I am venturing once again to visit my friend Chris Horne at Glen Eden Intermediate, in appropriately-named Kaurilands, just off Titirangi Road, for further drama inspiration. In my last visit the result was Attacks! 100-103 Magic amongst the kauri based on Chris’s use of the Invention of Hugo Cabret, this time it will be Marvels amongst the kauri based on The Marvels, both books by Brian Selznick.
The book, The Marvels, is a picture and word book by Brian Selznick who used a similar format for The Invention of Hugo Cabret. In The Marvels though, the pictures come first in placement and the text second, as against The invention of Hugo Cabret in which text and pictures intermingle. The pictures in black pencil convey a powerful sense of the mythological and evocation of underlying meaning.
The Marvels begins in 1766 with the life and adventures of Billy Marvel who runs away to sea and stows away on the Kraken. It then follows his story and that of his family over a number of generations. There is then a jump to 1990 and a story solely in text that is somehow connected with and parallel to the happenings in the picture story.
The Marvels is based on a theatrical family spanning centuries with many themes including the fluidity of what constitutes family; families being linked by culture, themes, symbols, ideas; and the idea that fiction is often better at telling the truth than facts. In the word part of the book, the recurring statement ‘You either see it or you don’t’ is a teasing reference to that marvel. And with Shakespeare’s plays being in the theatrical mix, what could be stronger proof? There are also marvels in the seemingly magical and mystical recurrence of events and themes.
The story begins with the Billy on board the Kraken putting on a play with Marcus, his sailor brother. A young girl (Billy) is tied to the mast and is saved from a Dragon by an Angel (Marcus) brandishing a sword and a glowing lantern. During the performance of the play a terrible storm overtakes the ship and Billy and his dog Tar escape but his brother dies. After burying Marcus, Billy lights a bonfire which sets fire to the trees. Billy is rescued and taken to London where he becomes a cause célèbre. As he watches the building of the Royal Theatre, Billy tells the workers his story which serves to inspire a young man painting the ceiling to depict his brother as an Angel on the dome. Billy becomes involved with the Royal Theatre and the progenitor of generations of Marvels, all famous stage actors. After the tenth anniversary celebration at the theatre, Billy discovers a basket left outside the Theatre’s back doors. The basket contains an abandoned baby boy with a note to raise him to be a good man (an example of the fluidity of the concept of family). The baby grows up to be a famous actor, Marcus Marvel, as does his son, the erratic and impulsive Alexander, born in 1801. Alexander’s illegitimate son, Oberon, is left at the theatre as a baby, also to become a famous actor, especially in the role of King in The Winter’s Tale. Leontes, Alexander’s grandson, is eventually born into the dynasty but is not interested in performing and decides to run away. Much else occurs including the Royal Theatre going up in flames.
Throughout there is a sense of mystery and of deep forces at play but while emotionally affecting the story studiedly avoids sentimentality. Overall, there is a sense of pace suggestive of the brevity of individual human existence, only gaining definitive meaning as part of a continuum or in this case a longer story.
As was the basis for the drama activities on my first visit to Chris’s room – using Hugo Cabret – the main stimulus for activities were the still pictures. May I point out that still pictures are the basis for activities in the ‘feeling for’ approach, the approach to social studies I developed with others in the 1980s? Still pictures are a potent source for children gaining information, much more, I suggest, than moving pictures, because, adroitly used, they particularly lend themselves to raising questions significant to children. Still pictures are: able to be used more flexibly by teachers for activities, for instance, various forms of picture comparison (three pictures – which one do you think is the odd one out? with the children knowing the pictures have been selected at random); likely to be more open-ended than moving pictures; a particular stimulus to the imagination; better for concentrated attention; able to be used by children of all ages and abilities; sources of information that don’t rely on children’s reading ability; effective in getting children close to people and situations; and able to take children into complex situations in a straightforward but valid way.
Please teachers, use drama in your class, don’t let inhibitions hold you back, there are children in your class who will be remarkable at it, and all children will be the more remarkable for it; there will be some children who will find release for heretofore unrecognised ability even genius, and if you don’t provide the key for that release it will remain reprehensibly so. A teacher of drama runs the wonderful likelihood of being forever memorable. Drama is about thinking and imagining, the two processes vital for children both in the present and the forever.
