Punchdrunk is an immersive theatre company responsible for shows like ‘Sleep no More’ and ‘The Drowned Man’, which place audiences at the centre of a vast set through which they can wander at will, interacting with actors and exploring for themselves. As a model for theatre it has been hugely successful as it provides audiences with the freedom to move and the element of choice. Combine this with stunning design and creepy masks (all audience members wear a spooky white mask, thus rendering them anonymous) and you have the allure of Punchdrunk.
So what can education learn from this? Well, I’m not suggesting we spend huge amounts of time and money creating interactive history or geography sets, but there are a few small, cheap things we can do to change things round and excite children:
1. Teacher-in-role: taking a topic that has been studied, the teacher steps into a role opens the lesson in a way that promotes discussion and argument. My favourite is the spin doctor for Macbeth & Lady Macbeth. Act as if you’ve been sent to deal with the press and start brushing off accusations about the king and queen and see how long it takes students to cotton on and join in.
2. Burn the seats, burn the desks: Not literally! You’ll have the bursar and health & safety down on you before you can say ‘risk assessment’. Basically, push them all to the sides. You can either set up hot-desks with different activities on for children to work on, or leave the desks entirely and start off some drama games in a circle before dividing them up into groups to role play. Watch all the results at the end.
3. Sensory appeal: Blindfold them and give them different smells to describe. Link this in to a creative writing exercise or a moment in a book you are studying. Make sure that you push them to identify the subtleties of smell. Avoid nuts, and check the medical register for allergies before you begin.
4. Go on a scavenger hunt: The maths teacher at our school is great at this & often sends pupils searching for pre-planted notes & equations to solve in a set amount of time. Works well when you trust the children. Not so well if they’re a little older and likely to ‘get lost’ along the way. As a simpler variation, in English I send them with a list of things to find and collect in poetic form as the basis for a descriptive poem. Or send them out looking for passives when studying active & passive voice. There’s more around than you think & it can lead to an interesting discussion about why we use passives (the key question is ‘why is the object of the sentence being left out?’)
5. Dance: Put on some lively music & get them to dance. Amazing to watch children really letting go. They love it & sets a creative mood for whatever comes next. Good as a warm up to drama. Works well with classes from Y7 down. The teenagers are often a little shy or too cool to dance!
6. Field-trip: Age old but totally inspiring. A big problem with creative writing & one that (perhaps surprisingly) it took me a while to figure out, is that children can only write about what they’ve experienced. Great if they’ve been diving with sharks on the Gold Coast for the holidays, but for the less fortunate who have spent the half-term in Hounslow, essential for stimulation. In other words, they will write a much better story about a tiger after a trip to Whipsnade Zoo.
7. Dress the room up: Full on trenches can be hard to recreate in the classroom, but a few black drapes and some handmade props work well when you have sound effects. Get them all to huddle down and experience the wait before the whistle to go ‘over the top’. Soldiers diaries will be something else after this!
All of these work better if there’s some input from children in planning & designing them. It’s just a matter of how much time you have. And, of course, the essential plenary afterwards exploring what has been learnt. Anyway, that’s all for now. Have to get back to my own planning.
Watch Felix Barrett talk about Punchdrunk here for more ideas.