An Approach to the
Objective Grading of Creative Work
The Idea in Practice:
Upper School Monologue Performances
My Upper School acting class also performed dramatic monologues as a part of their semester's training. Although the expectations in this class were necessarily more sophisticated than in the sixth-grade, most of the elements we discussed were the same. Once again, the students presented a preliminary "draft" of their performances, which received feedback both from me and from classmates, spent a week or two revising, and then performed a second time, and were graded according to how well they met their own chosen goals. One difference was the fact that after the preliminary performance I gave each student a detailed written response, which I include below. I chose to do this because the students were at first very uneasy about the whole project--for some reason the class consisted entirely of students who had signed up for the class as the "least frightening" arts elective, rather than out of any particular urge to perform, and they were, if anything, less experienced than my sixth-graders, all of whom I had taught in fifth grade. It bothered me a little to put so much detail into these responses, because I was trying not to dictate artistic choices, but by carefully confining myself to crystallizing remarks that were made in our class discussion after each performance I was able to satisfy myself that I was not doing so to too great an extent. I was also careful not to consider comments I'd made on these responses in grading unless the student had included these concerns in his own goals.
Results and Grading
On the following pages are the preliminary written feedback I provided for each student, their chosen goals for the final performance, and my responses after this performance. All three of these students received high grades (A- or better, though, as I've said, letter grades by themselves don't mean much) but I've listed them in order from highest to lowest grade so that their relative merits can be compared. Because this was a more mature group than the sixth-graders, I tried to provide more detailed feedback, and I was more blunt about what did not improve. I have used the same notation protocol as in the previous discussion, putting my comments on the final performances in red.
You have a good beginning here. You are mostly memorized, and you have made clear choices as to the basic character of the piece, which seem to work. Now might be the time to fine-tune those choices so that the piece has RHYTHM and SHAPE.
Your general emotional tone and energy level is completely appropriate for the character and situation, but it is static. Without stretching believability too much, you need to find some variety in emotional tone and even in energy level.
Your pauses are excellent. They are NOT too long. This is extremely important, as almost everyone tends to short-change pauses. Never underestimate the power of silence. However, in order for the pauses you have chosen to use to be effective, you must avoid inadvertent pauses. You have a tendency to stop in the middle of sentences--either because you've forgotten the next word or because you're playing the character's breathlessness--and these muddle up your carefully constructed rhythm.
As we discussed, even a piece as apparently nonsensical as this one must make what sense it can, and must make sense TO THE CHARACTER. Why do you say, "I have to remember these things?" What makes you think someone is tickling you? What makes you think your parents are there? There is no way for you to know how the playwright would answer these questions, but that's not as important. You must have answers to them that work for you. It wouldn't hurt to write down your choices.
Since you must, for the sense of the piece, deliver the whole monologue from one physical location, you need to make the most of what little movement is possible. Make clear choices about exactly when to move your hands or shift your weight.
Even though the character is dying, this monologue demands more energy. Not all the time, as that would result in the same homogeneity you have now, but somewhere in the monologue you might find a reason to stir yourself up in terms both of volume and pace.
Goals for Final Monologue Performance
To become more comfortable in front of the audience, and to be able to run through the piece without losing concentration.
Very good. Your concentration on the actual experience of the character effectively erased the audience from your concern.
To use facial expressions and body movement to convey meaning and emotion.
Better. There isn't a lot you can do with a dying man, but the small variations you came up with worked well.
To vary voice inflection.
This was probably the goal you achieved least well.
To effectively use pauses to create "first-time quality."
Really excellent. You created an extremely clear, logical progression of thought, and gave yourself plenty of time for the mental processes behind the character's apparently unconnected images.
A REALLY COMPELLING PERFORMANCE!
You have a good beginning here. You are mostly memorized, and you have made clear choices as to the basic character of the piece, which seem to work. Now might be the time to fine-tune those choices so that the piece has RHYTHM and SHAPE. Also, you tend to pronounce all your sentences with the same rhythm, which results in a certain singsong quality. Try to make individual sentences individual.
You have placed pauses throughout the monologue, which will help to give it rhythm and interest when you fully commit to them, but right now these pauses are not big enough or distinct enough to work well. This appears to be more an issue of fully acting the choices than of ineffective choices. Remember that whatever is happening in your performance will FEEL ten times bigger in your head than it appears on the outside, so to compensate you have to do what feels like too much just to do enough.
