(free teaching resource) The basics of the elements of drama

Preamble:

Some time ago a student who's name history has forgotten was being taught drama in high school by a very skilled teacher. The teacher could have been lecturing at a university somewhere, or running his own theatre company; but he enjoyed working at a high school too much.

One day the very skilled teacher handed the student back one of his submitted drama papers, saying as he did: “You would have got more marks if you’d mentioned the elements of drama.”

“Yes, but the question never asked me to display my knowledge of the elements of drama” replied the student indignantly.

“And the exam at the end of the year won’t be that specific either, but it’s what they’ll want,” replied the teacher.

When it comes to drama there is a surprising amount of information the markers want but won’t ask for in the question, hence i write this document.

Feel free print off and use this document in any classroom or private setting worldwide.

Elements of drama

These are some of the basic elements of drama, though there are many more. The usefulness of these elements will become apparent, for they are the building blocks of theatre, mentioning them in an essay will help give your writing depth.

Tension

Tension is intangible and very hard to define, but you need it to make theatre interesting, many of the other drama elements are used to create tension. Off the top of my head I’d say it’s the most commonly used dramatic element. Tension often comes from conflict, it gives your piece spice and makes it interesting.

It may be said then that a piece of theatre is dull because it has little or no tension.

Tension can be created through non flamboyant costumes involving blacks, hoods, revealing clothing, textures, robes and such or shocking the audience, Tension can be built by dimming the lights.

You can build tension by showing intimacy between characters, usually through dialogue, body language or physical proximity.

Let it be said that tension lives where the audience can sense ongoing, latent or building conflict.

Focus

Where ever you want the audience to look is where you will work to draw their focus. A skilled director thus knows he can manipulate the audience’s focus by using amongst other things: lighting, stage props and design, the dialogue and the actor's body language and point of view.

Rhythm

Rhythm can be very useful in building tension. We all know movie soundtracks use rhythmic music to build suspension. Less known is that when dialogue is spoken to a beat, a pace if you will, rhythm is made. As you can imagine when actors move in time they can create rhythm.

Breaking the rhythm suddenly will shock the audience.

Conflict

Conflict is not merely a disagreement between characters. Forces of nature may go into conflict with each other, a group or person’s struggle against their own character or environment may generate conflict.

Bittersweet scenes generate conflict of emotions, but characteristic dual personality can cause conflicting emotions in the audience, particularly if the director has made us empathize with a really evil or negative character.

Very few people if any can create tension in a story line without using conflict of some kind.

A character may find conflict facing addiction, mental illness, religion, humiliation, his innermost beliefs, love and most base emotions.

It has been said a character can either find conflict in himself, society or the environment, I actually call bullshit on that idea. I happen to think a creative enough director can create conflict from some many more areas.

Mood

Mood. It’s sort of the atmosphere of your piece of theatre. Often an essay question will ask you something like: “what mood you were you trying to create in your piece?”

There’s really no right or wrong answer to that question, they just want to know that you know what makes the mood of the piece.

Mood is affected by the character’s acting choices.

Mood is influenced by the director’s choice of:

Lighting

where lighting is concerned and you think of constructing a certain mood, ask yourself:

Are you going to put a spot lighting to draw focus? What coloured light would show what you want to be shown? How bright should that light be? what mood will be created by making those choices?

Sound

Where sound is concerned, when building mood ask yourself:

Does your piece have any (ambient) back ground noise? How loud is it? Are the lyrics symbolic of anything relating to the story? When does the sound come in to the piece? what volume are you using? Does the sound fade in or abruptly start? how much does the level of base effect the mood?

Costume

Yes, the costumes have relevance to the story line but forget that for a moment and ask yourself how they could influence the mood of the piece. Are the clothes bright? Could that could affect the level of tension in your piece? Perhaps the clothes could betray an imbalance of status and power between the characters. Is it more important that the costume complies with characterisation then mood creation? are the clothes symbolic in any way?

Symbols

Symbols can be hidden or blindingly obvious, having a story full of symbols makes the narrative seem to have more levels and therefore more depth, which will make the person reading or watching (or marking) your work really think you put a lot of work into the story. Symbols stink of depth.

Set design can have symbols, costume can have symbols with in them. Think of using lighting, green lighting for instance can symbolise envy and purple indicates power. Remember as the director of a piece of art nothing is wrong and you are only limited by your creativity.

Levels

Levels can be used to show higher or lower social status between characters. Varying physical levels in set design on a stage can add tension, or compensate for lack of space. Levels can be used to draw the audience’s focus away from different parts of the stage. This can be useful if you want an actor to slip off stage for a sneaky costume change.

Form and style

I should explain the difference between presentational and representational theatre before I go in to form and style.

Representational style theatre is more like real life than presentational theatre. The actors usually move and talk like everyday people, they generally try to make the performance seem as life like as possible but they never can achieve this fully because at some level you know it’s make believe. An extreme form of representational theatre is a play set in a hotel being performed in a hotel, as the actors move to different rooms the play is set in the audience are guided in to those rooms to watch each scene unfold.

Presentational style theatre on the other hand usually makes less effort to be realistic and more effort to put on a show, so you can expect probably more poetry in the dialogue and corny gag jokes that you wouldn’t normally hear in real life very often. An extreme example of presentational theatre is watching a solitary old man covered in body paint performing a one man interpretive dance on stage. Nobody could say that’s realistic, but that’s not the point of the piece. Shakespeare is presentational (how many people do you know who speak in poetry?)

Form referrers to how the piece is written. Ask yourself: What language is used? how descriptive is it? is the syntax unusual? what language devices are used? are any poetic elements used? Does the script read like a piece of southern gothic literature or more like a documentary?

Style referrers to how the piece is put on the stage, is it representational or presentational? (note there are many more "styles", but at some level each individual piece of theatre fits on the spectrum between presentational and representational.)

A way to remember the relationship between form and style is the famous Lachlan Ormond quote: “form is on the page, style is on the stage.”

Exercise questions:

From the information above answer the following questions:

A) Name some movies which are more presentational then representational

B) To what extent does the language in a piece of theatre influence how the piece is performed?

C) How much influence does the director have on how presentational or representational the piece is?

D) Does form effect style of style effect form?

E) Define form and style in your own words

Lastly Remember that theatre is art; there are no right or wrong answers, no one can say your vision as a director is incorrect or wrong. However in an exam situation they do want you display your knowledge of the art and the techniques involved. Bear in mind that boring less creative answers will get more marks if they happen to be worded and structured better.

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