It was always a tumbleweed moment. I considered it vital, upon meeting a new drama class, to make the first lesson active and fun. The final fifteen minutes would be allocated for a sit-down discussion. The question was simple enough. “So, what is drama?”
This was a sixth form college in the UK and the class of anywhere between ten and two dozen sixteen-year-olds was a new mix drawn from a range of more than thirty different schools, so there was bound to be some reticence, but by this point they’d had at least half an hour of ice-breakers and interactive games and been made to make eye contact and shake hands with everyone else. In addition to that they were drama students!
The gap said nothing about the people in front of me. Some of the participants were new to drama, others had done it for two years, or five years or in some cases – if they’d been to drama clubs – ten years. No one had actually put this question to them before. Of course, they all knew what drama was, but they hadn’t actually defined it in their own minds, despite pinning their future hopes on securing an A level grade in it.
“The thing is,” I explained, “if we’re going to spend two years studying it, we’d better understand what it is. So, what is drama?”
Eventually a hand would go up. “Doing plays.”
“Okay, but do you need to have a script to do drama?”
“It can be. But lots of people who are not doing drama improvise.”
“And what is acting?”
“Being other people.”
“That’s interesting. Do you have to be other people to do drama?”
“People explore life in lots of ways.”
I never understood that interjection, but if you ask sixteen-year-olds any philosophical question, sooner or later someone will shout out ‘relationships’.
“Well, it does often deal with relationships, but that doesn’t tell us what drama is.”
“Putting stories on stage.”
“Interesting. Does there have to be a stage?”
“Entertaining an audience.”
“Does there have to be an audience? Can you do drama by yourself?”
“Of course you can. You can shut your bedroom door, switch off all your media, and do drama by yourself without anyone ever knowing. Or you can do it to a world-wide audience of millions. So what is it? How would you explain it to an intelligent alien who could – like most intelligent aliens seem to – understand English?”
The clock would be ticking. We may even run out of time and have to continue next lesson, by which point the more conscientious ones would have consulted dictionaries, websites or other students’ notes.
What the etymologists say
The problem of definition is two-dimensional. We need to both specify and limit, and it is the second problem that is the more elusive. Saying what drama is, is difficult enough, but saying where it stops is even more awkward. At what point, for example, does drama become dance? Is stand-up comedy – especially if it is done via an invented character – drama? How about puppetry? Or animation?
It’s tricky, so let’s not be too tough on those students, or their teachers. Let’s look at those dictionaries. Starting with some oldies.
Collins’ Senior Etymological Dictionary (1930)
drama. N. a stage play; art or literature of plays; a play like series of events. [Greek = action]
Concise Oxford Pocket Dictionary (1970)
drama. N. A stage play; art of writing and presenting plays; play like series of events. [Greek drao do]
Collins’ Compact Dictionary (1981)
drama. N. 1 a serious play for theatre television or radio. 2 plays in general, as a form of literature. 3 the art of writing, producing or acting in a play. 4 a situation that is exciting or highly emotional. [Greek: something performed]
Dictionaries, of course are concerned with defining words, not experiences. It is interesting how the definitions expand over a period of almost a century. Collins, publishing in 1930, sticks tightly to dealing with dramatic text including a play like series of events. Yes, of course, we all know real life can be described as a drama, but that simply means it’s like a stage play. We can make a drama out of a drama, but we don’t have to make a play at all in order to do drama. At least not that kind of play.
By the time we hit the twenty-first century, editors are widening range of meanings.
Concise Oxford Pocket Dictionary and Thesaurus (2004)
drama. N. 1. a play. 2. Plays as a literary form. 3. An exciting series of events.
Synonyms for 1: play, show, piece, theatrical work, stage show, dramatization.
Synonyms for 2: acting, the theatre, the stage, dramatic art, stagecraft, dramaturgy.
Synonyms for 3: incident, scene, spectacle, crisis, disturbance, row, commotion, excitement, thrill, sensation, dramatics, theatrics, histrionics.
1.a. A prose or verse composition, especially one telling a serious story, that is intended for representation by actors impersonating the characters and performing the dialogue and action. b. A serious narrative work or program for television, radio, or the cinema.
2. Theatrical plays of a particular kind or period.
3. The art or practice of writing or producing dramatic works.
4. A situation or succession of events in real life having the dramatic progression or emotional effect characteristic of a play.