From remembering when I stumbled into drama as a teacher back at Maromaku and being taken-aback by the children’s degree of absorption by even this most trifling of drama activities, so holistic in effect, their whole body and mind fixed – and saying Wow! I can’t compete with that, I’m not even going try to work it out, just take it as an observed pedagogical good; to the inspiration of the drama in Chris Horne’s magic room – impels me to urge you to do drama on your own account. For all the words I might throw at you, it is simple: involve the children, get them to respond dramatically, and you and the children ask some questions. Which other curriculum activities lend themselves so easily to such deep and philosophical thought? Drama can take you and the children where they are unlikely to have ever been before, and without drama are unlikely to ever go after. You are their best chance. Get the children emotionally involved with words or pictures and use some of the drama situations suggested and make even more of your own. It truly isn’t difficult. While I was watching Chris work with the children, the recurring thought kept going through my mind: These children will never be the same.
As a teacher, using drama, you can be a marvel too.
Chris develops many activities in response to drama situations, for instance, a press cutting is part of the story so he gets the cutting and cuts it on a slant thereby omitting many of the words at end of each line. The slant tapers from the top meaning more words need to be conjured up as the press cutting goes on. Brilliant! The idea came to Chris and particularly interested me because it is the kind of activity that would work a treat in the social studies ‘feeling for’ approach – a genuine ‘thinking’ activity. The cutting was photocopied and made available to children to work on individually or in pairs with the added words written directly at the end of the lines.
I suggest you note the underlying openness of the explorations; the coming in and out of role by teacher and children; the teacher as a kind of pedagogical provocateur who goads, pushes, and challenges but rarely tells; the unwillingness to accept anything but the sincerest of response. Then there is the use of established drama practices or techniques also the development of original activities or twists to established ones. No ideas are more stimulating for children than ones teachers produce from their own thinking; children sense the excitement, the element of originality, and respond accordingly.
In the various activities that follow, some are straightforward or explained, others are left to your imagination to make sense of – to fill in the gaps as occurs to you. The activities are intended as a stimulus not a directory.
I have observed from Chris’s practice that the purposes of drama are taking on the role of someone else in another time and place – to reveal truth, explore, and attempt to understand human behaviour. In drama, students consider such things as motivations, emotions, thinking, reasoning, power, status, moral and physical courage, conflict, co-operation, loyalty, love, the transitory and the perennial, inevitability or otherwise, the past and the future.
In coming to know Chris Horne’s approach, seeing notes, and knowing the story of the Marvels, I wonder what situations and activities and questions he will use with the students, for instance, will it be:
The ship appearing: What do you notice? Hear? Imagine? How do you feel, sense? What do you understand?
The figurehead: What do you notice? What do you think are the purposes of a figurehead? What figures might be represented? What might the following creatures represent: horses, bulls, snakes, lions, unicorns, dolphins, dragons, swans, eagles, mermaids, knights, and wives and daughters of the ship owners? What might they have been symbols for? The practice might have begun from the ancient practice of sacrificing an animal and securing its head to the bow to appease the gods. Kraken refers to the mythical giant squid or crab that lived off the coast of Norway and Greenland.
The Angel falls: As a whole class the students might approach the body using mime, spoken thoughts aloud, and dialogue.
Afloat on the raft: What words may have been spoken between the girl (Billy) and the injured Angel (Marcus, the older brother)? What range of emotions could they have experienced? The students could stay in role as girl and Angel: thought tapping might occur in which the characters reveal their innermost thoughts. What range of emotions, roaming thoughts, could these two be experiencing – turn those thoughts into physical expression: for instance, hope, emptiness, longing, searching fear, misunderstanding? In pairs, the students could create a connected sculpture that captures the essence, mood, emotion, moment. (Thought tapping is a quick fire strategy enabling students to express their understanding of characters and situations without the need for rehearsal. Students identify with a role and express their thoughts physically by holding a sculpture, connected sculpture, or freeze image. Once students have made an image, explain that when you tap them on the shoulder you would like them to speak the thoughts or feelings of their character aloud.)
Washed up on the high tide: Physically represent the characters’ roaming thoughts; have those roaming thoughts converse with each other.
