Theatre Programming as a Problem-Based Assessment for use in Teaching Scottish/Irish Drama

Assessment, Dramatic arts, Dramatic literature, Employability & Enterprise, Irish literature, Problem-based learning, Scottish literature


Barbara Bell,
Edge Hill University (Ormskirk, Lancashire),

This paper was first presented at a Subject Centre conference Teaching Scottish and Irish Literature on 21st October 2005 at the University of Manchester.


The case study looks at the use of a theatre programming exercise as both an assessment tool and a technique for exploring the contemporaneity of play-texts, working on Twentieth Century Irish Theatre with a mixed Level 2 group coming from different educational and ethnic backgrounds.
In writing up this technique I have drawn on experience gained working with students in both Scotland and Lancashire. I readily acknowledge their contribution to the development of the work, what I have learnt from them and from the generous input of many industry sources.

Background / Context

Before I came down to Lancashire to head up the Department of Performing Arts at Edge Hill, I worked at Queen Margaret’s in Edinburgh in the Drama Department.  I was the Programme Leader for the Drama & Theatre Arts degree and the Subject Leader for what was then the first named specialism in Literary Management in the UK.

As part of training my fourth year Literary Management students I was in contact with Michelle Volansky, then Literary Manager and Dramaturg for Steppenwolf Theatre in Chicago, and Michelle asked my students to suggest some contemporary Scottish plays for Steppenwolf.  This entailed extensive research into the client theatre and the selection of a series of plays we felt would meet Steppenwolf’s needs and also make a particular statement about Scotland and what we felt was important about the contemporary Scottish stage.  Students had to analyse the artistic and economic issues underpinning Steppenwolf’s work, but crucially had to construct an analysis of the potential cumulative impact of their choices.

Programming in the broader classroom context

theatre_prog1Programming is only one of the many tasks that Literary Managers become involved in; however, it is more recently on Merseyside, teaching a Level 2 module on Twentieth Century Irish Theatre, that its application to a broader range of teaching has started to emerge.  One recent group of learners included drama students from Ulster, the NorthWest and the rest of the UK.  50% of the group were US study abroad students, none of whom were drama majors, but most of whom claimed Irish ancestry.  Similarly around half of the Merseyside students saw themselves as Scouse first, but Irish came a fairly close second.  Therefore the group comprised native learners, diaspora learners and others.

Some of the most challenging ideas for students to get to grips with, particularly non-theatre majors, are around the cultural significance of a particular text or type of theatre – the ability to assess its contemporaneity – does it, in the Quaker phrase, ‘speak to our condition’?  This is particularly the case with theatre that claims for itself insight into issues of national identity, where non-specialists encounter a quagmire of cultural crosscurrents.

Two particular areas of challenge presented themselves early on to this Irish Theatre class.

  • The non-theatre majors found it hard initially to get past a purely literary response to the play-texts, to see them as pre-texts for performance and as both products and cultural artefacts – for consumption and ownership.
  • There was a marked divergence between the views of Ireland and Irish history identified within the work by the diaspora and native learners, whilst those without Irish roots (including a couple of Scots who took to sniping from the Celtic sidelines) initially tended to step back from the discussion as somehow being disenfranchised in the argument.

I had planned a programming exercise as an alternative final assessment to practical performance work; however, as I introduced them early on to the principles behind programming and together we modelled a ‘season’ for Liverpool Playhouse, the impact of the exercise on their understanding of the subject as a whole became clearer.

When considering programming, the ideologies underpinning the work of particular companies or theatres, particularly those with a ‘mission statement’ to represent something of their nation’s character and culture, are placed in their pragmatic context – a process that sometimes reveals more of the idealism at the heart of the work, and sometimes shines a spotlight on practice that falls short of lofty aspiration. At the other end of the spectrum, the unspoken cultural assumptions underpinning decisions made apparently on purely commercial terms are laid bare.