5. The quality or condition of being dramatic.
The Free Dictionary broadens the definition to include the art or practice of writing or producing dramatic works. That producing does not necessarily involve a script or an audience, so it comes closest to the breadth we need for our modern understanding of what drama is, but it is still tangled in the incestuous link to dramatic works. Which means drama means to do drama, or be like drama. That really doesn’t help.
So, what is Drama?
Drama is created primarily for the benefit of the spectator, yet the most sublime experience is that had by the artist: the actor. It is the only kind of artistic expression where you physically embody your own creation, walk around in an utterly real yet entirely fictional environment, interact with others who are similarly engaged, and at the same time you can generate ideas and feelings inside complete strangers who are there with you, watching and listening.
To resolve the concise meaning problem, I came up with my own definition of drama. It’s not perfect but it has worked for me and hundreds of others, so feel free to use it.
Drama is the actor’s real experience of something that isn’t really happening.
You won’t find this definition in any dictionary, but it is accurate. It’s not perfect because it doesn’t differentiate between drama and other types of experience such as dreaming, daydreaming or childhood play, but drama is not disconnected from those things.
When actors play they are not far removed from the level of physical and mental activity employed by children who are playing. Anyone who has secretly watched a child at play may well have marvelled at the depth of self-delusion that the child brings to bear as they turn an entirely imagined scenario into a real world. Sometimes the level of their absorption is instantly refined as they become aware that they are being watched. Some children will break out of their fantasy entirely, whilst others may become more demonstrative by making clear adjustments to their voices and actions in order to transmit their experience to the viewer. This is an important difference because it marks a transition from drama to theatre.
If ten people watch two others doing drama there are twelve entirely independent imaginary extensions of what is happening. No two people – not even the two actors – will imagine the same world. Each person will take what scenery there might be and build the physical and emotional worlds that exist beyond the bounds of what is being presented.
So, what is theatre? Theatre is not as hard to define but it is extremely difficult to limit. It is virtually impossible to say where theatre ends and other experiences take over. But that’s for another time and place. For now, let’s stay with drama, and before we embark on helping others to intensify and transmit the actor’s real experience of something that isn’t really happening let’s make sure that they understand in plain terms just what it is they are doing.
Let’s get physical
Drama leaders and teachers can easily turn this question into a full-length lesson. Here’s a suggested plan (timings can be adjusted to suit your schedule):
- Ten-minute physical warm-up.
- Some prompted physical activities to build on the physical re-boot of the warm-up. (Avoid suggestions that make the central task of the lesson (No. 4 below) too easy, so stay clear of anything theatrical or tightly linked to drama.) E.g. instruct them to mime the following activities: dig a hole in dry sand; collect driftwood and build a raft; clean the windows of a caravan; set up a fresh fruit stall; thread a giant needle and repair a giant pair of trousers; use a fire extinguisher to deal with a dragon.
- If your pupils are used to doing prompted vocal improvisations, five to ten minutes of vocal impro will get the creative juices flowing even more. Prompts for the first line might include: “I believe you’re an expert – can you show me how to make a kite?”; “How long have you been underground?”; “Would you like to swim with my pet whale?”; “Trust me – I’ve been doing it for years – we can step out of this plane and walk on the clouds.”
- Split the class into groups and set them the question: What is Drama? Tell them the answer must be presented as a piece of theatre lasting between one and three minutes. Set the time allowed for devising and rehearsal to permit all the groups to present their work and leave ten minutes for plenary debate. You can make the project more challenging by issuing a word limit of ten words per person, or fewer. You can even stipulate the presentation should be done without any words at all, though this might preclude them producing a useful definition, unless you require it as a one-sentence conclusion.
- Assemble the class and get the groups to present their productions.
- Discuss the presentations and develop the discussion.
- Provide your working definition of drama.
- Set work to follow up can include researching alternative definitions, and the age and range of drama activity across the globe and throughout history. To extend the research task ask for one example of drama that appears to fall outside of the dictionary definitions.
Some of the discussion above is lifted from this book:
If you want to explore more on what drama is and the ways in which we can create it, then start here: Drama: what it is and how to do it
In addition to acting, the book also takes a similar pragmatic analysis to directing, producing, devising and designing for the stage.