Dr. Petronilla Whitfield’s professional output

Deconstructing and re-constructing meaning towards the performative action: supporting acting students with dyslexia in their acting of Shakespeare (Arts as Research in Teaching and Learning International Conference 2016)

Conference – Published 1st Sep 16


This paper presents two paths of enquiry. It begins with exploring the concept of integrating drawing with the study of Shakespeare’s text for acting students with dyslexia and then proceeds to question what might be the overall goals of the pedagogue within actor training in Higher Education.The use of art and drawing as an intrinsic method of process towards performance is rare in actor training, or within the disciplines of acting. This paper shares some of the author’s research findings when investigating strategies of pedagogical support for 2nd year acting degree students assessed as dyslexic who are challenged in their reading and acting of Shakespeare. In particular, it focusses on a deviation from traditional acting processes wherein the written text is the singular working source, into the utilisation of drawing of visual symbols as an additional tool, to facilitate aspects of understanding, speaking, memorisation and interpretation of Shakespeare’s text.   In his book The Year of the King (1985) the actor Anthony Sher showcases his drawings which fuel his imaginative construction of his physical appearance as Richard III for his performance in Shakespeare’s play. This cross-disciplinary approach to acting is unique and idiosyncratic to Sher’s multiplicities of creative talents. In the research study reported in this paper, the dyslexic acting student participants use various types of drawing to interpret not only the emotional feelings of their character extrapolated from Shakespeare’s text, but also to directly signify the words, their meaning and arising associations.  This paper will share examples of these drawings and an analysis of some of their differing functions, shifting with each individual.  Although often appearing child-like and non-aesthetic, this belies their complex role in channelling expression and specificity of word into the acting of Shakespeare’s image-laden language. This paper emphasises the need for enhancing inclusivity in the teaching of acting students, developing opportunities in the curricula that can nurture additional modes of literacy. Prior has highlighted the lack of disseminated pedagogical knowledge in actor training, stating that teachers should ask themselves ’how do we teach more effectively?’(Prior 2013). As a research methodology, action research provides a focus for improving pedagogical directions through trial, observation and reflection with an aim of developing emancipatory practice (Kemmis 2006). The methodology utilised in this study is one of case study interlinked with action research, harnessing the voice of the participants, allowing the research directions to be both participant and researcher-led. Action research supports a symbiosis of enquiry; the teacher testing her own pedagogical practice in a synergised relationship with the participants’ reflection on themselves.  Finally, the author questions where the educator’s role as the enabler in promoting a sense of self-discovery and autonomy in their students, might depart from the role of the vocational trainer for the professional acting world.