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Context is creative

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Published date 05 January 2018

Using context as a creative stimulus can add depth to both academic and performance-based student projects. Richard Hooper, Senior External Moderator and Performing Arts Teacher at South Essex College explains how…

Context can be used as an extraordinary tool to expand what could be a rudimentary interpretation of a stimulus. It can be used to develop and explore the inclusion of creativity in order to make a project unique and thought provoking.

A ‘creative’ context can be used as the incentive to gather a wider breadth of information which results in a greater selection of choices that can be used to develop the final outcome of a project. Perhaps it is easier to explain through specific examples I have used in my own practice.

When working on a production of Cabaret with a company of Level 3 Performing & Production Arts learners, the Holocaust was clearly the main theme of the book. This does not necessarily mean that the persecution of the Jewish population is the only context that can be used to expand performance choices.

Thinking outside of the boundaries of the plot, and making the objective a commentary on ‘the persecution of minorities’, stimulated an investigation into wider topics. Examples of how other minority groups have been persecuted, including specific case studies, expanded the choices the performers had to work with during rehearsals. This extended context allowed the learners to investigate themes such as race, sexuality, and varying religious beliefs. The broad, thorough and detailed research that the learners completed led their performance away from an approximation of a truthful reaction into an in-depth and realistic portrayal that is supported by fact.

Regardless of the fact that this information could be used to support one word or the entire project, it engaged the performers in worlds that were beyond their present experiences and encouraged them to delve into arenas that were previously unconsidered. Using this as the stimulus resulted in performances that were beyond the realms of what they thought possible at the start of the project.

The use of an extended context also enabled the performers to solve performance problems, which they struggled with through only exploring the obvious theme of the piece. The expansion of the theme offered more choices to explore during the rehearsal process.

Another example is the extension of the theme of ‘fairy tales’, in a production of Into the Woods, into an analysis of present day family values. Through the telling of stories, the performers explored the relationships between the members of each family, which allowed them to develop their onstage interaction. With the objective of the commentary resulting in the coming together of a new family who were not blood related, the Baker, Cinderella, Little Red Riding Hood and Jack, the cast were able to explore what is considered as a family in this day and age and how this related to their own lives.

When encouraged to include their own family tree in their supporting information for performance, the learners developed a connection with their own heritage and used this as primary research to support their performance choices. It also allowed them to evaluate their own family values which, in turn, developed their growth as a respectable and thoughtful member of society.

The use of context as a creative tool can also be carried through into academic elements of the project. In this production of Into the Woods, the learners were directed to complete their reflective journals by means of a storybook written in the third person. Writing in the third person allowed them to step outside of themselves and evaluate and analyse their contributions to the project and their own character-building in a mature and reflective manner.

The development of a fairy tale also allowed them to analyse and evaluate the source material and structure of the musical itself. The creative element of this activity resulted in good engagement with the academic work and stimulated the performers to be far more evaluative of their personal contribution to the project as a whole. The structure of telling a story became integral to their submissions. Their project proposal became the foreword for their book, each reflection became a chapter, the final evaluation became the epilogue and, of course, many books have a bibliography.

I also use the context of a project to stimulate the format in which the learners submit their work. They are encouraged to offer their work in a contextually appropriate way. This photo demonstrates the way the Cabaret company decided to submit their work through a group discussion – The flight from persecution. They also chose not to have names in the programme as victims are often anonymous – a thoughtful and touching decision.

From the start to the finish of the projects, context became the overarching motive for every activity, be it practical or academic. By using an expanded context in this way, every element of the project supported the others. Information gained in one specific activity could be transferred to other pursuits resulting in a cohesive and well considered outcome in both performance and in the academic submissions.

Images courtesy of Richard Hooper