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Voice Variations in Theatre Arts
Patch Clark
School of Theatre and Dance

For students accustomed to performing monologues, soliloquies, and dialogue of  a playwright’s invention,  or  designing for a production that has its origins in  far away places and cultures and finally producing in collaboration with a variety of people, finding a writing voice uniquely their own  can sometimes prove challenging and difficult. Those students taking the writing intensive sections of Theatre History I, II, and III oftentimes had a difficult time embracing the 15- page research paper. Thus, many of the research papers received in Theatre History had no connection at all to the students, other than a strained reflection of meeting a WI requirement for graduation. Seldom, if at all, did the writing of the fifteen page research paper match the student’s voice. At the beginning of one particular semester, a student expressed his sheer terror at having to take the WI section of Theatre History. He had to have it to graduate, he explained, and almost immediately in the same breath assured me that he would fail. His instruments of expression had been a hammer, nails, screwdriver, and the various other tools used in set construction, but never a pen, pencil, or keyboard to create a written project. It was with excitement and relief, then, after meeting with the Writing Program’s Interim Director, that I discovered a different approach to the writing requirement which might have a more meaningful appeal and be more closely aligned to the varied concentration areas of many theatre and dance students.

I began by meeting with students individually and talking with them about their specific area which might include design and production, stage management, professional acting, liberal arts, dance, and dance education/theatre education. Each area required a different kind of writing experience. Stage management, for example, requires rehearsal reports and stage management portfolios. Theatre and dance education both require Senior Portfolios, and acting may involve journaling and character analysis. We discussed experiences in their respective fields as well as what they had learned in the past, what they were currently learning, and what they hoped to create in the future.  What followed was an excitement in their expression as they talked about what was close to their hearts…they had found their voices. We then talked about putting their voices into a written form and journaling their experiences in design, acting, dance, building a set, and painting a prop. The student who had come to me at the beginning of the semester with, “I want to tell you right now that I cannot write and I have to take the writing intensive section. I feel sick!” – was now writing in detail about designing and building a set,  piece by piece and screw by screw – a vivid, clearly defined instruction of the process evolved into technical writing – successful technical writing! He was thrilled that he could write.  I was too!

Students in theatre have a number of concentration areas to choose from including professional acting, musical theatre, stage management, theatre for youth, and theatre education. Thus, their insights, experiences, training, and “voices” are all very different.  The first semester I offered students a choice in selecting the WI model. Nine chose the research paper and five students chose the journaling, recording, reflecting and reporting. The second semester, all 14 students selected the journaling model. Students are required to keep a journal of the process of their art or craft whether in design, teaching, or performance and submit their reflections periodically though out the semester. The final paper, then, becomes a reflection of their journal entries, thus allowing students to examine the process of learning and development in their specific area of concentration. I believe now students write with their own voices and have discovered a sense of pride and success in their work.

Below is a sample of a journal entry regarding the design and building of the set for ECU’s Storybook Theatre production of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe submitted by the student who was adamant about not writing:

“Since I’ve always been more comfortable with the technical aspects of theatre, aka scenic construction and properties, I was anxious to see what Reid had planned for the set. Over a series of conversations with him, I had a vague idea of what he was designing for the White Witch’s Castle, as well as CairParavel. Reid’s description led me to believe that Cair Paravel was a truly noble looking castle, complete with the large stone top made out of Styrofoam and Luana while the White’s Witch’s castle was to be the polar opposite. Designed to have sharp points and twin peaks on top of the center flat, as well as 2 sharpened curved points on each side of the center flat.  These would not be attached to the center flat but rather stationed about 2 to 3 feet away from the sides of the flat to give the impression that the castle was surrounding the landscape."

The second valuable experience in thinking about how to incorporate successful writing experiences for students in the Theatre History classroom grew out of my participation in the Writing Institute where faculty members from across the disciplines gathered together on a regular basis to discuss the on-going challenge of student writing. Listening to the presentations of the various faculty members from Environmental Health Sciences, English, Communication, the social sciences, further demonstrated the concept that students might have insights which differed from others and, thus, might benefit from discovering a way to discover their own unique writing voice specific to their own discipline. The participants from the Writing Institute completed the following exercise below and added their own insights regarding what they observed about the models. An observation from a scientist in the group brought about a discussion about moss growing inside a building which appeared to have suffered damage by fire. The concept provided by the scientist in the group, regarding the fact that moss would probably not be growing in such an environment gave thought to the need for those who are designing sets to conduct scientific research appropriate to the environment for which they were creating. The more important idea, however, was that all in the group had a very different insight as they observed the models and thus expressed themselves in various different ways thus demonstrating their own unique voice.

