Educational Applications of Ensemble Physical Theatre Training (DUENDE)

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The DUENDE School of Ensemble Physical Theatre is meeting in Athens, Greece, through the autumn. Each week a contributor to the school will write a short reflection for this blog.

This week’s post is written by Manjari Kaul. Manjari studied Arts and Aesthetics at Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi before becoming a Primary School Teacher, Performer and Director.

Manjari attended The DUENDE School in 2015 and has returned in 2016, at the School’s invitation, to explore in more detail the pedagogy of the work – with a view to running DUENDE training sessions in India and perhaps organising an iteration of The DUENDE School in India in the future.

Manjari is one of DUENDE’s Associate Artists.

This post is an attempt to understand how my training in Ensemble Physical Theatre might be used as a tool by school teachers in the classroom. I will explore the possibility of viewing a Primary/Middle School classroom as akin to an ensemble that must be alive in the here and now, responding to ever evolving dynamics.

Combining my experience of working in a primary school and my training at The DUENDE School of Ensemble Physical Theatre, I recently facilitated a workshop with primary and middle school teachers in Lucknow (India), using theatre ensemble building exercises to explore ways of developing liveness in the teachers and students in class.

One of the exercises that I proposed during the workshop was based on building, in small groups, a set of still images of a “bad classroom” and a “good classroom”. What we observed as a recurring motif in the “bad” ones is that there was a clear teacher-student hierarchy that was met with, at worse, resistance and at best, boredom by the students. The hierarchy was depicted visually in terms of the students either sitting/standing in queue or in positions lower than the teacher. The “good” classroom often found either the teacher missing from the image or her being integrated into the classroom in a way that one would find hard to decipher who the leader/facilitator was.

Through our discussions around the still images one of the primary things that was revealed was that the teacher in the “bad” classroom had seated her students in such a way that her visibility of some of the students (esp. the ones in the back rows) was hindered. It emerged from our discussions that in such a situation the teacher’s pitch to the class is either based on how the students in the front rows are responding or a general approach that does not draw from the students’ responses but is entirely based on pre-prepared Lesson Plans. In the “good” classroom, however, the students were seen, independently or at times in duos, trios or as a group, to pursue whatever fascinates them, without interrupting each other’s pursuit of the same.

This is where, I believe, ensemble training could be used as a tool and conceptual frame. In an ensemble – at least as modelled at The DUENDE School – various units connect with one another without losing their uniqueness. The liveness of performance implies that one is constantly responding authentically to the moment, even though it may be with in a pre-written script (a lesson plan, in the case of a school teacher). The ensemble participants (the students in the classroom) must ideally build a sensitivity and alertness towards each other that allows each to retain their uniqueness while still working as a collective in their learning process.

At The DUENDE School we once did an exercise that involved improvising movement in groups that can be used to visualise the classroom as an ensemble. The score for the exercise is as follows: anyone who wishes to initiate a movement has to call out loud “it’s me” and the others must use that person’s movement as inspiration for their own movement to build a dance together. The second level of the same exercise is that the improvisation is carried out without anyone calling out “it’s me”, but the group is asked to be aware of the mutating roles within the ensemble and be open to the way in which unique individual contributions feed the larger dynamic. Perhaps, creating a classroom that functions like an ensemble involves the teacher playing a mutating role, and not one of a rigid leader. The teacher works as a facilitator who builds a quality of presence that allows her to create an inter-reactive environment in the class – building a quality of presence that allows for the most appropriate response to each evolving situation. The teacher must allow the students to work in their own units or individually (as in performance, some actors could be simultaneously soloing or working as duets etc. while still part of the ensemble as a whole). Thus the classroom/ensemble becomes an environment where the overall dynamic and aesthetic is influenced, but not dominated by, the individual needs and desires of each player.