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Teaching as Performance, Part One: Using the Space

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After reading through Larry’s recent blog on teaching spaces, I was struck by how the physical relationship between teachers and learners in the classroom echoes the types of staging we find in the theatre. As someone who has worked both as an actor and a teacher, this got me thinking about the parallels between teaching and acting, and what we can learn as teachers when we think about our job in terms of performance space and performance. In this blog, I’m going to start where Larry left off, by reviewing, briefly, how the space in which we teach, and how we arrange it, affects our interactions with our students. To do this, I’m going to consider three different types of staging commonly found in the theatre:

A. End-on

The traditional classroom set-up, with rows of chairs and desks, echoes the end-on performance spaces we find in many theatres, with a raised stage at one end and rows of seats facing front. This is typically used for a ‘presentational’ style of acting, where directors position and move the actors so that most of their lines are delivered side-on or facing the audience. The picture presented is somewhat artificial, and there is a separation between the performer and the audience. The auditorium is dark and the stage is well-lit, the actor is elevated and is the centre of attention: his facial expressions can easily be seen, his gestures controlled and clear, and his voice is directed out into the darkness. The audience listens and watches as the scene unfolds.

In the end-on classroom set-up, the teacher also stands at the front and faces towards their audience. As in the theatre, they may even have a small stage or platform of their own. At the very least, they are likely to be standing, whilst the class are seated. In the end-on classroom space, the teacher is the centre of attention, clearly visible to all the class, and in the traditional position of the authority figure. This kind of setup is great for several roles we may need to fulfil as a teacher. For example, it is perfect for giving instructions, explaining or demonstrating, eliciting questions and responses, drilling and TPR activities, and for anything requiring a clear sight of the whiteboard. Because the teacher can see all the learners, and because they are not milling about, there is less scope for certain types of disruptive behaviour. As Larry points out, it is also good for exams and tests and for certain kinds of focused written work.

B. Thrust or Apron stage.

This is the kind of stage that extends out into the audience, creating a performance space where the actors have audience members on three sides – to the left, to the right, and straight in front of them. If they continue to move further into the space, some of the spectators to the sides may also be behind the actor. This set-up provides new challenges and new opportunities. It means that you have to move in the space, turning to make eye contact with different members of the audience. However, it also means all the audience members are closer to you. You don’t have to speak so loudly, and you can create a much more intimate feeling, particularly as you can only address one section of the audience at a time. You must use eye contact and movement to keep drawing different sections of the audience back into your purview. This is the kind of staging popular in Shakespearean theatre, allowing actors to reveal their innermost thoughts, through soliloquies, or to address them directly through asides.

The horseshoe shape is our classroom equivalent of the thrust stage. Where you can walk out into the middle of the class and make more direct and personal contact with the students. In the classroom, it also has the advantage that the students can see each other and exchange ideas and opinions with each other without shouting across the room. Similarly, the teacher can use a softer tone to encourage, coach, elicit and engage in one-to-one conversations with different members of the class.

C. In the round

Some performance spaces, particularly studio spaces or theatres with seating that can be configured in different ways, organise performances in the round. This kind of set-up, as the name suggests, is where the acting space is at the centre and the seating is around the outside. As with the thrust stage, it presents both challenges and opportunities. Performing in the round means that you need to keep moving even more, as you will always have your back to someone. It also means that you can’t have fixed background scenery blocking the view, so it relies more heavily on just the actor. It brings even more of the audience closer to the performance space and encourages scenes which are more dynamic in nature.

Having students in a circle or at the edges of the teaching space feels like acting in the round. There is a larger open area in which you need to keep moving and changing your orientation to talk to different parts of the room. For ‘fixed scenery’ here, basically, read the whiteboard, and for ‘dynamic scenes’ read the kinds of classroom activities such as changing places games or classroom drama activities. Also, the boundary between teacher space and learner space is blurred. You can still command the circle by standing or crouching in the centre, turning to address different sections of the class. You can also join the circle yourself, where you can be instrumental in coordinating and participating in activities such as collaborative storytelling, list-building activities and question and answer games. Finally, you can also drop out of the centre to allow students to play or perform, sitting as part of the circle, or standing just outside it.

However you organise your teaching space, here are a few things to consider:

  • Health and safety. Be aware of potential blocked fire exits, bags in the gangways, trip hazards, etc. 
  • The whiteboard. If you are planning to use a whiteboard, think about whether it is visible to the whole class. Also, how will you write on the board while maintaining contact with the class, both to keep them engaged and to monitor behaviour?
  • General experience of the students. If I have time when I am setting up the class, I like to sit in various places in the class to see what the experience is likely to be for the students sitting there. Check out not only sightlines but glare from the sun, noise, drafts and any other potential sources of distraction or discomfort.

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