The dog licks his master’s cheeks: What if the Angel, in his unconscious state, visualises the melodrama play just before he fell? In groups (girl, Dragon, audience) plan, practise, and present these moments in even more exaggerated melodrama style (villain, victim, hero). Use available props to emphasise, power, status, and vulnerability. (All this draws attention to the blurred division between fact and fiction and how fiction can sometimes communicate the truth more powerfully and validly than fact.)
‘Here lies my brother Marcus, an Angel’: This statement Billy writes is an epitaph, that is a phrase, sentence, or paragraph written in memory of the deceased on a tombstone by which that person will be remembered. What epitaph might you write for Marcus, the Angel? Write it on the tombstone erected in the classroom. What if these epitaphs roamed and spoke to each other? Make an Angel shape, a sculpture: use a variety of body bases: sitting, kneeling, lying, standing. What do Angels do? (protect, comfort, guide warn, sometimes carry important artefacts.)
The front page: What new information about the characters is revealed? How might this information have been obtained? Use teacher in role and a student in role as newspaper reporters to interview Billy in the hot seat; the gaggle of other reporters also ask questions. Using the slanted press cutting, the students, in role, complete the newspaper report.
Billy and the bystanders: What catches your attention about this image? In role as bystanders, approach Billy in three ways: mime, spoken thoughts aloud, and conversations together.
Calling for Tar: Tar has run off into the crowd. In role as passing bystanders, take turns as Billy calling for his beloved dog (these calls should not be repeated). What if Billy begins to hear his conscience giving him conflicting advice about what to do to find Tar? Gradually the crowd begins to form into gossip groups. How might gossip groups behave?
The construction site: What do you think is being constructed? When you look into Billy’s eyes what do you see? Something has caught and held Billy’s attention, what could it be? A group of workers and set designers gather around Billy as he tells his fabulous tale? What range of emotions does this evince in them? With Angel one of the members, in small groups, undertake small group role play: have the group give advice, warnings, encouragement as Billy tells his tale (Billy can see and hear the Angel but the workers and set designers cannot).
Image by the set artist: After listening to Billy’s tale, what if the Artist considers making changes to his cloud mural? What shapes might he make?
The Artist, Billy, and the Angel: At the moment shown in the picture, what conversation might have taken place between Billy and the Artist? A paired conversation might occur. What if the Angel could talk or reveal his thoughts? Can the Artist ‘see’ or ‘hear’ the Angel?
Hear lies Tar: Surround a student as Billy in the hot seat to respond to questions about Tar, then create sculptures that represent words spoken about Tar. Those sculptures begin to move and speak.
What might be in the basket? Why might the baby have been left or abandoned next to Tar’s epitaph? What do you notice about the baby? What if inside the envelope is a one-line note? What might have been written? A plea, an instruction, request, or demand? Was the basket placement planned or accidental? What other questions come to mind? What range of emotions might the parent be experiencing? This person cares about the baby and its future, but for some reason is unable to look after it. Write the short note for the envelope.
The predicament of the parent: What if the parent, after writing the note, before placing it in the envelope, pinned the note to the underside of a wedding dress? Or placed it on the table next to the envelope? Who may have been in the room with the parent? As the parent approached or departed from the dress or table, he or she could share his or her thoughts about the terrible predicament. Use the technique of surrounding thoughts to communicate.
Human communication: Seventy-percent of human communication is non-verbal, that is, we convey meaning through gesture such as, movement, facial expression, stance, posture, and body base. Verbal communication is through words – such as, fast, slow, loud, soft, sound, silence; and human sounds through such as, sighs, groans, hisses, laughing, crying. Use some of these in a surrounding thoughts activity as above.
The object held by the baby: What name might you give to the object held by the baby? locket, keepsake, taonga, pacifier, charm, medallion, pendant?
Image of the Royal Theatre exterior: What did the sky look like in the previous image of the building? Where in the story did you notice a similar night sky? Why might the artist repeat such a perspective? Ask the children to give their thoughts aloud.
Headlines and apologies: What terms could you use to describe Alexander’s temperament? Use sculpture to express the terms.