You need to plan, and then commit to changes in attitude or emotional content during the speech. It's difficult because the playwright has not done any of the work for you. It makes SENSE for the whole monologue to have one basic emotion, but it will be more INTERESTING and entertaining for the audience if it does not. Try to find places where you can be really sad about leaving home, places where you can laugh about the silly things your father or others did, places where you can be resigned about your fate, etc. (Especially, humor will help you here, because it will make it easier for us to like this character, and that in turn makes it easier for us to care about what happened to him.)
You have chosen to deliver the entire monologue sitting down. It's a legitimate choice, but it means you will have to use subtle changes in position to create visual rhythm. Try to plan out when you will slouch, when you will sit forward in the chair, etc. You can use these movements to reinforce what you are doing with your face and voice, and to create visual interest in what is otherwise static.
This character does not right now seem to care whether we hear or understand him. The quality of believing what one says is important can be difficult to create, but it is essential if the audience is going to believe it--and if they don't, they won't listen.
Goals for Final Monologue Performance
To facilitate audience understanding.
Very good. You spoke TO us, and made us feel the importance of your story.
More effective use of pauses.
Your pauses were better than last time, but there is still room for improvement.
Use voice to advantage for expression.
Excellent. You modulated your voice well. Your use of pitch was especially effective.
Memorize to "second level."
Find movement other than sitting down the whole time.
This was probably the goal you achieved least well. You DID find more positions than just sitting down: one--standing up. I'm not sure, though, that you need much more than that if you can keep the intensity of communication where you had it today.
As we discussed, this piece isn't really firmly memorized. Until you are able to put all the words together without too much thought, you will not be able to move beyond this step and do any real ACTING. I want to hear the piece again later this week. I will show you in class today some techniques to help you memorize.
However, I do have a few comments now.
I think your decision to play the character of the dog on two feet instead of four is a good one. It allows you to move around and use SPACE to help you make the piece clear and compelling. Right now I don't think you've really thought out WHEN and HOW to move, but that will come when the words have jelled better.
The best thing about your performance yesterday was the way you related to your audience. This is exactly the kind of speech in which it makes sense to make open eye contact with the audience, and you did that. You seemed to really care whether we were GETTING what you were saying, and that is the single best way to pull an audience into your monologue. It's not clear how much of this was deliberate, so you need to seriously concentrate on what the performance felt like, and try to identify this connection with the audience in your own mind, so that as the piece gets easier, you don't lose it.
Goals for Final Monologue Performance
To be memorized.
You're almost there. Really, this is excellent progress.
To make physical actions allow the audience to understand.
You didn't do a lot of moving, but what you did was effective.
To use voice to convey the mood of the scene.
Very good. We really felt your emotions.
To make actions make sense with the words.
For the most part, very good. Again, you didn't really move much, but what you did made sense.
VERY GOOD, AND VERY MUCH IMPROVED!
This class consisted, again, of students who were not, in the grand scheme of things, really very interested in the Theatre. Drama teachers are frequently faced with these kinds of students--counselors will advise students to take electives, interested or not (which is as it should be), and they advise "shy" students to take drama in particular, in the belief that it will "open them up" (which makes little sense, in my opinion)--but it is unusual for an entire class to be as inexperienced as this one. These monologue performances could easily have been deadly, but in fact every student was able to give a very creditable performance. I am convinced this was mostly the result of the focus that Artist-Centered Evaluation gave to their rehearsals. It gave them something to hold onto--something concrete and not "squishy" to work towards. They seemed to really enjoy the process, and to appreciate the quality they were able to achieve. In fact, one of them is seriously thinking of taking another drama class--and THAT is quite an achievement! I am still uncomfortable about the detailed and somewhat prescriptive written comments I gave them after their first drafts, however. It is possible to carry the idea of descriptive criticism to an absurd extreme--there's very little point in deliberately saying "I couldn't hear you very well, and I had trouble understanding what you were saying" instead of "Try to project"--but I'm afraid I may have unduly influenced these students in choosing criteria for their final grade. However, this does not change the fact that taking the Artist-Centered approach seems to have improved both the value of the grades and the quality of the performances. (And maybe induced some fairly unmotivated students to learn something!)