Before you read further…
Everyone loves a little bit of drama. We’re all secretly intrigued by the media headlines about the latest celebrity scandal or the newest controversy in the Kardashian family, although we don’t always admit it. But this article is not about that kind of drama, and we aren’t going to tell you how to create a scene even more staged than Jake Paul and Tana Mongeau’s relationship.
Instead, this is the kind of drama that has Miss Darbus from High School Musical calling the theatre a ‘temple of art’ and a ‘precious cornucopia of creative energy’, and Summer Heights High’s Mr G practically clawing to be titled ‘Director of Performing Arts’.
This is a step-by-step guide on how to study for Drama: The Subject That Changes Lives.
Much like all other essay-based externals, drama exams tend to expand upon similar essay themes increasingly across all three NCEA levels. However, no matter which level you are sitting this year, there are a few commonalities which exam markers are always looking out for in a standard drama essay.
Here are 3 things you need to know for your drama exams.
1. Know the difference between ‘elements’, ‘techniques’, ‘conventions’, and ‘technologies’.
While markers appreciate a sprinkled-in “moreover” or “thus” to make your essay sound that slightest bit more academic, the truth is that they aren’t so fussed if you choose to skip out those fancy words, either. The actual content of what you are writing is what will earn you the points.
That said, in a Drama-Exam-Markers’ Pet Peeve List 101, one of the most common mistakes students make is using the wrong terminology for terms that are drama specific. These are the words that markers will be keeping an eye out for.
Here is a quick rundown of what these terms actually mean (with some performative help from Mr G’s drama class):
Elements are the main components that make up a drama piece.
This could include focus, action, role, time, situation, space, tension, mood, or symbol. A good question to ask yourself when considering elements is “What is the *insert element here* at this point in the piece?”
Techniques are specific methods, used by the actors, to achieve a particular purpose.
These could relate to their voice, body, movement, gestures or facial expressions and the way they navigate the performance space.
Conventions are the established ways of working in drama which explore meaning or deepen understanding of the piece for the audience.
These could be structural conventions (e.g. montages), story conventions (e.g. use of a narrator), time conventions (e.g. flashbacks), theatre conventions (e.g. actor-audience relationships).
Technologies are types of equipment that help to create, present, or explain dramatic work.
This could be anything from props, lighting, costume, sound, set or makeup.
If you’re looking for words to sprinkle into your essay that will grease up to your marker, using the correct drama terminology when relevant is where the true brownie points lie.
Having a good understanding of these terms will show the marker that you speak their dialogue and will make explaining them all the more compelling!
2. Familiarise yourself with the wider societal context
The great thing about theatre is that in a matter of a few minutes, you can be transported back to 11th century Scotland, or to a rugby team’s changing room in 1976 New Zealand.
If you’re not aware of these settings, William Shakespeare’s Macbeth and Greg McGee’s Foreskin’s Lament are the references being made. But we’re in the 21st century now, so why are these historical texts still being performed?
Maybe calling the 70’s historical is a bit… overdramatic… but history is precisely one of the reasons why.
Plays typically tend to reflect the society at the time they were written, which is what makes them so interesting to return back to.
Even though both the aforementioned plays are fictional, they were written in light of the societal context at the time.
Scholars suggest that Shakespeare wrote Macbeth with allusions to the Gunpowder Plot of 1605, where a group of Catholics tried to overthrow a Protestant English monarchy. McGee wrote Foreskin’s Lament during the time of social unrest during the 1981 Springbok Tour following South Africa’s apartheid.
Plays written with the wider societal context in mind give us an insight into what the times were like during that era.
Being able to link back what you’re discussing (be it an element, technique, convention or technology) to the play’s historical background shows that you have a thorough understanding as to why the director or playwright has chosen to incorporate it. Supporting your findings with figures or quotes will also strengthen the validity of your claims!
3. What is the director or playwright’s purpose?
Whether you’re writing about a live performance you watched or a form of theatre itself, referencing the reasons for a choice made by the director or playwright will sure send you on your way to a Merit or Excellence.
Once you’ve identified one of the above drama terms and how that relates to the wider context, the director or playwright’s purpose is what you will use to elaborate further. This is the time to ask the bigger “why” questions.
Why did Shakespeare choose to write a play about a soldier who tries to overthrow the crown but dies in the end? We can make a pretty good guess that he wrote Macbeth to please the King during the time of those overthrowing conspiracies and be in his good books (particularly when his dad was a Catholic himself).
Why do some directors of Foreskin’s Lament choose to have Foreskin finish his lament in the nude? We can guess that it shows his sense of being alone having left the insulated society of rugby, beer and aggression to educate himself on his own terms.
Being able to connect specific moments of a piece, or a play in its entirety, to a wider purpose shows understanding of the world of the play; the bigger picture.
Choices that directors or playwrights make always have some form of reasoning behind them, and doing your research into what those are or making your own perceptive inferences will impress your marker for sure.
Before the curtain falls (in conclusion)…
Drama externals can be tackled by covering the basics with these three steps:
Know which terminology to use, familiarise yourself with the wider societal context, and ask yourself why a director or playwright made the choices they did.
While knowing these three things will give you a good foundation of knowledge, it’s important to remember that markers aren’t looking for a memorised essay point blank.
Stronger essays are written when you take the knowledge you have acquired into the exam room and apply it to the question at hand. Markers want you to answer the question just as much as they want to see that you’ve come prepared!
Go forth and smash those drama exams – Mr G and StudyTime believe in you!