To help non–theatre majors get into the minds of playwrights, Gillian McNally, MFA, uses the Mantle of the Expert exercise—with a daytime talk show twist.
Professor of Theatre Education, University of Northern Colorado, Greeley
MFA in Drama and Theatre for Youth, BFA in Acting
When she began teaching theatre education, Gillian McNally was surprised to find that many of her colleagues were not leveraging teaching techniques from the field of theatre itself. “Why do we just lecture and use traditional strategies when we have so many tools in the creative drama arsenal?” McNally wondered.
Never one to settle for the status quo, McNally decided to flip the script on theatre education in her own courses at the University of Northern Colorado in Greeley. “One of my goals is to use experiential learning so students can perform in-depth analysis and develop rich knowledge of the content,” she says. “Drama is meant to be experienced and not just read. You have to see it, you have to feel it, and you have to put it into your body to aptly critique it.”
To that end, she began looking for ways to employ the same visual, auditory, and kinesthetic approaches to coursework that thespians use to create an engaging production. One of her favorites is an approach learned while pursuing her MFA in drama and theatre for youth, called Mantle of the Expert (see sidebar).
Here, too, she has applied her own creative interpretation—taking on the role of beloved daytime TV personality Ellen DeGeneres and inviting students to sit down for an interview.
“Drama is meant to be experienced and not just read. You have to see it, you have to feel it, and you have to put it into your body to aptly critique it. My challenge is to use drama as a teaching strategy to bring the curriculum in this course to life.”— Gillian McNally, MFA
Course: THEA 130 Introduction to the Theatre
Course description: For non-majors. A survey of Theatre practice and its effects upon modern Theatre. The roles of the actors, directors, choreographers, technicians, designers, and critics will be explored through experiential learning.
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Lesson: Using The Ellen DeGeneres Show in Mantle of the Expert
In her Introduction to Theatre course, McNally employs the Mantle of the Expert strategy in a unit on realism that covers such playwrights as Arthur Miller and Tennessee Williams. “For the most part, realist writers wrote about their own experiences,” McNally says. “So I want to expose students to playwrights’ biographies in addition to their plays. This helps students connect the plays to the playwrights’ lives as well as the larger cultural context. Students come to understand the social, cultural, and political landscape—all of which are important to what I want them to understand about realism as genre in theatre.”
But hers is not a stodgy, dry discussion. McNally uses her theatre background to make this a memorable moment for students, who “show what they know” during a live, staged episode of The Ellen DeGeneres Show—with McNally in the role of Ellen DeGeneres.
An Overview of Mantle of the Expert
In this approach, originally developed by Dorothy Heathcote (a pioneer of drama education), students are cast as experts in a particular subject and asked to fulfill a task assigned by the instructor. For example, while pursuing her MFA, McNally used this technique with elementary school students learning about biology in an arts-integrated classroom.
“I put second graders on a panel as expert botanists and asked them questions about photosynthesis,” she says. By embodying interesting characters, having a purposeful task to complete, and collaborating in teams, these young students were able to achieve learning outcomes in a highly engaged way.
Since then, she has used the technique with great success with students from grade school through college, across many different content areas and disciplines. In her courses at UNC, she uses the Mantle of the Expert to help students see connections between the lives of realist playwrights and the scripts they produced.
The results bring out a lot of smiles, but, more importantly, the preparation required helps students learn the subject matter thoroughly. Here, McNally shares the steps she uses to guide her students through this Mantle of the Expert assignment.
Create the cast list
McNally first breaks her class of 70 students into 5 teams of 14. Each team is then assigned a realist playwright and asked to select which of the following roles they would like to play in The Ellen DeGeneres Show presentation.
The playwright: This student (there is only one per team) must prepare to be interviewed in front of the class.
The dramaturgs: These students work together to conduct research and create one or two questions to ask the playwright, acting as expert audience participants.
The actors: These students work together to prepare and perform a short scene from one of that playwright’s important works.
McNally allows students to choose the role that aligns with their comfort level. “In a class of 70 people, I will have 15 to 20 who are high school theatre nerds who feel comfortable getting up and performing in front of the class,” she says. “My challenge was to involve the other students in an experiential way without forcing them get up and talk in front of 70 people.”
Let the dramaturgy begin
Students begin their in-class research with their textbooks, which include basic information on their playwright such as biographies, writing styles, and major contributions. McNally also presents each group with a folder she has assembled on their assigned playwright. These folders provide a deeper dive into that playwright’s life and works, as well as the social and cultural context in which they were writing. She also allows students to use their smartphones if they want to conduct further research online.
McNally leaves their discovery process open ended, letting the students choose the direction of their research. Her main requirements are that they conclude knowing the playwright’s “greatest hits” as well as the cultural and political context that led to those works.
Encourage use of costumes
To get into character, McNally dons Ellen’s signature outfit—blazer, jeans, and Keds—and dances to the theme music at the start of each “show.” She also offers students 10 extra credit points if the playwrights and actors also dress the part—and most take her up on it. “Since many of my students are not theatre majors, the opportunity to be creative can be a rare treat,” she says. “It is amazing what college students can come up with. Moustaches, hats, dresses, and suits are borrowed from friends or dorm room closets to bring these scenes to life.”
Run the interviews—and have fun
On the day of the “show,” students are given the first 15 minutes to reconvene in their groups for last-minute preparation. Then, McNally cues the Ellen theme music, does her dance, and invites the first playwright to take a seat on set.
For each team, she spends about five minutes interviewing the student playing the part of the playwright, using her own questions that target the main ideas students should know about the authors. Then she opens up to the “experts” in the audience, and the dramaturgs ask their questions. Then “Ellen” runs the “clip” from one of the playwright’s famous works, performed live (with script in hand) by the students who elected to be actors. Those performances last less than five minutes each.
McNally points out three key takeaways from this project. First, students are learning theatre terminology (such as dramaturg). Second, students are engaging critical-thinking skills as they connect playwrights’ biographical information and cultural background to their famous plays. And third, students gain experience with important social skills, such as collaboration, problem solving as a team, and coming to consensus. “These are important workforce skills for students,” McNally says. “I also believe that these are important for learning anything, since all knowledge is socially constructed.”
The greatest testament to the efficacy of this strategy, says McNally, is that education majors tell her they plan to use her approach in their classrooms. “I know I’m doing something right if future teachers are saying, ‘This is the kind of engaged learning I want to use,’” she says.