teaching the history of theatre

A Class Activity for Drawing Students into the History of Theatre

By Nicholas Waxman, Head of Visual and Performing Arts at ELTHAM College

Not all of us are lucky enough to have been bitten by the history bug. I am lucky, I was bitten by the annals ant at a young age. But unless it is relevant, meaningful or engaging, history can seem like useless information receding ceaselessly into the distance. A vast swathe of facts, figures and famous figures.

I have found success in teaching the history of theatre through drawing.

Drawing Activity for Teaching the History of Theatre

Each student gets a few coloured pens and their own place around the very long piece of butcher’s paper. I explain that we will be looking at the history of theatre, that we will be creating a class tapestry that runs over the course of thousands of years, that details its biggest events, obstacles and successes.

I frame the work with two essential questions that will guide our journey. This gives context to the journey and focusses it.

The Essential Questions

On one side of the paper I ask each student to write their thoughts in dot points under each heading. Below are the questions and some common responses:

  • Why do we create theatre?
    • To entertain
    • To share stories
    • To escape
  • How will we achieve this?
    • Make it funny
    • Make it relevant to the audience
    • Create a fantasy world

After some reflection we turn the page over and begin our tapestry.

Drawing the History

The 30 slides are divided into the 15 biggest events in theatre history. Each event gets two slides, the first of which will ask students to draw a significant moment and the second slide explains its importance.

  • Example 1
    • Slide 1 –  Draw an actor holding two masks, one in each hand. Each mask can have a different expression.
    • Slide 2 – This is Thespis. The first actor to break out of the Greek chorus and play a character. Actors are now called ‘thespians’ because of him.
  • Example 2
    • Slide 1 – Draw a dream, where anything is possible and everything has a hidden meaning.
    • Slide 2 – This is surrealism. Rejecting the majority of Western Theatre as a distortion of its original intent, surrealism is a mystical and metaphysical experience.
Class Discussion and Reflection

In the final minutes of class, we discuss the recurring themes, persistent threats and consistent ideas that permeate theatre’s history. Not only does it get students interacting with history and discussing big concepts, it gives them perspective on their place in a long history of dramatic exploration.

As we return to the questions we started with, the answers are that much more readily available to us as the students get a second chance to add to their list.

And then the final question; where will we go next? All hands go up.

Read Nicholas’s other post, This Is Why We Bother with Drama in the Classroom, to learn about interdisciplinary opportunities with drama.

**This article originally appeared in Australian Teacher Magazine.

Nicholas Waxman is a Melbourne based artist and educator. He is a contributing writer for Australian Teachers Magazine and the Victorian Curriculum and Theatre studies portfolio manager for the Drama Victoria Committee of Management. Nick is the host and producer of a drama education podcast called ‘The Aside Podcast‘ and is the Head of Visual and Performing Arts at ELTHAM College. Nick has toured his comedy show, ‘A Sunburnt History,’ across the country and has presented workshops for drama teachers and students around Australia and internationally.

Nicholas Waxman

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