17 March 2022
Firstly Dawn, can you tell us all about your Berkhamsted school history as a member of staff and your love for Drama and Performing Arts?
I’ve taught Drama here for longer than some of our Year 7s have been alive, and I absolutely love it. There is no greater joy than sharing the immediate, intimate, and ephemeral magic of theatre – other than inspiring that joy in the youngsters around us. In my time at Berkhamsted I have been responsible for a huge range of shows, from small scale productions with a mere 11 students such as DNA by Dennis Kelly, through to large scale musicals such as Honk! and Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd : The Demon Barber of Fleet Street. One particular highlight was adapting Moliere’s The Hypochondriac for the Edinburgh Festival (with my colleague Oliver Pengelly) and taking this up to great acclaim and a 5 star review! This was an astonishing experience for the students who were taken up as a professional company and treated accordingly. It was also a super experience in terms of widening their theatrical vocabulary as we went to see multiple shows every day and had a fabulous time sharing and appreciating all the creativity that surrounded us. We had hoped to reprise the success of the Hypochondriac with our adaptation of Sheridan’s The Rivals in 2019, but sadly the pandemic saw to that.
I have a particular love of contemporary theatre companies such as Les Enfants Terribles, the late lamented Kneehigh theatre and Emma Rice’s new company Wise Children. These companies have a love of lyrical language, a strong aesthetic, skilful use of music and a playful and anarchic approach to creating work which is incredibly inspirational.
As a member of the National Theatre, I attend as many productions as I can in order to keep my own practical ideas fresh and to gain inspiration for future shows. In the last few weeks, I’ve been to see a joyous production of Wuthering Heights in co-production with Wise Children. This was an irreverent and passionate look at the classic novel. I also appreciated The Book of Dust at The Bridge Theatre which was an absolute delight. It was imaginative, innovative, and utterly compelling. I am a fan of the Phillip Pullman books and I enjoyed falling headfirst into the world of the novel and emerging, exhilarated, at the end. It was exactly as inventive as you’d expect Nicholas Hytner’s second foray into Lyra’s world to be and I cannot recommend it enough. I was delighted to see that Berkhamsted alumni Sid Sagar featured in the show as well. Finally, I went to see The Glow by Alistair McDowell at the Royal Court. This was a thoughtful and engaging piece, but it was the lighting and set design that I particularly appreciated, with an industrial concrete effect wall that moved slowly towards us and some excellent work with barn doors on a Fresnel light to create sharp, bold lines. Simply stunning!
In regards to Shrek The Musical, could you give us an idea of how that performance came about? What can people expect from it?
Having not had the opportunity to have theatre productions in so long, it was imperative that we did a production that was fun and recognisable. It needed to be a high-quality show that offered plenty of opportunities for a large cast to shine onstage as well as being a show that would appeal to the widest range of the school community. I chose Shrek the musical because it ticked all those boxes and because I really admire the work of composer Jeanine Tesori, one of the most prolific and most honoured female composers in theatrical history. Shrek the musical was nominated for 8 Tony Awards when it first landed on Broadway and is much wittier and clever than perhaps people might expect, in a show based on an aminated classic. The audience are in for a real treat.
On the one hand they are aware that this is a show with familiar characters and storyline, but there is a swathe of additional characters who really get the chance to show off their skills and, as we always say in the theatre, there are no small roles, only small actors. Some of the funniest moments in rehearsal have come from those little one- liners being delivered with zing, verve, and comic timing! Shrek is also a show with great heart, a central message about embracing and appreciating difference is key. Additionally, for the theatre lovers out there, Shrek is a very knowing show, it knows it is a piece of theatre and takes every opportunity to reference this. Watch out for homages to Wicked, The Lion King and Les Miserables to name but a few. The finale song is exactly as you’d expect from the film and will ensure that the audience leave in a good mood.
We are interested to know how do you go from, this is the idea and then escalate that to a full-scale production? What are the key milestones along the way?
What a question! I began the process in the summer term by doing a lot of the production side of things, reading the script carefully, outlining all the requirements, researching set hire and costumes. As the Michaelmas term began, I advertised the show and Ben Noithip and I held auditions. These auditions were particularly pressured because this was a whole school show and over 120 students trooped over the stage. There was an important balance to be struck as we had to make sure that we gave everyone sufficient material and sufficient time to show off their talents, while trying to keep the days manageable for all.
Casting the show was a mammoth task, trying to ensure that the right person got the right role, that everyone was involved as much as they could be and, given the large number of students involved, checking and double-checking spreadsheets to ensure that we had everyone in the right place. It was a blend of art, individual consideration and pragmatism!
