David Aldred goes backstage at Teddies
One of the great things about teaching drama is being in the empty space where anything can happen, and usually does. There is a wonderful thrill when it comes to improvisation. Sometimes a dark turn takes me by surprise, enabling us to explore serious issues lurking just beneath the surface.
Teaching during the pandemic was challenging. Practical work was hampered by social distancing and we have had to adapt to virtual learning for long periods. But contrary to our expectations, this did not deter our pupils. More than ever have opted for drama next year, recognising perhaps that drama teaches the parts of you that other subjects cannot reach.
Luckily for us at St Edward’s, Oxford, we teach drama in the North Wall theatre which has an incredible public programme and a national reputation.
This proximity to professional theatre makers (including our own technical team) puts us on the cutting edge of school drama. St Edward’s new Pathways and Perspectives curriculum offering optional subjects in addition to core GCSEs has given us the freedom to design our own course. Instead of the drama GCSE, which didn’t tick enough boxes, our Drama Pathway allows pupils to develop as creative collaborators and to become performers, designers, writers and directors while enjoying the nourishing diet of theatre that the North Wall provides.
The drama department is an eclectic bunch –‘kool’ Kat heads up co-curricular drama, Lauren is a tour de force, the dynamo of Lisa who heads up dance and Phoebe, our new ‘supergrad’ fresh from LAMDA; I’m the only male and it’s a privilege to work with these wonderful Queens of Drama.
Our method of operations sets the tone for our pupils; we aim to be caring, collaborative and creative (three key words) although during the pandemic, flexibility (constantly changing plans), positivity (we can get through this) and perspective (it’s not life and death, it’s drama!) became the mantra.
Never more so than during the November lockdown, when we were one of very few schools and theatres to stage a play. Arthur Miller’s The Crucible was challenging with a limited cast rehearsing and performing under strict controls with social distancing, always aware that an outbreak of Covid could jeopardise everything.
But the zeitgeist was well captured by the themes of The Crucible which were weirdly prescient: if ever there was a socially distant group of people, it was certainly the Puritans, who were the last government in this country to close theatres and ban Christmas (it was strangely plausible nearly 400 years later). The performances were incredibly powerful and moving, but the abiding memory of that experience will be, for me, the rehearsal process and the amazing resilience, creativity and humour shown by the young cast of actors.
Indeed, I am constantly reminded and inspired by the incredible power of drama to transform lives. A sixth form pupil once used a devised piece to express the grief she had gone through watching her father die from cancer two years before. She was well supported but nonetheless it was such a brave and emotionally mature thing for her to do. The audience, including me, was moved to tears by a scene in which she acted out the death of her character in a hospital bed.
A senior colleague who had missed being by his own mother’s bed when she had died, found that the performance allowed him, at last, to forgive himself. It was a truly cathartic experience and a reminder of why I come to work every day.
From the sublime to the ridiculous: a pupil once asked me, ‘Sir, do you have a prop fish I can borrow?’ (I discovered later he was planning to recreate that well-known Monty Python sketch, the fish slapping dance). ‘Of course I do,’ I said; I mimed casting a fishing rod and after a struggle, pulled one in for him and said, ‘Is this one big enough for you?’ The lights flickered in his eyes, a lesson in imagination as well as the art of mime. Oh, what a joy and a privilege it is to be a drama teacher!
David Aldred is Head of Academic Drama at St Edward’s School, affectionately known as Teddies
READ MORE FROM AUTUMN/WINTER 2021