Here is the third interview of my monthly feature; interviews with Drama Teachers who work at the coalface of the Drama Studio. This time it is with Catherine Nash. Catherine teaches Drama to 11 to 18 years olds in a private school in Bath, she is on the executive committee for National Drama and a keen advocate for the Arts. You can follow Catherine on Twitter @KateMrsnash
KRB: How long have you been teaching and is the biggest change you’ve seen in the subject of Drama during that time?
KN: I’ve been teaching 16 years and in a way not much has changed. Essentialy we are still fighting the same battles – the ebacc, progress 8 or STEM fights feel like the fights we had over including Drama in the National Curriculum. I know I am personally protected a lot in the private sector but I know things are particularly rough out there at the moment. I feel like that old lady in the photograph ‘I can’t believe I am still protesting this s***!’
KRB: Can you say a little about what drew you to become a Drama Teacher?
KN: I’d always wanted to teach – it just seemed like a good job to do and I loved acting but I initially did a law degree to please my dad (who told me that you have to act in a courtroom and that John Cleese was a lawyer!) By the time I finished my degree I was sure that I didn’t want to go further with a career in Law and that I wanted to teach Drama. It took me 3 years to get a place on the PGCE course at the Central School of Speech and Drama with the great Pam Shaw. On the interview day she told me that she took ‘one risk every year’. That year she took a risk with me.
KRB: Is there a scheme of work or a particular lesson you’ve always enjoyed teaching?
KN: I’m a big fan of the late, great Joss Bennathan. I particularly love his book ‘Developing Drama’ – it was the first book I bought as an NQT and I still use schemes which originated there. My absolute favourite is ‘Drama is Serious Fun’ – it’s our department catchphrase and the first thing we teach to Year 7. My scheme now bears only some similarity to Joss’s original but that’s where it began. I owe a lot to Joss and was very sad when he passed away last year.
KRB: What do you tell students and parents during the options process about why they should take Drama GCSE or A Level?
KN: I’m very clear with parents right from the word go that ‘doing Drama’ is not about putting their children on the stage. Obviously some do go on to do that – with or without their parents’ approval – but I don’t think that GCSE & A Level Drama should be limited in its outlook. Teaching Drama in schools is essentially about developing transferable skills. That’s why I’m so keen to reclaim the word ‘soft’. Drama IS a ‘soft’ option – not because it is ‘easy’ – but because it helps students develop those essential skills that employers are so desperate for. At options evenings I have a lot of information about what skills Drama develops – creativity, communication & confidence are the most recognisable but parents like to hear that their child will be required to be resilient, flexible, able to work collaboratively with others and will learn to take constructive criticism – among other things. I also let parents know what students go on to study – and where. We have had A Level Drama students go on to top Russell Group universities – including Oxford and Cambridge with AS or A level Drama and they do a wide variety of things. This year I have a student with offers to do Engineering at both Leeds and Loughborough – and they told her that her Drama A level gave her the ‘edge’! We are hearing that a lot from businesses, from industry and from higher education – there just seems to be a disconnect between the real picture and the image that gets put out there. I think Drama should be a compulsory subject throughout Key Stage 3 – often children start in year 7 with a preconceived idea about what drama is and whether they ‘like it’. I hear so many prospective parents tells me that Drama is not their child’s ‘thing’. My answer is ‘how do you know?’. In my opinion a well taught Drama lesson should spark the imagination and creativity of the most reluctant learner. It’s about making it relevant to them. Do that well in and you make your job easier at options evening!
KRB: Do you think that there is a place for written coursework and written examinations in Drama?
KN: YES!! A Level and GCSE’s are academic subjects. We can’t begin to compete with those perceived as ‘traditional’ if we don’t measure students in the same way. There is a lot about the new syllabi that I don’t like – the removal of face to face moderation for example – but the written content doesn’t faze me. Don’t get me wrong – not all my students cope with it – some of them need a lot of support. But, at the end of the day they will get a GCSE or A Level the content of which will stand up to scrutiny and criticism. I do think that there needs to be more practical alternatives to the GCSE and A Level though so we should also be championing the likes of the Btec and fighting to protect that. There needs to be both vocational and traditionally academic assessment of Drama at all levels.
KRB: How do you feel about running extra-curricular activities and school productions?
KN: We have longer days in the private sector – my working day goes on until 5.30. We also tend to get longer lunch breaks so there is plenty of opportunity for extracurricular clubs. There are 5 of us in the department – 2 full time, 1 part time teacher, a graduate assistant and a theatre manager. Between us we run 5 regular clubs a week plus others from time to time such as script writing or comedy improvisation. Then we have rehearsals for the shows and assessments on top of that. It’s busy but that’s the way we like it. I enjoy the extra-curricular stuff – it’s a different aspect of the job and it complements the academic side.
At my current school we do three major shows a year. Productions are where those who want to ‘act’ can really get their teeth into theatre. It’s important to differentiate between lessons and the productions otherwise I think numbers at GCSE and A Level would drop off – parents don’t always understand that there are differences between the two! When I direct I never get post show blues – the kids are all down and upset when it comes to an end and I’m thinking ‘right, what’s next?!’ I’m always planning two or three shows at a time. My favourite changes all the time. I try hard to pick shows that suit the kids and ‘Spamalot’ just hit the right people at the right time – that was amazing. For junior plays I have started to write or compile my own – we are just about to start rehearsals for a show based around the Cautionary Tales poems – writing something myself allows me to ensure that the number and interests of the kids are catered for.
KRB: Having done so many shows, you must have some excellent top tips on making a successful production.
KN: Setting high standards would be my top tip – I always tell them that the only difference between our shows and professional shows is that they don’t get paid! Come to think of it, nor do I really! If you are going to expect high standards from them then the production standards have to be high and they have to have plenty to do. We do a lot of ensemble, physical work in our shows and the children know that ‘named parts’ are just another piece of the jigsaw. If anyone is upset by the ‘size’ of their part (ie how many lines they have) then I tell them to come back and talk to me at the end of the production if they still feel that they had a ‘small part’. They never come back! We rarely do traditional auditions and I always use however many students want to be involved. We have over 100 children in our junior production this year so we must be doing something right!
KRB: Thank you very much Kate for taking the time, one final question, what is the best and most practical tip you’ve got about teaching drama?
KN: Never forget that you are learning too. Drama is a two way process and there are infinite things to learn and discover. Don’t be afraid to let your students teach you. Always remember ‘Drama is Serious Fun’!