Normally, a show would then rehearse in chronological order with setting rehearsals where we block out the action and learn songs followed by revision rehearsals where we practise what has been learned and then put it all together in consolidation runs so that by the time the show arrives, we would be secure and confident. Unfortunately, we were swiftly faced with serious Covid restrictions because of rising cases and so we were unable to rehearse our Year 7-10 students for a period of 7 weeks. Coupled with large numbers of student absence because of Covid as well as an unpleasant spell of Covid for the Director, we were faced with a serious dilemma; the show could not be ready for our December performance dates. Happily, with the help of the Senior Leadership Team, we were able to postpone until March so that our hard work would come to fruition.
In previous years we would have run the show multiple times in the run up to production but every time we have had a run scheduled, there has been an obstacle to overcome. Talk about building resilience! We are therefore, necessarily, being very laid back about things as we approach production week. It will add to the adrenaline and excitement.
It has been super seeing some of the scenes really coming together and the frisson of excitement when the cast saw that the orchestra pit had been set up on Wednesday was brilliant. They got the opportunity to sing through the finale onstage with some of the band and this really helped some of our younger students realise the scale and scope of the show for the first time. Our set arrives on Saturday and we have a big rehearsal on Sunday with our cast and stage crew where we will get to grips with some of our technical scenes and puppetry.
How has the school supported you and these large-scale productions? I imagine you’ve been itching to get back to these post COVID?
It has been such a joy to get back to doing a show with students, that’s why we teach Drama. I’ve been so lucky to have an excellent team working on the show as well. Ben Noithip as Musical Director has rehearsed the band beautifully and accompanies the students with sensitivity and great humour which is wonderful. He is able to encourage and cajole our young singers into aspiring to greater and greater heights which has been fantastic.
I have also had new staff members Sofie Parsons and Ned Vessey choreographing and assisting with the direction and making props. Their cheerful willingness and desire to create a brilliant show has made my life easier and has really impacted positively on the students. Their sharp-eyed observation and perceptive words of wisdom have pushed our young cast to develop greater comical instincts. They have been an absolute asset and the show would not be what it is without them.
This show is very technical, and the true mark of a successful team is that I have been able to to be able to leave the technical side of things in the hands of theatre manager Andrew Ibbott and Ian Cross. They managed to source another set for us after we postponed the show and could no longer use the one we had booked. Some of it is still being painted even as I write, and the dragon puppet looks amazing!
Beyond the obvious performance and production aspect, how does Drama help support students at the schools? Are there any key differences in learning and performance across the age groups?
Drama is one of the finest tools in a school’s arsenal. Of course, I am biased, but I believe it to be true. Human beings are storytellers, it is a fundamental part of the human psyche. Drama requires students to empathise, to put themselves into the shoes of another person and this knowledge and understanding and direct experience can lead us to genuinely become better human beings.
Drama requires students to collaborate immediately and with whoever we are asked to work with, mimicking the real world beyond education. These negotiation and teamwork skills are tremendously valuable both in school and in a student’s wider life. In the Drama classroom we learn in a different way. We are up on our feet. We are moving around. We also focus on creating through play – lower down the school through games and activities that require us to be playful and instinctive and higher up at GCSE and A-level through exposure to theorists and practitioners that take playful and innovative approaches to creating theatre.
In terms of extra-curricular productions – a production for Year 7 and 8 will look very different to a production for Years 12 and 13 in terms of content, style, and process. In Year 7 and 8 the emphasis is on participation and widening the appeal of Drama so we will encourage all who audition to take part in some form or other. Higher up the school we have elite productions such as our biennial Edinburgh Festival trip where competition is fierce, and we only take a limited number of students via an in-depth audition process. We try to program a variety of opportunities so that students can be involved in a range of Drama both onstage and behind the scenes. It is always heartening to see how students can be inspired by their involvement both as performers and as crew members. I particularly enjoy seeing some of my quieter students blossom after a stint on the follow spot and having our older students stage manage younger students always provides for an excellent leadership opportunity (as well as some heartfelt perspective into the challenges of getting youngsters to listen!)
As well as the soft skills, the cultural capital of theatre is another key skill. Coming from a country with a long and proud history of theatrical excellence and being situated so close to London with all that the West End has to offer, we couldn’t be more well placed for access to high quality theatrical productions. I hope that Shrek lives up to this standard as well. (It will, it’s absolutely brilliant!)
We’d like to thank Dawn for finding the time in her busy schedule to sit with us and discuss everything above. We wish her, the cast and supporting crew, all the best of luck in the upcoming Shrek The Musical. If you are a family member and received the code, you can buy tickets online here.