Examining the art of drama

Sam Cox gets the ins and outs of the Drama Department

Youss Koudri isn’t stressed for exams right now. Koudri is too busy in rehearsals. It’s not that he’s ignoring his college work. In fact, this is his college work. Watching from the corner of the rehearsal room, he is one of the Senior Freshman Drama Studies students producing their ensemble piece “Big Love”.

Running from April 4-6, the production makes up no small chunk of his grade, comprising 5 credits out of his total 60 for the year. He doesn’t seem to feel the pressure though. Sitting slouched with his laptop, it can be easy to forget this is no less serious than an exam hall filled with thousands of students.

Writing the Essay

“It seems a far throw away from my own pre-exam cramming that’s so customary of May.”

The day of rehearsals wasn’t ideal. Bus Éireann had picketed the bus depots, and made even getting into college that day a nightmare. Getting off at the 3Arena and walking had been faster than the heavy traffic along the quays, and I was nervous that there would be a huge number of actors missing, or worse, that rehearsals would be cancelled altogether. I had been really excited to get a feel for the show, and now I was faced with the idea that I mightn’t get to see them at all.

A few hours later, my worries dissipate. I’m in the dance studio above Players, with the cast and crew warming up to blaring music. One actor stretches, bends down, and puts her head onto the floor between her legs, getting ready for the next 3 hours. It seems a far throw away from my own pre-exam cramming that’s so customary of May.

Seeing how the actors interact with the director Mark Atkinson, it’s easy to forget that this is how the students are being evaluated. Just like an essay, there’s an element of not being too strict as to choke the life and flow out of the piece but also not straying too far from the work at hand.

As Atkinson jokingly screams at an actor “You’re not in this scene!”, the whole group launches into banter, before he carefully reins them back in, reminding them they need to stay focused with the show premiering in less than a week.

It’s all in the process

“You need that little bit of friction. When it’s all student-teacher, it’s hard to do that. It’s hard to navigate.”

They say God loves a trier, and so does the Drama department. One of the few courses in Trinity to have abandoned End-of-Year formal exams, Drama Studies instead relies on varying forms of continuous assessment.

Talking to Senior Freshman Convener and Professor of Drama Nick Johnson, he explains some of the logic that drives the assessment process: “It’s looking a lot at the students process, and how much they’ve invested in the process. More than evaluating subjectively about the thing that emerged. It’s not the talent of the individual we’re assessing at the end. It’s the engagement they’ve shown, with a reflective engagement with the work.”

Dividing the assessment into a 65% evaluation of the production and their process, and 35% for a reflective essay, it’s clear that trying to emulate theatre in the real world is central to their process, while maintaining some of the academia associated with Trinity.

“The thing about the course here is that there is a long history of the course as Drama Studies as opposed to performance. So we’re not trying to teach people how to become technically, practically, full fledged individual experts in that area. We’re using practise as a way to teach people. Really we’re trying to use a kinesthetic learning style to develop that end of people’s strength and skills to make it very embodied and physical, to help people be really well-rounded creators.”

Enlisting Sugar Glass Productions, a theatre company comprised of former Trinity Students, was the first step in giving students a genuine impression of producing theatre in the real world. Having had the experience of the Second Year ensemble piece themselves, the alumni had an idea of what the students were experiencing and what they could do to help. In previous years, it was various members of the drama department that directed and produced the shows.

Speaking to Colm McNally of Sugar Glass, he runs through some of the advantages of hiring an outside company: “From the perspective of the students, they’ve never met us before. In some ways that’s very advantageous, and in some ways it’s very difficult. The good thing is we get to come in and work with them like a theatre company would as if they were actors, which is really beneficial, working in theatre. You know how to negotiate that much more easily than the teacher-student dynamic, which isn’t a very useful one for actors. I think actors need to be able to say ‘Fuck you’ to the director a little bit, and vice versa. You need that little bit of friction. When it’s all student-teacher, it’s hard to do that. It’s hard to navigate.”

Why cut the exams though? Johnson explains to me: “We’re doing so much assessment throughout that the ECTS values are really used up. They’ve put in all those hours, they are reflecting, and the exam doesn’t really mirror anything they’re likely to meet in their profession.“

Comparing it to more practical, acting-based classes such as those available at the Lir and the Gaiety, Johnson elaborates that the Drama Studies course aims to equip students with a wide range of skills to make them versatile in a world that no longer seeks a single skillset. Whereas an acting course in the Lir goes into more depth in acting, Drama Studies aims to fuse the academia of Trinity with a wide range of practical skills.

“I would say also that Trinity has an acting conservatory in the Lir where they are actually training actors 40 hours a week. It wouldn’t make sense for us to do exactly that and we’ve never really sought to do exactly that, and actually it helped to make Drama Studies that much clearer about what it is doing.”

I Want that Job

“drama and acting are very different things. They do coincide but it’s the study of the whole dramatic art”

“No one wanted to do marketing,” student Ferdy Emmet laughs. All students were given a list of roles for the show, and told to list them in their order of preference. While not everyone got their first choice, most students seem happy with their assigned job.

Emmet explains to me that it was the theatre company who decided which students got which role, avoiding issues of bias.

Talking to other students in the course, they explain that the course has really provided them with a broad knowledge of the different roles in theatre. To them, a key distinction they’ve learned is that “drama and acting are very different things. They do coincide but it’s the study of the whole dramatic art”.

“It’s good for appreciating other roles as well. If you’ve done a job you don’t particularly like, and I see someone doing it, it keeps you aware of everyone around you,” explains Koudri.

Johnson also explains that equipping students with a knowledge of these roles is essential in the modern theatre world: “What we’re noticing is that in the drama sector of Ireland, it forces you to be very entrepreneurial. You have to be a multi-threat type person. It’s very difficult to retain one skill that you do over and over again. It’s more likely that you’re an entrepreneur of your own artistic work.”

Reading the Drama module outline, it’s clear that teamwork and appreciation are fundamental parts of their ethos: “All students are equally indispensable (you cannot remove a single link from the chain and have the same chain).”

McNally elaborates on this: “You’re in charge of evaluating the students: I try not think about that when I’m doing the show. It’s a dangerous move to think about that. When you’re making a show you have to have this sense that everyone is on the same page working for the same thing. It’s very difficult to say this person did this better than that person, especially from an artistic context. Because you’re trying to create the sense you’re an ensemble, the idea that one person is going to hand down a mark on another person is a really destructive influence on that dynamic. So that’s gone to the back of my mind, I scribble down the odd note now and then, but other than that I’m not thinking about it until it’s done. It would be disastrous otherwise.”

So are the students glad they have May off?

“I much prefer exams,” Koudri laughs. Student Kirsty Murphy expands on this: “I definitely think exams are a good thing, but I think it’s a good thing not to have them in drama. Drama is so subjective.”

Regardless of how they feel, the cast and crew have no choice but to power on. With examiner and student alike trying to push the evaluation to the back of their minds, they focus on one thing: putting on the best show that they can.

Sam Cox

Sam Cox is a Staff Videographer at Trinity News. He is a Senior Sophister Psychology student, and a former Crossword Editor, Features Editor and Assistant Features Editor.