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“We know what, but we don't know how…”

Agreeing how a drama will end before you begin

Dorothy Heathcote argued that young people should know and agree how a drama will end, before it begins:

Now you may not agree with this, you must do what you want, but I always show people the end of something. I never work on, “We don't know what's going to happen.” What I work on is: we know what, but we don't know how. That to me is far more important. If we know what, we stop rushing towards it, and we stay slower at working out how it shall be.

She gave an example of this. She was working with a group of young people in Alberta, Canada, who said they wanted a plane crash drama. They took on the role/frame of people in a remote, snow-bound area in the north of Canada, who were testing electrical equipment in cold temperatures.


They agreed they would be the first and only people who would know about the crash when it happened; they would hear a transmission from the plane, in the last seconds before it crashed, on one of the radios they were testing.

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The group gave Dorothy the responsibility of making the “black box” recording, which consisted of the sound of engines; the noises of food being served; and then a report by the navigator that he had lost contact with the communications tower.


He’s lost contact, but he’s very, very calm. And then the pilot is discussing, “It’s a complete whiteout out there.” And just at that point, there’s an almighty rushing noise, and nothing. And that’s all.

When the group came back together the next day, they first listened to the black box.

So I've got my black box. We know it's a crash; we know when that black box comes into our drama, we heard the plane go down. What I can't say is how. So I say, “When we’re busy in all this testing, how do we want it to be, that we pick up this noise?”

They say, “Well, one of us, one of us should hear it, and make everybody come and listen. And they can't get it again. [Because obviously, once the plane’s down, you can't hear anything.] And we'll have to try and believe it.”

A girl took on the role of the person who would hear the transmission; and Dorothy said she would find a moment in the drama to turn the recording on.

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So then I have to make the contract: “Do you want to know when I'm going to switch it on?” And she says: “No.”


“Do you mean I'm responsible for the point at which the tape comes on?” She says: “Yes.” …


“Alright, well, I promise you I won't do it until you're really deep in your testing of your washing machines and so on.” So the black box goes down, and we have the episode of getting immersed in washing machines. … And we get very, very deeply immersed. So the second hour, you see, is taken up with deliberately not hearing a black box. … And they keep looking, and I say, “Do you want me to - ?”

“No, not yet, not yet, not yet.” Because it's only when, by their will, they're are deeply involved, that the black box will happen.

So I play the tape. They've already heard it, they know exactly what it's got on. They've heard it twice. They could have heard it 10 times, it wouldn't have mattered. And when it happens, the girl - this is what I mean by this stumble on authenticity.

The girl simply puts her pen down. [Long pause] “Did you hear anything then?” And the kid said, “No.”

“I'm sure I heard something, like an engine.”

Somebody over there says. “I think I heard something. What was it?”

“I don't know.”

“Try again.”

“Well, I know I've not moved the station, but I'm not picking anything up. But they said something about a whiteout.”

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Everybody’s stopped, and they gathered round. They’re as near to a plane crash as they'll ever get. At least I hope they’ll ever get.

“But what happened? What did you hear?”

“Well, I thought I heard - it sounded like serving lunch.”

Now they've all heard this. I played it at the beginning of the hour. So they all know what's in it. But they are determined not to have heard it, which is exactly right. And they’re in a terrible dilemma. Only one person can be fairly certain they picked something up. It's a terrible responsibility to try and get Air Canada and ask them if they've got a plane missing. You see what I mean by the quality of work?

(From the unpublished transcript of training event for teachers at UCE on 9 May 1992.)

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