Wednesday, 20 March 2013

Chris Port Blog #345. Schools, Drama and Rape - A Case Study

Interesting case study for Drama teachers. 
The rape of Lavinia in Titus Andronicus

'Two drama teachers were sacked for play where students acted out sexual abuse - but drama is meant to shock' (Susan Elkin, The Independent, Friday 26 October 2012)

Here’s my take…

Sexual abuse (particularly incest) is a worthy issue for devised drama. It’s a popular topic among GCSE students for two reasons:

1) It’s one of the folk demons of our era, so students feel that they’re being trendy and ‘edgy’.

2) It’s a strongly emotive taboo, so students feel that they’re being provocative and ‘adult’.

As an examiner, I often found the actual performances rather tedious - and herein lies the first danger.

Because experienced teachers have often seen this type of drama hundreds of times before, they can become desensitized to its ‘shock value’. They may forget that less experienced adults aren’t so blasé.

Also, students can sometimes get carried away with shocking the audience. This can lead to self-indulgent histrionic acting - and herein lies the first clue to avoiding disaster: style (more of which later).

First, let’s first look at the teacher’s role in the process. It’s a tricky balancing act. The teacher will often provide initial stimulus material to give the students ideas. However, the exam explicitly requires the students to take ownership of the process and the product. It would be quite wrong for the teacher to tell the students what to do and then direct them. The teacher’s job is to float around as a ‘facilitator’, offering advice and suggestions and constructive feedback.

Let’s say that the students get excited about the idea of devising a drama based on sexual abuse - and the teacher sees trouble ahead. The teacher can gently nudge the students in different directions, but it would be wrong (and counter-productive) to overrule them - except for reasons of safety. Teenagers can quickly become petulant if they feel that they’re ‘being treated like kids’ and will argue (quite rightly) that it’s their drama and they can do what they like (within reason).

One important aspect of the drama teacher’s job is to conduct a risk assessment. Usually this just means making sure that the students don’t do something stupid like jump off a lighting gantry or bring in a gun. But in the case of sensitive issues (like rape) it can also involve a psychological risk assessment. The first thing I would do is have a quick chat with the Head of Year and flick through the students’ files to check for any indications of sexual abuse (you get used to knowing what to look for).

If there were indications, then I’d probably decide that the psychological risk was too great. Schools are inappropriate places for psychodrama, and although drama teachers often have psychological expertise, we’re not psychiatrists.

Obviously you can’t tell students “You can’t do a play about rape because I think one of you may have been raped”. So I’d probably risk their wrath by telling a series of white lies, e.g. “Drama examiners are fed up with plays about rape, so you may not get very good marks” (probably true) - or “Management says no because it’ll upset your parents” (also probably true).

If there were no signs of sexual abuse, then I’d risk the wrath of management and give a cautious green light - with two provisos:

1) Avoid psychodrama.

2) Concentrate on style.

Returning to our case study, the sacked teachers seem to have made two big mistakes. First, they failed to nudge the students away from graphic depictions of sexual abuse (tricky, but teaching is mostly about nudging). Second, they failed to warn the audience beforehand about the graphic content (which is just plain stupid).

Let’s return now to style. Watching teenagers role play sexual abuse is mostly a problem of style rather than content. I would therefore ask the students to focus purely on the technical aspects and the nature of the shock they want to create in the audience.

When I was at drama school, I saw a brilliant performance by a visiting Bosnian theatre troupe about the raw horrors of their recent civil war. Some of the actors had traumatic personal experiences. Their depiction of a rape camp was one of the most effective stylized pieces of theatre I’ve ever seen.

The soldier and the victim stood on opposite sides of the stage, facing the audience. The soldier mimed in slow motion the act of violation, while the woman mimed in slow motion the pain of being violated. The physical distance between the actors represented the emotional distance between human beings in war and rape. It was utterly chilling and poignant. Every member of the audience was deeply shaken. The idea of anyone complaining afterward that it was ‘gratuitous’ would have been absurd. It was profound.

Teenagers usually get themselves (and their teachers) into trouble when they confuse shock for value. One of the (many) jobs of the drama teacher is to constantly nudge students away from tedious or embarrassing histrionics.

I suspect that, in our case study, the real reason why the teachers were sacked wasn’t so much to do with safeguarding children as safeguarding adult sensibilities. Style can get you out of a lot of tricky situations.

Mind you, a teacher’s job is still impossible.
See also:
Why teenagers think that rape is an appropriate subject for drama...

In every situation where atrocity is normalised, in every death-camp and gulag and apartheid city, there are those who refuse to participate. The soldier who ignores the kill order. The prison guard who walks away. The families who risk their safety to shelter refugees. The men and boys who see rape and violence occurring and have the courage to say 'stop'.

Steubenville: this is rape culture's Abu Ghraib moment (Laurie Penny, New Statesman, 19 March 2013)


  1. From another forum:

    Regarding teachers talking to each other, it varies...

    Here's one good example. I was looking at representation of gender in the media, and asked some of my Year 12 students to bring in magazines they read. Most of the boys read lad mags like Zoo and Nuts - which are basically soft porn.

    One day, another teacher came up to me in a drama lesson with a sheepish lad in tow. "I just found so-and-so showing this to other students in my lesson" he said, showing me something that the Head would probably have used as a safeguarding issue - i.e. a picture of a topless woman. "He says that you told him to bring this in. Is that true?" "Yes" I sighed. I then turned to the lad. "But you know you shouldn't have got this out in another teacher's lesson, don't you?" He nodded like a little boy caught stealing sweets. "I'm sorry" I said to the teacher. "I'll tell my class not to get out media work in other lessons."

    The other teacher looked uncomfortable. "I'm not sure whether I should report this" he said. "Look" I sighed, "the kids read this crap all the time. Why is it ok to sell them this stuff but not ok to criticize it?" He nodded uncomfortably. "Ok, I think you know what you're doing, but watch out. Other teachers would probably go straight to the Head and you could be in a world of trouble". "I know" I sighed. "Thanks."

    * * * * *

    I don't think the subject matter in itself was the problem. It comes up in PSHE all the time. Sexual abuse is even hinted at in drama with Year 7 in a scheme of work about Childline (all done in the best possible taste, I hasten to add). What seems to have triggered a storm in a tea cup is the graphic style of the piece - which was perhaps 'ill advised'.

    It would have been difficult for senior management to intercept this through a 'quality assurance' check beforehand. These devised pieces often only come together at the last moment - and sometimes not even then. Ultimately, it was down to the supervising teacher (and their line manager) to spot any potential problems. However, if the students added the graphic content at the last moment, it could have slipped through without being picked up.

    I think that sacking the teachers was an over-reaction. But perhaps it fits some internal power struggle? There is a general backlash against the 'liberal' arts going on at the moment in education. Apparently all our social problems have been caused by the permissiveness of the 60s rather than corrupt banks and politicians.

    Nothing new

    "Gratidius excitabat fluctus in simpulo, ut dicatur" ("Gratidius raised a tempest in a ladle, as the saying is") ~ Cicero, 'On the laws', 1st century BC.

    * * * * *

    When safeguarding goes wrong...

    How not to do teacher-in-role...

  2. It's difficult to teach students about business and the 'real' world these days without getting sacked...