Having learnt to examine a theatre’s artistic choices with an eye that acknowledged many of the other constraints/goads to one choice or another, it then became much easier to project the model onto other times and places – the emergence of the Abbey Theatre in Dublin, the significance in its choice of plays, became easier to place within a historical and cultural context; the work of Field Day came into sharper focus when examined in light that also illuminated the other commercial work around at the time.

A particularly interesting development was in students’ sensitivity to the varying themes, imagery, mini-myths and narrative structures being employed by playwrights, directors, designers et al, for example, in relation to the issue of emigration and the emigrant – two particularly useful works to look at here are Brian Friel’s Philadelphia, here I come and David Grieg’s The Speculator -which I consider to bea much under-rated play.  The students visited Bolton’s Octagon Theatre to see an Irish play in performance and their fine stage-setting for Martin McDonough’s Beauty Queen of Leenane provided a practical example of the use of visual imagery as cultural shorthandIssues of language and translation also became topics of hot debate (see Friel’s Translations) …the presentation of history – the idea of history – became a live issue and provided an opening into discussion of post-colonialism as a positive force, bringing on new voices and re-discovered histories, and a cultural cul-de-sac, enforcing new stereotypes in its turn.

The Asssessment

The module as a whole had two assessments, the first comprising a conventional essay. The second task offered a choice of assessments of which the Programming Exercise was one. The use of varieties of Problem Based Learning, Enquiry Based Learning or Problem Based Assessment is comparatively common within the Performing Arts; however, it is used less within text-based modules.  The exercise of programming for a specific theatre entails the placement of works together within a ‘real-life’ situation that demands an engagement with the multiple and cumulative meanings contained within the texts. This enables students to work from their own initial standpoint to ultimately to place their individual stamp on the final product.

  • Native learners could re-assess the audience reception of work about their country and confront some of the expectations of others about their choices.
  • Diaspora learners were confronted with the often unspoken assumptions underpinning their consumption of a diaspora version of the native culture.
  • Non-native learners were given knowledge and able to demonstrate skills that gave legitimacy to their opinions within the group.

In the majority of cases, pairs of students undertook this task.

  • Assessment 2 – 50% group presentation – In 15-20 minutes present a theatre board with a proposal for a season of Irish theatre.  Powerpoint or OHP available. You must take account of the theatre’s profile and pay particular attention to the issue of contemporaneity. Choose from one of the profiles below.
      • A medium scale repertory theatre in a southern English city – 1 main house 650 seats, 2 studios 200 seats apiece.  They’ve recently done The Importance of Being Earnest on Mainstage and two year’s ago Krapp’s Last Tape in the Studio.  60% of their revenue comes from subscriptions.  There isn’t another repertory for 50 miles around.
      • A small arts centre in Liverpool – five years old.  250 seats in a multi-purpose venue, there’s a café/art gallery open throughout the day and into the evenings. Except for the pantomime, they’re not a producing house.  They’ve never done an Irish play.
      • A medium scale arts centre attached to a university in Wales or Scotland.  There is a 500 seat auditorium which is a receiving house and a 150 seat studio theatre, used by community groups and for small-scale touring.  There is an art-gallery and café/bar, opening onto a sizeable foyer space.  There is a separate theatre bar open in the evenings.  The student theatre group are very attached to doing Beckett.
      • A medium sized LORT theatre in New York State (650-seat mainstage, 300 seat studio).  It is largely dependent on subscription funding.  There is a sizeable Irish-American community in the vicinity, but they are not generally regular theatregoers.
      • Steppenwolf in Chicago.  Go to their website for details.
      • Your choice of Theatre, to be agreed with the tutor.

In the event I hardly needed have created the fictional mini-biographies, because every group chose to work on an existing theatre and/or company.  The real companies undoubtedly provided them with potential for a great deal more research and information on which to base their work; however, the mini-biographies acted as prompts to the types of conditions/information they should be seeking to engage with, for example, recent repertoire or day-time catering. Most students chose to include a Powerpoint display in their presentation.

In Assessment, the Class played the roles of the Theatre Board and could ask questions of the team after their initial presentation.  The Board could subsequently give their opinion of the extent to which the presentation convinced them; however, they were not directly involved in the grading.  Their feedback was passed on to the students. At Level 3 or with students I had trained previously in peer assessment I would have enabled them to contribute directly to the grading of the work.

