by Jess Wittert
Prep School Head of Drama, St Catherine’s Prep School
Each summer term, many primary and prep schools end their Year 6 KS2 journey with a public performance of a musical, play or even a pantomime. This is not because teachers have run out of curriculum content at the end of Year 6, or that we want all students to go on to be actors! So, why has this become a convention? In short, ‘putting on’ a play can be an incredibly rich learning experience for young people, whilst it is also an opportunity to stretch and challenge students in a range of capacities.
Stories have an important place in helping children and adults alike to understand the world we live in. Through stories we are invited to explore different cultures, characters, relationships and emotions. We can travel to new places and realms. They aid us in evolving an enhanced appreciation of ourselves and the roles we can adopt amongst our peers. Every year, I choose the story that my students will discover through our production with great care. Often, coming-of-age tales seem incredibly relevant; stories where characters go on rich adventures, face complex challenges and have no choice but to learn and grow from their mistakes. Tales where characters must work together to achieve a common goal, or where children’s voices hold important messages that are heard by the adults around them are also subjects that young people connect with and are inspired by.
If every opportunity is seized, there is wonderful scope for creating a powerful cross-curricular approach to developing a show. By learning about the literature, history, art, music, and dance that surrounds a story, we cultivate an appreciation for traditions, beliefs, design and stagecraft. As part of the preparations for our school’s recent production of The Lion King this term, the girls studied the patterns, designs and colours used in African prints before creating their own designs for fabrics, masks and marketing materials. They studied each character in the script and crafted symbols and emblems to represent them; meticulously forming links between characters who were related or belonged to the same group. Later, these were hand printed onto fabrics using block printing techniques so that they could finally be made into the cast’s costumes. Through workshops with external educators, they learnt about the importance and significance of symbolism in Adinkra printing; the rhythms and collective energy used in African drumming; and the storytelling techniques, as well as traditional movements, that can be generated through dance. We focused on the importance of recycling materials and made masks and props out of plastic milk bottles. This process was amazing – our girls were captivated by the transformation achieved with these simple objects. In addition to this, by singing songs in African dialects, we enhanced our understanding and appreciation of sounds and languages. The opportunities for extending the students’ learning through stimulating and interlinked topics are boundless.
One of the most significant aspects of all the productions that I have been privileged enough to be involved with has been the way in which the whole school community comes together to contribute towards the show. All who take part bring their own zeal, interests and attributes; we encourage everyone to become involved in an aspect of the show which they are passionate about or challenged by. Not all students, for example, want to take part as performers so they choose to acquire talents as stage managers, puppeteers, or technical assistants. Watching everyone discover what they can achieve as part of these ventures is brilliant.
It is always my hope to inspire confidence in all my students so that they leave the prep school feeling that they can achieve anything that they set their minds to. By working together as a large team with their peers, teachers, parents and helpers, they appreciate that a broad breadth of skills should be brought to any project. That being part of a community, creating links in one’s learning and sharing rich experiences is not only life enhancing but also empowering.
Before our most recent production, an 11 year old student came to my desk. “Thank you,” she said, “I really didn’t want to do it but now, it’s my destiny.” She was referring, rather effusively, to our recent Year 6 theatre production and her calling to be part of future theatrical casts. Why was she so gushing, you may ask? One could make many assumptions as to where her enthusiasm stemmed from, but simply, the experience of being part of an ensemble cast, rehearsing, crafting and performing our musical had given her a deeper sense of self-confidence, a keen interest in stagecraft, a wonderful feeling of accomplishment and team spirit, whilst she had learnt a great deal. Yet, most importantly, the event had brought real joy. Understandably, she wished that she could relive this process all over again, moving from perceived dread to elation!
“I’m going to audition for everything I can,” were the last words my student said to me as she left my desk. What a wonderful metaphor for life.
St Catherine’s Prep extend a warm welcome to parents who would like to see what this actually looks like here at St Catherine’s, Bramley with regular Open Mornings. Please visit our website for further dates and information www.stcatherines.info