Below is the exercise which they were asked to complete:

1. Study the model set design and respond to the following questions:

a) What is the location of this play? What type of environment does the set design suggest?
b) What type of mood, theme, or atmosphere does the design below suggest?
c) What types of plays might be represented by these designs?

Student set design 
Student set design for And the Soul Shall Dance by Wakako Yamauchi

Alpers set design
Set Design - by Bob Alpers for I Hate Hamlet

The research paper still serves as a useful tool for the writing discipline and certainly students in Theatre History I, II, or III  may select this option, but the model which seems to have yielded the most honest “voice” and excitement about writing  is that of professional writing through journaling and reflection. What follows are excerpts taken from the students’  journals and final reflection papers which demonstrate the breadth of their experiences in the areas of acting, directing, scenic design, the rehearsal process, and scene painting. 

Sample Journal and Final Reflection Paper Excerpts

Student #1 - Sample journal entry - Design and production

Friday - January 18, 2008
Attended production meeting as Assistant Sound Designer.  Discussed nature of sound cues Cap (the director) wanted.

Tuesday - January 22nd
Scene crew starts - rolled out dance floor for dance 2008
Friday – January 25th 2008
Production meeting – discussed sound cues more detailed list of guide lines Unfortunately, list of guidelines got washed in the laundry
Spent 5 hours in scenic crew building 1 flat and didn’t finish.  Leads me to believe I am a bad carpenter.
Tuesday – January 29th, 2008
Dance preparation going on at the same time.  Focus for dance started today.  Spent 7 hours focusing lights.
Monday – March 17th, 2008
Strike for Flora took place.  I was only there for 4 hours.
Wednesday - March 9th
Flora lighting strike.  Seemed to drag by.  It was kind of useless seeing as how we are having load in soon.
Saturday – April 5th
Tech for Tommi’s dance piece from 9:00 A.M. to 1:00 P.M.  I am tired.

Student #2 - Excerpt from Final Reflection Paper - Directing

This semester I decided to direct a show. The show I chose was a show called I Love You Because. It is a six person musical that deals with love. I can safely say that it was probably one of the hardest things I have ever done. I had directed ten-minute scenes in Directing I and Directing II, but ten-minute scenes can’t compare to a two-hour show. The difference between directing the ten-minute scenes and directing a two hour show would have to deal with the amount of people I had to work with. In directing class I felt like I could do every thing myself, but here I had to work with people in the shop, costumes, music directors, and accompanists.

Student #3 - Excerpts from Final Reflecting Paper - Acting

Reflections Of Studies of Professional Actor Training
“I was very glad that I went to college. For me, its was never a question, but I see more and more people choosing not to go to college. It has been a great and influential experience – even if it does have it’s downfalls at times. During my first year at ECU I wanted to transfer. I think I just did not like being away from home and I let it get to me. The first semester of my sophomore year, I decided that I was leaving ECU and going to a conservatory at home." The student continues to talk about her experience with changing her mind, staying, and her success in the professional acting class and subsequent productions in which she appeared during the time of her journal writing.  She concludes with, “Overall I am satisfied with this semester. I hope the next proves to be a good one as well. I am going to work hard for my auditions because the shows should be very good and for myself. I want to really enjoy the rest of college!”

Student #4 - Excerpts from Final Reflection Paper - Design

“Of Thee I Paint!” 
“Many theatre goers tend to go to the theatre to see a play. Many of those people think only of the story which is being told and the actors. Some of those people may even think about the scenery and costumes, but most of them have no concept of what goes into making the scenery a success, especially the paint! Personally, I have talked to many people who admitted to never really thinking about how the scenery magically becomes a hospital room or looks like a marble slab. …The truth of the matter is that there is an entire process going on behind the scenes to apply the paint in the exact way the designer planned the show to look that the general public will never fully appreciate.”
The student goes on to describe, in great detail,  the paint process for Of Thee I Sing.

These excerpts demonstrate that this particular model also helps students to become reflective practitioners of their craft at the beginning, middle and end of their academic/ artistic journey. Many times, performance arts students are actively engaged in learning and training for their respective fields, but rarely spend quality time reflecting upon the experience and evaluating their growth in the process of accumulated instruction and knowledge. The reflective journal also lends itself to insights for teachers and professors  who may gain a greater understanding of the impact the learning experience has had upon the student and in hearing the “real voice” of the student. Both learner and teacher may begin to respond to questions, discussions, and shared observations in a whole new way. Consequently,  while the research paper provides experiences with academic research and a formal voice of knowledge, the professional writing model lends itself to practical reflection,  application and a personal voice of reason. Thus, perhaps a solid starting point is in asking students  identify and listen to their own “voice” as it is currently expressed  through writing and how it might later sound in their respective  professions whether it be acting, directing, musical theatre  design and production, or arts education  as they continue their journey of preparation for their future world. I say, let their voices be heard!