In the four-six weeks they may be working on this task it is possible to present students with unexpected variables to their scenario, for example, part way through their work, a playwright’s agent calls to refuse them the performing rights for a particular play – is it key to the cohesion of their season? (1) If so, what can be done to replace it?  Almost more difficult – the theatre receives additional funding for one production in conjunction with a particular event (for example St. Patrick’s Day) – what should this money be spent on and why?  Do you spend it on a schools’ project, do you use it to bring a celebrated Irish actor to your theatre – who and in what role? (For UK-based students in this class, the attraction was James Nesbitt, who was being offered a lot of work this way, whilst two US students aimed to bring John Malkovich back to Steppenwolf to direct Waiting for Godot.)

The peripheral elements (special events, ticketing deals, corporate sponsorship, funding opportunities) provide variety and interest, scope for imagination and ingenuity, particularly for non-theatre majors; however, the core of the task is selecting a group of 3-5 play texts, seeing them both individually and in concert as saying something about Irish theatre and nation.
I have provided a skeleton list of items for consideration and research when programming at the end of this paper.

When it came to the assessment itself the diaspora students, both UK and US, displayed a real sensitivity to a range of issues around the representation of Irish theatre by, with and for diaspora audiences.

  • Two students from Liverpool with travelling connections, constructed a season for the Playhouse which culminated in a community production of Once a Catholic to involve the Irish Travelling Community and utilising specialist EU funding aimed at supporting cultural work with travelling communities.
  • A US student from upstate New York, a business major, analysed the theatre-going habits of the Irish American community around her home and developed a well-balanced season designed to tempt more of them to become regular theatregoers, mixing challenging choices with more ‘comfortable’ pieces, providing foyer concerts, talks and exhibitions – bracketing the productions in ticketing deals and underpinning the season with links to local school/college curricula.
  • Two Scottish drama students decided to do a comparison of the challenges of programming Irish plays for the Tron in Glasgow, and for PICT (Pittsburg Irish and Classical Theatre) whose Artistic Director, when approached by them for comment, was candid about the levels of comfortable expectation his season ticket holders, key to his economic planning, had of his Irish programming choices.  These students developed a cunning plan to feature two PICT-favourite comic actors, firstly in Lynch’s The History of the Troubles (according to my Da’) and subsequently in grittier, but still witty, roles as a bridge to more challenging repertoire for audience members who already knew their work. Their declared aim was to get O’Rowe’s Howie the Rookie onto the PICT season. In the eventuality, they didn’t score as highly as they might have done, not really having got to grips with the political and cultural connections between Glasgow and Ulster, thrown up by their choice of work for the Tron and, whilst at first sight perfectly sound, their PICT strategy was undermined by the actors in question being rather too old for the O’Rowe piece for which energised and dangerous youth is a requirement.  The students had become so caught up in their overall plan that they’d neglected the necessary fundamental engagement with the play-texts.


In the final analysis, this assessment task proved suitable to a much wider variety of students than it had first been intended for and the opportunities for the development of transferable skills it provided were particularly useful in opening up the subject to non subject specialists and providing students from a wide variety of backgrounds with a meeting place for mutually supportive and collaborative work. [For the student of literature, the exercise of programming plays for a theatre could translate into programming speakers for a Literary Festival.]


Some Fundamental Points about Programming

In order to undertake the assessment task the students must research not just suitable plays, but the cultural and economic frameworks within which those texts will sit – taking due note of the limited availability of some commercially sensitive information.

