Theatre-making: ‘not magic but work, my friends’.

Ms Joanne Martin, Head of Drama

As Cate Blanchett attests (Darling, 2007), ‘theatre is a complicit medium’ in which the actors and audience enter into a temporary agreement to suspend disbelief. It is a transitory experience that lives for a moment and then is gone. And yet, when theatre-making is transformative, the imprint of voices, images and emotions remains long after we have left the performance space. I can still see and hear many beautiful, provocative, moving, elevating and electrifying moments in the theatre.

The experience is both concretely visceral and elusively ephemeral. Nevertheless, it is the intention of our work with the students to disassemble the stagecraft and examine the acting so they can experience the thrill and challenge of this art form for themselves. It is powerful to be able to craft a moment that connects with an audience, and we want our girls to experience that joy and thrill.

We also want them to dip their toes into the wonders of theatrical history that precedes them so that they can make choices as artists that are built on the traditions of others. For our students, this art form allows them to immerse themselves in the world of others and to understand the complexity of our shared humanity.

So, it is our practice to build theatre literacy through the making of theatre, breathing new life into the written form. As our senior Drama students work with some of the great classics of the theatre canon, they seek to transport these from their original context to the world in which we live. This process allows the girls to see these works as rooted in history but at the same time transcending it. It stirs in them a great curiosity about the breadth of human experience across time, as well as the socio-political context which they inhabit now.

Our students come to understand that theatre can be an agent for change; that these seminal works still hold modern dilemmas, which is why they are still staged around the globe. Brecht’s Mother Courage and Her Children, as one example, was written in the throes of World War II yet it has an urgent resonance which our Senior students discover as they work to apply a contemporary socio-political treatment that anchors it right here and now. However, the exploration has to be hands-on. Students can only really understand Brecht’s theory of alienation if they grapple with these conventions and make their own Epic theatre.

The classics cannot survive beyond a niche sphere of theatre-goers unless they stay relevant and so the students must understand their original context, treat the works and reimagine them for a contemporary audience. And that is where the fun begins— and the deep thinking, and the pull and thrust of young artists battling with their ideas, choices and challenges. Then all this must be distilled into a cohesive, authentic and highly engaging piece of theatre that resonates in a twenty-first century global landscape. This is really hard work, and it is little wonder our Senior girls reach the holidays completely spent. And then there are the contemporary plays we explore … but that’s another story.

For our younger students, it is building their knowledge of the craft that dominates their time in Drama. It begins with scripts, blocks, simple props and the shaping of dramatic action. For the young actors in the rehearsal room, their experience of the different interpretations that can be found in — and made from — the same scripted scene, is revelatory. There is no manual for the shaping of any piece of theatre — there are only words on a page and a few stage directions, so, making decisions collaboratively is central to their theatre-making.

The further they travel in their Drama studies, the more elements they need to juggle in order to deliver complex and engaging meaning. There is no formula to apply that will bring the students to the right way and this is both liberating and daunting. There is no static notion of the truth when staging a script — it is a temporal thing. It does not have to be a certain way which, of course, opens up a world of possibilities — and with that comes negotiation and a need for perseverance.

Bertolt Brecht’s poem, The Curtains, reminds us that theatre-making is ‘not magic but work, my friends’ (Grimm, 2003). Our students must learn to be actors, directors, designers and dramaturgs, often all at once and on the one project. Ensemble work ensures that they are not alone in this space, stretching to find the full potential of a scene, struggling with the theatrical possibilities and the staging challenges of a script. Feedback to the actors is often as much about stoking and liberating this exploration as critiquing the technicality of their work. This means another, fundamentally human, set of skills is needed as ‘theatre-making anticipates an all-inclusive collaborative process’ (Radosavljevic, 2013).

The twenty-first century human needs agility, critical and creative thinking, the ability to work productively in cross-skill ecologies, and perhaps most importantly, the courage to work where there are no answers. In Drama, our girls are building these misnamed ‘soft skills’, while nurturing a rewarding and lifelong passion for an art form that has been placing the human condition in front of audiences for millennia.


Darling, I. (Director & Producer). (2007). In the company of actors [Documentary]. Australia: Shark Island Productions.

Grimm, R. (Ed.) (with the collaboration of Molina y Vedia, C.). (2003). Poetry and prose: Bertolt Brecht (German Library, Book 75) (p. 124). London, England: Bloomsbury Academic.

Radosavljevic, D. (2013). Theatre-making: Interplay between text and performance in the 21st century (p. 23). London, England: Palgrave Macmillan.