The Dramaturgy of Lesson Planning

By Chrissy Shackelford, Education & Outreach Associate

In the past, when I heard the words “lesson planning” what first came to mind was pre-planning every day for a for bunch of different subjects.  At least, that’s what used to come to my mind as the daughter of a 4th grade writing teacher in Texas.  To me, this seems rather daunting (Applause to school teachers! No, really… Applaud one the next time you see them).  However, since entering the theatre education world, lesson planning has taken on a new meaning – creative, invigorating, yet simple.

As the Education & Outreach Associate at the Paramount Theatre, I create the pre-show lesson plans for our student matinee performances.  These lessons are taught at schools before they come see a show at the Paramount.  Pre-Show workshops are a staple in theatres all around the country.  What’s great about them is how it connects the students to the theatre. The theatre is no longer a giant, fancy building that they go to once, in the middle of a school day, to see a fancy play and never go back to again because it’s only for adults.  Having someone from that theatre in their classroom enhances the student’s experience. It’s like getting a personal invitation from Oprah to be a part of the art.

Not only do pre-show lessons connect students to the theatre, they also help students feel comfortable with the play’s content.  The lesson is an experiential reflection of what they will see in the performance, and sometimes creating this experience can be hard. To meet these challenges, I draw on other artistic skills. I come from an acting background- I studied Theatre in college and have been teaching for about 3 ½ years.  During my time in college, I took a dramaturgy class because I was obsessed with character research.  Turns out, I’m obsessed with dramaturgy as well.  It is extremely satisfying for me to read a play 5 million times, unlock all the tiny nuances within it, and see it come to life in a production that has a clear vision.  A dramaturg, besides from being the hardest role to define in theatre due to the amount of roles they take on (Applause to dramaturgs!), acts as the “gatekeeper” of a production, keeping a show in line with its goals and conscious of the overall audience experience.

Now this excitement is most useful during my lesson planning. When lesson planning, I ask myself some dramaturgical questions to guide my writing:

  • What is this play about?  Yes, this and this happens, but what is the play ultimately about? What is it trying to say?
    • Now that I know what the play is about, what should my lesson be about? Great! Now I know what the big idea of my lesson should be!
  • What do I want the audience to leave this play thinking or saying?
    • What do I want the students leaving the theatre thinking or saying? Great! Now I’ve got my goals of the lesson!
  • Why this show?  Why now?  How does it relate to the culture that we’re in right now? (Austin, TX, United States 2013)
    • Great! Now I know why this work is important and I can highlight what’s important for these students in their own lives.
    • I can also use these questions when crafting my activities- Why this activity?  What order should the activities be in? How does it relate to the themes of the play and the goals of my lesson?

I also use play structure when it comes to composing my lesson plans.

  • I use my dramaturgical questions to decide what the goal of the lesson is then I think about one culminating activity that is the main part of the lesson, the thing that every other activity will work towards.  That activity is the “climax” of my lesson.
  • All of my activities that precede it should be working up to that main activity, those activities are my “rising action”.
  •  The “falling action” of my lesson is reflection.  Reflection is a huge part of a lesson just as the “falling action” is to a play.  Have you ever seen a play that ends with a huge event and doesn’t wrap up anything?  You are left with no closure for the characters and the story and end up leaving the theatre all out of sorts because you don’t know what you were supposed to think. (If that is the productions’ intention then well done!) Very often, myself included, teaching artists will forget or neglect reflection for the sake of time.  Processing what we’ve done or what we’ve seen is huge!  

All of these tools help with focus and integrity.  What’s the focus of this work, why is this work important, and how is my role as a dramaturg or theatre educator perpetuating that focus and integrity?  Pre-show workshops turn a normal field trip to the theatre into an engaging experience and not only are we as educator’s there to service the students, we are there to service the work.  When both things are in harmony then you have a successful, engaging lesson plan.

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