Leontes first sketch of the Angel on the side-stage: What in this image has been repeated before (montages, angels, child on side-stage, theatre frontage, sky, clouds, moon, sun, notes, messages (often incomplete, obscured) – male babies, generational dysfunctionality)? What can you see that you think no-one else has?
Oberon argues with Leontes in his office: Using the sketch as a drama artefact, plan, practise a paired argument between the two.
Leontes’ voices of advice: After being banished by his father, Leontes has to make a decision. What if he heard voices giving him advice? What if those voices belonged to the Angel and to the Dragon? Thoughts aloud. What if Leontes lets the Angel and the Dragon argue between themselves? Paired argument.
Leontes confronted by Alexander: Leontes, in front of an old advertising poster, is confronted by an old and haggard Alexander. Is he a hermit or a ghost? Use group role play to explore this moment. All characters can speak, but only Leontes and Alexander can move.
Alexander’s eyes: When you look into his eyes, what do you see? How would you describe the mood? the colour? texture?
Outreaching hands: What might be the illustrator’s intention? the intended significance? As Alexander points to the Angel fresco, what words may have been exchanged between Alexander and Leontes? Working in pairs, rotate in a circular pathway for a conversation rotation. Then begin to walk in random pathways as Alexander takes Leontes to other memorable places within and outside the theatre.
The basket: On the next page Alexander points to the basket. In pairs make an exact copy of the characters in the image, then without rehearsal, freestyle possible conversations.
Voices from the basket: What if Leontes and his great-grandfather heard sounds coming from the basket? And as they drew closer they realised these were the sounds of Leontes’ ancestors? Choose four ancestors in a seated configuration to converse with Alexander and Leontes.
Inside the basket: Inside the basket is a keepsake. When Leontes picked it up, he holds it to his ear. What did he hear? Slowly he turned the pendant over and began to read the worn inscription on the reverse. What do you think it said? It might be in the form of a quote, apology, plea, prophecy, hieroglyphics, last request, sacred memory, song, poem, lines from a play, warning, guidance, wish, message of hope, a map. Write in role as an author of one or more of these.
The pendant: Alexander gives the pendant to Leontes. Use a doughnut circle to explore the words exchanged between them. (A doughnut circle is a process in which participants carry out paired conversations in groups formed into two moving concentric circles, with each participant representing a different person’s perspective. The individuals vary delivery in volume, tempo, pausing, and human sounds. After a while they break off into random pairs.)
Leontes and the pendant: As Leontes clutches the pendant, unable to sleep; he ‘saw’ voices, sounds. What, who, did he hear? What if these voices, sounds spoke to him?
Angels walking (Angels representing the Angel and Leontes): Leontes, woken by voices, begins to wake up. Half the class lies on the floor, eyes closed, in role as Leontes. The Angels roam around these figures, quietly whispering to them.
Angels flying: As the Angels and Leontes fly together (random roaming in pairs) what conversation might they have shared?
As their hands separated: Create a series of six consecutive paired sculptures – each of the six sculptures for each pair ten seconds apart – depicting the separation and descent of the and Angel and Leontes. Use a director for the timing of open-eyes/close-eyes for the viewing of these movie-effect consecutive sculptures.
Leontes’ letter: In Leontes’ letter to his parents, what does he mean by – ‘I need to find my place in the world … I hope one day to find where I belong too.’ Rather than leave the story ‘in the flames’; what if we were able to speak to one of the characters to find out what may have happened next? Use combination hot seating of Alexander and Leontes to explore other outcomes. Do you have any other burning questions?
Capturing the essence: What are some of the themes, messages, tensions of this story? Use a reflection circle and a moral sculpture to explore these possibilities and understandings. The moral sculpture indicating role, time, place, moment in the story that best captures the essence of it.
As Part 2 of this series will demonstrate, the effect on the students of such activities, as taken by Chris Horne, is magical – marvellous if I’m to keep in step with the title for the series. The intensity of the students’ concentration is beautifully sustained; confirming that nothing in a classroom transfixes children’s attention more than drama. To try and explain why it transfixes their attention is to diminish its transcendence. Theoretical or education justifications are unnecessary: something magical is going on in their heads; something deeply integrating; something important – end of story (but not series, in Part 2 I describe some of those drama activities in practice).