Drama in the Commission Model

“The Commission Model, while it provides a bridge between school learning and a communities of practice approach of real professional learning, leaves the world of drama and joins the world beyond the drama frame and school curriculum. The difficulties of this approach in a school environment are all too obvious. It becomes a form of simulation that uses authentic inputs as part of an educational training model.”

These are the words of John Carroll (from Drama Education with Digital Technlogy). He is wrong. It is a trap which people fall into, confusing the Commission Model with simulation exercises or “business studies.”

In her article, “Contexts for Active Learning,” Dorothy outlined four different drama methods or contexts: process drama; Mantle of the Expert; Rolling Role; and The Commission Model. She stated: “in reality the base building block of all four models is that of agreeing to work through invented and agreed fiction”. In the case of the Commission Model – where there is a real client and real commission – this seems at first sight to be paradoxical. If the commission is real, how can it be drama?

 

Dorothy stated that Mantle of the Expert works through “dramatic explorations of seminal episodes”. The same is the case in the Commission Model. In the Hexham Hospital Garden commission, there was a client – the hospital itself, that wanted ideas for the garden design; but beyond this, the clients were the “citizens of Hexham”, who might use the garden in the future. And Dorothy created a series of “dramatic explorations” and imaginary encounters with these “clients.” She was setting up a “range of focussed encounters with 'otherness' - not only role but all the shape-shifting dramatic conventions by which others come into focus”.

 

In her diary for the Hexham commission, she describes one such “episode.” Teachers in role were seated, frozen in effigy. Each of them was holding a picture of someone, cut from a magazine: a bricklayer, a man planting seeds, a woman in a suit, etc. Below each picture there was a sign: “a visitor”, “ward manager”, “porter”, and so on. 

At first, students stood in groups around the different “roles” (which remained frozen as effigy), discussing how best they could approach talking to them about their plans for the garden. After a time, Dorothy turned over the signs, to reveal some writing on the other side. These were “attitude statements” for the different roles; and they were “ambiguous to say the least – of the surgeon, ‘Hands are marvellous’; of the friend, ‘It’s hard living in a new place – I’m glad we moved’; of the ward manager, ‘It’s lovely to have a quiet moment’; of the cleaner, ‘Sorry Mary is leaving, we’ll miss her’...” The students now had to interpret the statements and take them into consideration, as they continued to discuss how to talk to the person.

Awakening the self-spectator

At one point, the teachers in role were activated to speak, and to comment on the students’ plans, as if they were the person in the picture, and had overheard them talking.

This was a strategy which fostered the development of what Dorothy called the “self-spectator.” It was a shift in the relationship to the “other.” As the team listened to the roles’ words, they could see themselves from the outside - as others saw them.

 

In drama, Dorothy observed, we “can be spectators of ourselves in ways often denied in a life situation, because we can distort time to give opportunity for reflection to be encountered” (1).

The episode is also an example of “the emergence of reflective monitoring during the work, rather than discussion afterwards”. In other words, it was built in to the “task,” through the switch in point-of-view. “This monitoring and reflection were particularly noticeable from the beginning of the commission,” Dorothy stated. Each task “had its individual ‘otherness’ because it was organised to be reflective”. The conventions she used created a “range of focussed encounters with 'otherness'”.

 

Arguably, the idea of the “client in the head” is also a means of building reflection into each task, and awakening the “self-spectator”: it means there is a continual awareness of the needs of the “other.” In part, this becomes a pressure to maintain high standards of work. 

But it is more than this: it is a way of developing “stance” and “investment” – a way of being, or caring, in relation to the “other,” that is built into the whole process, and central to it.

As Dorothy observed, “This is using role work at its most complex” – for both teachers and students. The “episode” incorporated a number of Dorothy’s “33 conventions” for dramatic action – which can all be seen as ways of creating “focussed encounters with 'otherness'”, the “shape-shifting dramatic conventions by which others come into focus”.

You can find another example of the use of conventions in the Hexham Garden commission here.

© MAT / WEST MIDLANDS MANTLE OF THE EXPERT NETWORK, 2020

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