Subject Spotlight - Drama Learning at DCSZ

Do you truly understand what to learn about drama? Do you think drama is only to talk on the stage? After reading this article, you will have a fresh angle and perspective on drama subject. 

What goes on in our DCSZ classrooms? How do our expert teachers plan and deliver lessons that help students reach their full academic potential?

This time we interviewed Mr Ben Wills, our Drama teacher, who gave us some insights into the Drama Studies at our college. Mr Wills has recently joined DCSZ from this academic year. 


Hello, Mr Wills! Could you please introduce yourself and your teaching background to us? 

I’ve been teaching for 16 years, 13 of which have been international. I’m from New Zealand and I graduated with a bachelor’s degree in theatre and English literature before going on to study education and become a teacher. Before coming to Suzhou, I taught in a diverse range of countries including Japan, Cambodia, The UAE, China (Ningbo), and Vietnam from primary to high school. I found my passion for drama in high school. Drama is not about just standing on stage and acting; it’s about empathy, confidence, communication, and interaction with people. The focus on improving these skills is what I believe makes drama such an important subject for all students to study.

Could you briefly introduce the courses you teach at DCSZ?

I teach students from Key Stage 3 to Key Stage 5. For students in Key Stage 3, the main goal of drama courses is to teach the basic elements of the subject and lay a foundation for future study. They need to learn the history of drama; be exposed to different types of drama, such as stage plays, mime, puppetry, and film; basic theoretical ideas, such as the use of conflict and tension in stories; and how to communicate effectively with their audience using their bodies and voices. For example, Year 7 students are currently creating short plays using a variety of different spaces, sound effects, voices, and conflicts, to demonstrate that they understand how these ideas are used in a performance. In Year 8, students are working on using facial expressions and gesture to create a mime performance.

Students who choose to study drama in Key Stage 4 follow the IGCSE drama course. During the two years of the IGCSE course, students will create and act in a range of different performances as well as learn more about the history of drama and how productions are devised, designed,  rehearsed and performed. KS4 students complete three assessed performances: an individual performance of a soliloquy or monologue taken from a play; a group performance of an extract from another play; and a devised performance where I give students a starter or stimulus and they must use that as a starting point for the creation of their own play. In addition to these performances, IGCSE students also sit a final exam. This exam focuses on students explaining their understanding of how drama is produced by answering questions about how they would stage a play, direct fellow actors, or play a specific role.

Finally, students in Key Stage 5 can choose to study IB Theatre. This course has no exam, but instead focuses on students doing personal research into different dramatic traditions, theorists, and forms of theatre, and then using this knowledge to create performances of their own. Students of IB Theatre work both individually and in groups to create a range of performances where they work as actors, directors, devisers, and designers. In this course, students also begin to learn more about the ‘science’ of drama; the theories and techniques that performers and creators use to produce high-quality, impactful theatre.

Thanks for the introduction. Please tell us about a unit or lesson that you have taught recently. 

Take Year 9 as an example. Now the topic that they are studying is characterization. Their goal for this unit is to perform as a character that is recognisably different from their ‘normal’ self. They need to create a character by researching and imagining their different attributes, for example, the voice, physicality, and behaviour of this character. They then need to show these attributes when they perform as that character on stage. They even need to understand and speak with the accent or dialect of this character. 

After their performance, other students will give them feedback to tell them how believable they were. In this way, students can show an understanding of drama and thus give each other practical feedback to help them become better performers.

What subject knowledge or skills did students learn from this unit? 

In addition to all of the practical drama knowledge and skills students can learn from this unit, the most vital thing is that they have the opportunity to think more deeply about themselves. What makes you ‘you’? You need to understand who you are and what makes you that way before you can decide how to change and improve yourself.  

Beyond the subject learning, how did this also prepare students to Live Worldwise?

For me, I think a key part of drama class is learning empathy. With empathy, students can better understand other people and adapt to other cultures. They can stand in other people’s shoes and thus understand why they do things differently. They will also gain a more global perspective from this because they need to research other cultures if they’re going to realistically perform as someone from another culture. 

Interestingly, many third culture kids (which most of our students are), are very good at this as they already do something like this in their everyday life. For example, one of my Korean students told me that he acts like an American when he talks to Americans but like a Korean when interacting with other Koreans. Being able to fluidly adapt to different cultures like this is a key part of an international education, and of being worldwise.

What strategies did you use to support students’ learning in this unit? 

Key Stage 3 students, since they are still young and maybe some of them suffer from stage fright, are usually put in a group to do a project. In this way, they gain support from their peers. Moreover, the performance is step-by-step, firstly in front of their classmates, then from a small group to a bigger one, like performing in front of their year group or another audience on stage.  However, some students are still afraid of speaking English or performing on stage. In this case, they will be placed in a group with some more confident students from the same country. The confident students will lead them, and they can talk in their mother tongue before translating into English. It is a slow-release process, with step-by-step actions to helping them become more confident about being on stage.

In Key Stage 4 and 5, there is much more individual work. This is because by this stage students are more confident, and they definitely have an interest in the subject or maybe even want to pursue a career related to drama. Working individually allows them to have a practical chance to show their skills and understanding.

What can students do to keep improving their Drama skills?

I would suggest that they should take more opportunities to get involved in drama, for example in productions here at DCSZ. They also need to think about the skills a professional actor possesses, for example being able to sing and use their voice effectively. What’s more, they should practice physical skills: this could be done through sports, activities like yoga or martial arts, or learning to dance. By doing this, they will build and increase their physical awareness which can be transferred to their acting. For example, if I know a student does judo, I know that they will be good at falling on stage and observing others around them. As you know, in judo, practitioners learn to fall safely, and they need to observe their teachers and those around them to perform techniques correctly. Finally, it takes lots of energy to perform on stage. With more exercise, students can not only gain improved physical awareness, but also get good physical strength and endurance and thus become more flexible and professional.


Thanks to Mr Wills for introducing his recent units and explaining what drama learning is like at DCSZ.