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Drama Conventions

Dorothy Heathcote created a list of 33 drama conventions. They included, for example:


1. The roles actually present, naturalistic, yet significantly behaving giving and accepting responses

2. The same, except framed as a film. That is, people have permission to stare but not intrude. "Film" can be stopped and restarted, or re-run.

3. The role present as in "monument". It can be talked about, walked around, and even sculptured afresh if so framed.

Dorothy was always revisiting and revising her list of "conventions." In 2006, she wrote to Eileen Pennington, to say, “I've been bothered for some time that I've not revisited the conventions” (1). In the letter, she included a number of amendments to the conventions list, which have been incorporated in this PDF file, together with other notes and documents:

Dorothy saw the conventions in part as ways to “make human presences come into the room; so that what we are considering and who we are considering loom large in all the work”. She said: “I am obsessed with the power of these conventions – the means by which we can make the presence of an Other, present in the room.” (2)


It's one of the most powerful tools you have. In theatre, you don't have empty spaces, in spite of Peter Brook; you have spaces filled with waiting, pregnant with possibility. So people never see them as empty, because they've come, they’re sitting there [in the audience], and they know they're going to be filled; so they’re presently filled with waiting.

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So the “present absence” is one of the very, very useful, valuable tension-makers. ... But to symbolically represent absence is a high theatre skill. … And in drama, more and more extensions into a greater range of domains becomes available to you, as you begin to be able to use the signs of people, rather than the presences of people.


Imagine a covered waggon situation … Imagine a group of people in a covered waggon, coming back from, say, gathering firewood, and finding one eagle feather. Imagine the domain. It isn't any feather, it's no casual feather. It is an eagle feather. The mind just is blown. But it might take 10 lessons before you introduce it, because you can't introduce it ‘till they’re ready for the full domain to be developed. Because if you introduce it straight away, it's a plot line.


So the care with which the object is introduced as “presently absent,” is “highly critical”. (3)

Alice Grace


Whatever conventions you set up, Dorothy observed, the children “have to be in a state of productive tension, to need to know from these people, or from evidence of these people” (2).


She worked with classes in Reigate Primary School on a “commission” for an opera, based on the life of Alice Grace (1853-1927), the “Little Eaton Hermit” who made her home in a cave, and became something of a local celebrity. Dorothy had to consider: “How many ways can we make Alice exist? … I can’t restore Alice’s life. I want them to understand it more.” (2) She had to consider how the children could access the information they would need.


In the school, Alice Grace was introduced through a fictitious news story: heavy rains in the winter had caused a rock fall in the caves at Little Eaton. A metal Victorian hat box had been unearthed, containing artefacts which, it seemed, belonged to Alice.

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There was also a fictional letter (made by a teacher in the school), supposedly found in the Derby City Hospital Records (see photo). It was from a vicar writing to a doctor to enlist his help in Alice’s case. It contained information about Alice’s vagrant life, and concluded: “I am sure you will agree that her lifestyle cannot be conducive to good health…”.


The children undertook tasks to help them “penetrate the life of Alice”, including, for example, making a three-dimensional model of the village in 1871 (see photo), leading them into comparisons between “then” and “now” – what was there at the time, and what is there now. Children also recreated episodes from Alice’s life (see photo). A report on the project concluded that “considerable respect” was built “for Alice Grace, her world and time. Pupils felt they were commemorating a life and honouring it” (4).

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The Stoning of Stephen


Conventions are sometimes seen as a way of “distancing” the drama experience – in contrast to children’s direct involvement in a “living through” drama. Dorothy saw, however, that young people can be led to experience the reality of a situation or event more powerfully through the use of conventions, than by “living through” it. She offered the following example:

Some children wanted to do the Stoning of Stephen; and they were at this level of maturation, in that they knew it was about martyrdom, they knew it was the first martyr; it was a church school, so they were into the biblical elements, and it was called St. Stephen’s. So they want to do the Stoning of Stephen. Now: are you going to pretend to throw rocks? How will they stone Stephen? … How will this affect the bondings?

Now, you see, a convention - so that people realised this man is dying of us – has to be found. And it looks stupid, compared with the naturalism. And if you don’t catch it before it starts to be naturalistic, you’ve had it, because they’re so good at looking like they’re throwing rocks by now, and Stephen has to act dying.


But to stand somebody up in effigy, and for somebody to take a rock, and not throw it, but tell the scribe to mark the body – that’s when Stephen will die of stoning; because something will be placed on the body – whatever it is, because you will have designed it with them – so that ultimately, he is a bloody piece of meat. And at 16, they ought to know it. Not at 9. At 9, you draw it on the floor. You wouldn’t put it on a person. And the stones would be black smudges, not red blood.


And this is what I’m on about: how far do you wish to go? And it’s always a moral choice. And it’s your morality, in the end. (3)


(1) Unpublished document in the Dorothy Heathcote Archive, MMU (2) From the unpublished transcript of an NATD event with Dorothy and Eileen Pennington at the University of Warwick, 9.2.07; (3) From Video Series D: “Teacher intervention and strategies in the four levels of drama progression.” Dorothy Heathcote Archive, Birmingham City University; (4) Project report available here

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