Whether you are someone who is looking to become a professional actor, you aspire to teach drama as a profession, or you’d like to perform in theater as a hobby, then the chances are that you might be interested to establish a better and more in depth understanding about the diverse industry, subject field and art that is drama.
Drama is a term that has many different meanings and forms. In day to day life, for example, a drama is a situation or series of events that cause one to feel conflicted in some way, whilst it can also refer to being in a dramatic state (i.e. “I’m in such a drama, I can’t find my keys!”). Relying upon this definition alone, it is safe to say that drama is already sounding like something very interesting and intense!
In literature, however, drama as a style is a composition or text in verse or prose that we engage with and which has the purpose of portraying characters, exploring life events or telling a story. A literary drama usually involves conflicts and emotions and is often designed to be performed on stage as a creative art form in theatres.
But what about drama, the education subject? What exactly is covered by its curriculum and what do students gain from tuition they receive in Drama classes? Drama from the pedagogy aspect is offered nationally as a GCSE or A Level subject, both offering a broad course of study to keep pupils interested and invigorated by the Arts.
Drama at GCSE level is designed to help pupils respond to drama by exploring performance texts, understanding their contexts (historical, social and cultural), develop theatrical skills, communicate ideas, contribute creatively to theatrical performances and develop an awareness of roles and process undertaken in contemporary professional theatre.
Drama is offered by many schools and colleges as a GCSE or A Level subject. Photo credit: NEC Corporation of America on Visualhunt.com
Drama at A Level, meanwhile, has a curriculum that it intended to help pupils develop and apply analysis to drama and theatre, understand theoretical research and practical exploration in informing themselves about drama and theatre, understand how contextual elements influence drama and theatre, understand the practices used in 21st-century theatre making and participate in theatre actively and as part of an audience.
Furthermore, those interested in studying the creative arts as an ensemble, or drama studies in particular, have many opportunities to learn about the arts in a classroom. For instance, those wishing to specialise in the performance arts can enrol on a course or attend a lecture or seminar about theory and practice. A talented scholar may also have the chance to apply for a scholarship to attend drama school to kick start their career as a dramatist.
Universities in the UK and abroad offer a range of courses related the dramatic arts and their power to inspire and heal, like theatre history, storytelling, script reading, poetics, puppetry, publishing, narrative, opera, dance, comedy, musical theatre, tragic theatre (the teaching of works by Aristotle, as an example), drama therapy, psychotherapy, American drama, anthropology, dramatic irony, catharsis, and more. So, as a prospective undergraduate student, or even a post graduate, you can find a degree, Master’s or Phd that prepares you for a range of careers in the industry.
While there are different branches of drama which have emerged over the centuries, here I will focus on the introduction and history of Western drama, which is where the tradition of performance that we are familiar with today stems from.
Classical Greek Influences
The term ‘drama’ dates back to the days of classical Greece and its origin is from the verb meaning ‘to do’ or ‘to act’, which highlights the combination of physical and mental activity required in performance arts. For instance, movement plays a big role in any drama.
There were originally thought to be two types of drama: comedy and tragedy, however, when referring to dramas that came out of the 19th century, this term actually refers to a play that is neither one nor the other (thus it emerged as a style of its own). A great example of a play or drama from that period is Ibsen’s A Doll’s House, which has subsequently been studied, directed and performed by many drama or literature courses and dramatic arts pupils.
Yet another genre of drama produced by ancient Greece was satyr.
The most significant Greek writers of drama are Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides, Aristophanes and Menander.
The first three are commonly referred to as tragedians, whilst the two latter lyricists were seen as comic writers. If you have read a Greek tragedy as part of one of your courses or because you are drawn to the suspense, you will be familiar with the chorus, or group of people, who commentate on the story as it unfolds.
The Romans discovered and reworked classic Greek dramas, taking away the chorus and splitting them into episodes. Photo credit: seier+seier on Visualhunt.com
Rome encountered Greek drama around 250 BCE, and many Romans reworked the original dramas, removing the chorus, dividing the stories into episodes and introducing a musical element.
Medieval And Renaissance Drama
Emerging hundreds of years after the first ever comedies and tragedies, Medieval Drama brought something new to the table rather than reworking older styles. With the Christian Church originally opposing theatre, holiday stories and scenarios from the Bible naturally started to be performed by religious personalities, and eventually these performances became more elaborate and moved to other parts of the communities.
When it came to the Renaissance period, Elizabethan drama developed thanks to a celebration of all types of art, with theatre at the forefront. The first ever Elizabethan playhouse opened and plays by famous writers (like Shakespeare) were performed regularly across the country. His plays were more structural than had ever been seen before, and combined comedy with tragedy to give well-rounded performances offering something for everyone.
