students, so getting them accustomed to the audience before the festival is essential. This can be done by having them perform in front of students in other classes at school. Ask the latter to say what they think of the performance and give suggestions for its improvement!
Rehearsing on stage before the festival
Prior to the beginning of the festival, use special techniques to overcome the students’ stage fright and have them act on the very stage they will perform on at the festival, so they can get accustomed to it! This is particularly important in the case of short plays in which there are several students who have to share the space on the stage.
Asking parents for support with the costumes, props, background music and sound, etc.
Appropriate costumes and props should also be taken into account. Students are usually eager to get involved, to improvise and be creative. Some parents are also willing to cooperate and help out with particular outfits and various technical issues.
Are there any drawbacks related to students’ participation in drama festivals?
Preparing for a drama festival is a time-consuming process which requires a lot of effort from all the actants involved: teachers, students, parents. Be prepared in case some of the students drop out at some point! This might happen because they may not study enough to make notable progress, as they lack self-discipline, because they have a really busy schedule or because their parents have other plans.
What are the benefits of preparing for and participating in drama festivals?
Apart from the prizes awarded to the winners (which usually consist of books or free of charge English courses) and the diplomas of participation which are given in the end to all the participating students and teachers, there are other, inherent benefits worth mentioning.
Students participating in drama festivals develop their self-confidence, which is brought about by their awareness that their success is directly connected to their effort. Moreover, while constantly working to improve their initial performance, they train to acquire the four meta-competencies: learning, adapting, anticipating, and creating change, which are of paramount importance for the unpredictable future of the ever-changing world we live in.
Students making up the school audience also boost their self-esteem when they realize that their voice is heard and their advice is valuable and makes a difference.
The teacher – student relation becomes stronger and students become more motivated to participate in the upcoming extracurricular activities. Teachers, too, feel this undertaking contributes to their own personal and professional growth.
All in all, having considered the pros and the cons, one may conclude that the venture of preparing for and taking part in drama festivals brings about a sense of joy and accomplishment to all the participants involved in the process: teachers, students, parents and the local community, as well as an eagerness to become proactive in all areas of life.