Who does your theatre serve? (audience demographics, catchment area)
How do they aim to serve them? (mission statement)
How successful are they at what they do? (profile from previous 5-10 years of operation – commercial confidentiality, financial profile – sources of funding, sponsorship, size of subscription income, the competition – other theatres, their size and proximity, profile)
Resources available – numbers of auditoria, size, flexibility, personnel (artistic director, designer, resident company, outreach team – youth, TIE company – their tastes and successes), production budgets (estimated on previous years’ productions), peripheral services (café/restaurant, gallery space,)
Programming profile – What is the pattern to their year – is there a Christmas show?  Are there slots devoted to works with guaranteed schools and college curriculum tie-in?  Do they do new work?  If so, where and at what time? Do they already do Irish/Scottish theatre?  If so, what plays and how often?  How did the theatre promote them – tone of press releases?  Were they well received?
What are your ambitions for the season?  New theatre?  A range of work?  Financial security? Within the comfort zone for the subscribers’ tastes?  Pushing at the edges of that zone – developing those tastes? Bringing in new audiences – where from? Are there special events that could provide tie-ins?  Marketing – what is the ‘hook’ for your season? Anniversary of Playwright X’s death, play Y premiered at this theatre 50 years ago – is this an artistic hook or a marketing hook?
How do your plays fit together?  In commercial terms/in artistic terms? What do they say, intentionally or subconsciously, about Ireland, its people, their hopes/fears/ambitions?  Do they reinforce stereotypes or refute them?  Are they consciously seeking to ‘voice the nation?’  As an exercise consider the Edinburgh International Festival’s drama commissioning choices for 2005 – looking at the multi-cultural nature of C21st Scotland. Special ticketing deals, a good example to look at here is the 2005 Edinburgh Festival Synge Cycle deal – had novelty (first time all plays together), timing (advertised as a ‘long-held artistic commitment’ on the part of the director), opportunity (festival goers more likely to commit to whole cycle/combination of pieces), variety (mix of well known and lesser known pieces, full-length and one act), celebrity (influential canon playwright, ‘hot’ company.
Are you going to need to ‘explain’ them through platform events, etc.?  Are they likely to prove controversial?

All the information gleaned from the above feeds into the questions below:

Programming – the basic questions you need to ask yourself

  1. What is your theatre like?  Size, number of auditoria, technical facilities, peripheral spaces (restaurant, art gallery), community/educational involvement (Youth Theatre), audience demographics, ticketing policies, funding structure, surrounding community make-up?
  2. Has your theatre done this type of work before?  If so, when?  How well was it received (by critics, at the box-office)?  Is there a spin-off to be had here, for example, latest play by previous popular playwright? Re-appearance by popular actor/s in similar roles.  If you’re planning a themed season is there a ‘hook’?
  3. What is the competition like in the vicinity?  What Irish theatre might they have done recently and how was that received?
  4. Why are you thinking of doing this type of work now?  Is there a significant date/anniversary at hand? Has there been community demand?
  5. What are the artistic imperatives behind your choices? Is this work an ambition/particular enthusiasm of the artistic director, theatre board, leading actors.
  6. What influences your choice of pieces within a typical season – what is the mix? Classics (on the school curriculum), new writing (specialist funding, smaller venue? Mission statement), solid commercial successes (age according to venue – smaller the venue the longer it takes hits to filter down to them).  Which pieces are ‘bankers’, which are ‘builders’ – aiming to develop the audience base as well as to provide a good night out for the existing clientele?  Which pieces will scare the living daylights out of your subscription ticket holders – and do they constitute a significant percentage of your income?  Are they amenable to being ‘stretched’?
  7. The economics – what will it cost to stage?  Size of cast? Guest artists or resident company or amateur such as Youth Theatre? Settings, costume design, production values?  Can you get sponsorship, commercial tie-ins?
  8. Where can you place the work to best effect within the artistic year? Are you going to risk ‘bunching’ works or is it best to spread them out?
  9. What is the whole package you can work around this?

An artist’s agent is obliged to seek the best deal for their client.  If you’re a small venue seeking to produce a very recent hit play, particularly if there are larger producing houses within a certain radius, you’ll likely be refused if the agent feels they can get their client a larger fee from a larger venue.  It’s like performing rights only gradually being released for amateur performance.  On the other hand hosting a try-out before a West-End transfer, or co-producing with other houses far enough away to pool resources but not deplete either’s audience base, can boost both the resources available for any given production and the overall reputation of the venue/company.

May 2006