18th and 19th Century Drama
Social change and the division of classes was rife in the 18th century, and writers drew on the importance of this in the texts that were to be staged. Many plays were therefore written for and about the middle class, moving away from the outdated themes that Shakespeare placed emphasis on. Stage shows became far more witty, brazen, satirical and often involved conflict between the two sexes.
Then, in the 19th century, the Romantic movement was born. Romanticism in Western Europe practised producing emotion and spiritualism and heavily influenced drama and fiction of the period. Romantic plays began to dominate the continent, with famous writers like Faust and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe taking centre stage.
Modern drama is what we would call many of the new plays that emerged from the 20th century, which experimented yet again with conveying new, liberal ideas. Music played a big part in modern drama, while realistic drama was also popular. For some, though, this seemed a step too far from the origins of drama and theatre and they wanted the art to be revitalised and an intervention to take place.
This made way for a Symbolist movement, particularly in France, in the 1880s.
Texts were stripped back and became suggestive and almost dream-like. Chekhov is a very good example of a master of strong Symbolist drama, along with Ibsen.
The Expressionist movement blossomed in the early 1900s and was darker and more grotesque, exploring the depths of the human psyche. Unlike the Symbolist dream-like dramas, Expressionist dramas were more like nightmares and played strongly on morality and teaching lessons.
Finally, contemporary playwrights of the 1960s and 70s began to focus more heavily on language and dialogue, with Tom Stoppard for one being a very important writer of the time.
This brings us to the 21st century, and theatre as we know it today.
While there are numerous 21st century dramatists and playwrights actively writing today, drama in today’s sense is far more geared up towards television dramas and modern adaptations of classics. Music theatre is also a very prominent scene, and appeals to the youth of today.
In a world that is obsessed with fantasy, many of the dramas that are turned into TV adaptations are linked to escapism yet we are all just as interested in the realism of other people’s lives, hence why reality television is so popular in modern society.
Just like the different movements in drama have chopped and changed throughout the years, there are also various types of acting techniques that those in the field should be aware of. Some have been around for a long time, whilst others have emerged thanks to modern developments in theatre processes and performance.
This term is relatively broad and integrates the expression of voice, body, imagination, improvisation (or improv) and script analysis. It is based upon the theories and principles of a selection of classical actors and directors.
The Stanislavski method, for example, draws on feelings and experiences that are said to convey the truth about the characters being portrayed. The actors are encouraged to put themselves in the mindset of the person they are playing and to find links and things in common to make their performances feel more genuine.
Method Acting encompasses a range of drama techniques formulated by Strasberg in order to develop a cognitive and emotional understanding of the actor’s character. The individual is urged to draw on their own experiences to identify personally with their role, so it is also based Stanislavski’s ideas (as are the Stella Adler and Sanford Meisner techniques which are seen as different from the Method Acting umbrella).
The Meisner Technique
The Meisner Technique asks the actor to focus on nothing but each other during stage scene rehearsals, as if nothing else in the world exists during that moment. The idea was that the character that the actor embodied and the intensity of the performance made the scene feel more authentic and powerful to those watching the artistic display as a spectator.
Last but not least, Practical Aesthetics is a technique that derives from a conception that David Mamet and William H. Macy came up with, based once again on the Stanislavski method, along with the Meisner technique and the philosopher Epictetus. The approach includes script analysis, repetition exercises and explores adaptability.
|Classical Acting||Expression of voice, imagination, body, based on the Stanislavski method.|
|Method Acting||Formulated by Strasberg, and based on the Stanislavski method, actors draw on personal experience to connect with their character.|
|Meisner Technique||Linked also to the Stanislavski method, actors focus on the moment to create a powerful performance.|
|Practical Aesthetics||Once again based on the Stanislavski concept, this was formulated by Mamet and Macy and includes repetition exercises.|
“Art is not a mirror with which to reflect reality but a hammer with which to shape it.” – Bertolt Brecht
Bertolt Brecht had a great influence on drama in the 20th century because of his dynamic and raw talent. Photo credit: proyecto mARTadero on Visualhunt.com
Bertolt Brecht was a German playwright born in 1898 who served in the First World War before turning to a career in the theatre. However, living in Berlin when the Nazis came to power in 1933, Brecht fled the country and had has citizenship removed.
He found himself in America for a few years before returning to Europe in 1947. It was less than ten years later that Brecht’s life came to an end, but the individual was already highly regarded as a great theatrical practitioner of great importance.
Influenced by Chinese theatre and Karl Marx, he had an original and dynamic way of expressing himself, which was to be seen in Mother Courage and Her Children, the acclaimed work set in the 1600s.
Bertolt Brecht, in his short but enriching time playwriting and directing theatre, shaped theatre and its subsequent development. He came up with revolutionary ideas, which can still be seen in modern theatre today. He used naturalistic theatre as a force for change, urging his audience to think.
Brecht wanted spectators to remain objective when they entered the theatre so that they could respond to performances in a rational and unemotional way, taking away the true message and meaning of what they were watching.