Here is the second interview of my new monthly feature; interviews with Drama Teachers who work tirelessly, hard and in their Drama Studio. This time it is with Jenny Camerson who is both a Head of Performing Arts and a Drama SL based in Cheltenham.
KRB: How long have you been teaching?
JC: Since 1997 – I started out in Warwickshire teaching mostly English with a little bit of GCSE drama, then re-located to London to try my hand at professional acting. I had teaching to “fall back on”. Oddly, though, I found that I hated the acting lifestyle – 3 years of teaching and having a regular income, along with a pretty stable childhood hadn’t really prepared me for the excitement (!) of not knowing where the next rent cheque was coming for. At the same time, I was supply teaching for cash, and gradually got more and more involved with the school – even at that point, teaching, for me, was very much about the impact on the students and the teacher-student relationships. In the end I took a permanent contract at the school I’d been doing supply in. I then moved up to Gloucestershire in 2004 when I got married and have been at the same school ever since.
KRB: Since 1997, when you started teaching, what has been the biggest change you’ve seen in the subject of Drama?
JC: I expect most people would say that biggest change is to do with the marginalisation of arts subjects, but I’ve been in a school, for the last 12 years, which has championed arts subjects and so this hasn’t hit me at all. Personally, the biggest change is in the way that KS4 and KS5 qualifications are organised. I have taught everything from A Level to GNVQ and all permutations of Level 2 and Level 3 BTEC. The constant change is somewhat wearing!
KRB: What is best memory you’ve got of teaching Drama?
In the year 2000, the Millennium Dome had a little theatre called the Our Town Story theatre. Every LEA got a “Day in the Dome” to tell their story. I turned up at a meeting for Warwickshire drama teachers, expecting it to be packed, but it was pretty much just me and the county drama and music bosses. I ended up directing the Warwickshire Our Town Story, starting with auditioning hundreds of Warwickshire school children to find our core cast of 15, then adding a chorus of over 100. We rehearsed and then took them to London. That day will always be a stand-out memory. It showed me that there is more to drama teaching than what happens in the classroom and that you have a duty to take opportunities where they arise – if it wasn’t for their drama teachers, many young people would never find out about amazing opportunities out there.
KRB: What was the best trip you took students on/How do you feel about taking students on trips?
JC: My first experience of taking a school trip was certainly memorable – but not for the right reasons! I was a very enthusiastic 22 year old, and my first job was close to the university I trained at. I knew that the excellent drama society were doing a production of The Crucible, so I organised a trip. The Headmaster asked if he could come along – he was a huge Miller fan. About 20 minutes into the production, which was staged in the intimate studio theatre of Warwick Arts Centre, I, along with the students, and mortifyingly, the actors, were able to hear loud snoring coming from our row. Yes – the Head had fallen asleep. As if that wasn’t bad enough, when we got back to school, my car had been locked in the school carpark and I had to beg a lift from the same Headteacher. However, that hasn’t put me off!
When I was teaching in Islington, we were lucky enough to work closely with the Almeida Theatre, and they had a new scheme to bring disadvantaged children to see their plays. We arrived early, were met by the Education & Projects manager who sat the students in the auditorium and told them, quite clearly, that they had as much right to be in that theatre as any of the other people who would be arriving to see the play, and that their response, no matter what that was, was valid and correct and they were not to feel embarrassed or worried about getting it wrong. The relief was palpable, and the students’ subsequent enjoyment of plays there, including Antony Sher’s “ID” and David Eldridge’s “Festen”, was enormous. I have since ensured that I have taken that approach, and it is clear that my students are comfortable and at home in the theatre.
KRB: How do you feel about school productions?
JC: I love the school show – it is my favourite part of the job, though my husband and two children know that they are unlikely to see me for a week, and that I will spend the following week (always Feb half term) ill and suffering post-show blues!
Over the last seven years, we have produced a series of fabulous school shows, getting steadily more ambitious (High School Musical to West Side Story via Les Miserables) and with bigger and bigger casts. We’ve just finished Guys & Dolls with a cast of 60. I’m sure many schools have huge casts, but with fewer than 500 students in our school, and with Year 11 not taking part, that’s about 20% of the student body!
One of the most memorable productions was Les Miserables, because we managed set the fire alarm off not once, but twice. We were using haze throughout to make the show more atmospheric. Our lighting and sound man had asked the site manager to cover the smoke detector, following appropriate risk assessments, so the fire alarm during show was something of a surprise. Audience and cast trooped into the car park, false alarm was established, and so we trooped back in and picked up where we left off. Turns out the site team had covered the smoke detector above the stage but not the one in above the audience. Show 2 – both smoke detectors covered, so the fire alarm was, again, something of a surprise. Out we went… Turns out there was a smoke detector in the corridor which, you’ve guessed it, needed to be covered. Show 3 – the fire service said we couldn’t use haze. Still, lesson learned – now we cover every single smoke detector we can see, and have a fire watcher on duty.
KRB: Having done so many shows, what do you think makes a school production successful?
JC: Organisation and having high standards. Sounds harsh, but our school shows are fantastic, but they are hard work for all involved. Along with many other drama teachers, I produce weekly rehearsal schedules – nothing worse for cast members than sitting in the hall for an hour after school watching other people rehearse a scene you’re not in. We demand high standards – we tell the students that the audience is paying to see the show and therefore they want to see something good. My colleague and I have “Good Cop/Bad Cop” roles (and hoodies to match) and it works – the fact that we had 60 children this year proves that our nagging doesn’t put anyone off! I also think it’s important to treat the cast like professionals and to keep it separate from school – I don’t approve of schools who use the show as a behaviour management tool – and some do. Making the cast feel special helps too – little things like providing the majority of costumes rather than asking parents to sort that out makes it feel more like a professional show. We also, when we’ve had the budget, brought in professional workshops – there is a company called WECA who do “Inspire Your Cast” workshops – we’ve had those three times and they are brilliant.
I never watch school productions – I’m always Stage Left making sure the right people are in the right places. But my casts know that – they know that I’m not going to be there to prompt and I certainly won’t be letting them stop and start a scene again if it goes wrong. They rise to this – after Dress Rehearsal I see them pulling together as a team, supporting each other, no matter if they are Year 7 or Year 13. On stage, it’s up to them. They become resilient – they have to. The value cannot be underestimated.
KRB: Finally, what is the best and most practical tip you’ve got about teaching drama?
JC: Give a bit of yourself. Show the students that you love your subject. Don’t accept bad manners – no talking when others are performing – drama must be a safe space – we don’t say unkind things about others’ performances. Don’t accept non-participation – no one gets to opt out of maths – the more you do it, the more comfortable you will feel. Don’t use practical work as a behaviour management tool – it’s not a privilege – it’s the way the lesson works – everyone joins in, everyone takes part, everyone learns new skills and makes progress.