Chamber Theatre

‘Exploring motivation at the moment of action’

Considerations regarding Robert Breen’s Chamber Theatre in drama teaching.

Luke Abbott President NATD

May 29th 2014

Some further thoughts about the use of CT in Heathcote’s dramatic inventions.

I have been meaning to work with the Chamber Theatre (CT) technique invented by Robert Breen (1) for some time now but have only used its processes sporadically in my teaching so far. Actually 43 years. Being oblivious to Breen’s concepts, until 1982, I learned with Dorothy Heathcote how CT worked. Even then I dismissed it, as a rather quaint way of dissecting texts such was my hubris at the time. It was not until I had to think through the structure of the programme for the advanced year 3 Drama Teacher’s courses with the Amman Summer School in 2012 organised by QERCD (2) in Ramallah Palestine, that it became horribly clear that I had yet again dismissed something of huge importance and significance too early. I do have this shocking habit I am afraid and this has cost me dear over the years. I have attempted, in a very rough way, to give an example of how CT might be used in any classroom from EYFS to adult. (Obviously a better way for readers to understand more is to tackle the book written by Breen in the first place!)

So what is CT in a nutshell and why so significant to MoE? 

Robert Breen (3) coined the term in his unique treatise on the analysis of how writers and author’s manipulate (or facilitate) the reader’s dramatic imagination (4) as the reader begins to construct imaginary images triggered by the text in in use. Breen drew our attention to the conventions of western literature (both fictional and non-fictional) analysing so adeptly and originally, how the author’s voice in a written text format is ‘present’ throughout and how it is used in the infrastructure of the written form. He goes on to dissect the author’s voice into 2 functions.

  1. The benign observer’s voice as a description to the reader of the details to create a detailed image of the context or the ‘major or minor narrator’.
  2. The omniscient narrator who has the power to play many functions in the context and not all of it truthful. Charles Dickens in A Christmas Carol invented a great example of such a figurewith the ghosts from the past present and the future. All of whom were functioning as narrators in the text and in the later numerous film adaptations. These are examples of an omniscient narrator powerful and almost god-like with the power to lift as well as destroy.

Furthermore, I contend that if we use CT, we are able to delve deeper into these voices, constructed by the author/s for the reader to decipher. This enables us to be in a focussed psychological position more able to decode hidden dimensions hitherto invisible. Furthermore we can enter onto some of the subterranean levels of the text to generate multiple layers of meaning thus increasing our intrinsic emotional enjoyment of literature as well as understand the extrinsic structure that holds it all together.

If we are using MoE as a system for learning, then we will attempt to examine the context of the responsible team or enterprise, under construction and scrutiny, with a view to introducing a wider, relevant set of text(s) to deepen the participant’s understanding and provide significant levels of challenge in their learning. Up-scaling the demand, so to speak, on the intellectual emotional and cognitive powers of learners as a by product.

We see here, yet again, one of the invisible aspects of the teacher’s skills brought to light in the teachings of Dr Heathcote. We can begin the selection and choice of texts but such a process is subject to the experience and knowledge base of the teacher her/himself. How much reading have we done in our lives? What are the literary texts that have influenced us to bring to our classes, and what genres are we familiar with that can be harnessed to the learning journeys we create for children and young adults? This does not speak of how we as teachers have been trained. Rather it speaks of our life experiences that we bring in all its richness’s or tragedies that makes each teaching series unique. In other words we are at the mercy of our limitations as teachers in this respect. Heathcote managed to use and research the vast terrain of her her literary knowledge to select a text to fit the contexts under investigation. (For example she structured an ancient Welsh text, that for most people was completely unknown!) It is clear that this hidden dimension is critical in one of the main constructs she used within the process over time within MoE. I remember very clearly in many of the seminars I attended during my year long (and too short) Masters programme with her on the systems learning approach to MoE, hearing how the overall process needed both internal coherence and tightly sequenced within quite defined parameters. There would always be an enterprise (responsible team), a client who triggered to need for the imagined enterprise/responsible team to take action, tensions would become evident through the building of the day to day conditions and activities of working within the imagined enterprise to comply with the client’s demands or requests. These would form the basic ingredients, with endless possibilities for inventions by learners and leaders of learning (teachers etc.) that we all found ourselves struggling with. Then we discovered that within the working sequences other rhythms were very possible to incorporate. We discovered that we would always need a ‘map’ of some sort, maybe in three dimensional form, or a diagrammatic, model or in another representation of the environment under investigation. For example, the wolf enclosure and surrounding lands in an MoE concerning the re-introduction of wolves in the Scottish Highlands. Furthermore, during the events that followed, later on in the learning process, visitors could be invented in the sequence who would be disempowered to have any influence to interrogate the class, but rather be positioned as truthful ‘unknowing’ visitors from another country (Latvia perhaps) to learn the best ways the Scottish team coped with their challenge. (5) Further forwards in the sequence we could use a range of written text………..and apply CT to the chosen text/s, to challenge the learning of the class further. The question here is what sorts of texts would be possible to use with a class of year 9 students in an inner city environment that could be usefully brought to their learning around conservation of the lupus species in our Scottish Highlands MoE structure? It is a question that haunts me still, as such a choice relies on my inner resources as a human being as well as a teacher willing to research my knowledge and needs base in depth and breadth.

However, comfortingly, I have discovered that the choices for selection of text for CT can be as simple or as complex as needed, depending on the class, their interests, their capacity to be challenged, their reading skills, their willingness to tackle challenging texts together in collaboration and so on. In our Highland example, could I use an extract from the script of ‘An American Werewolf in London’? Or an extract from ‘Wolf Brother’ by Michelle Paver? Perhaps I might use a scientific extract from a technical book appropriate to the wolf agency, concerning the mating rituals of the wolves in Yellow Stone Park US, or maybe a poem……’Tyger Tyger’ by Blake for example………


An example of CT from an age gone by.

Consider this anonymous lullaby as an example of a simple text. I first heard the sung version in my early teens by my mother and grandmother when they used to rock my brother as a baby. My Nan, although from Antrim in Northern Ireland, was a devout Catholic believer. I have no idea if this belonged to a Catholic tradition or an Irish one. In working all over the UK, I have discovered that many people know a similar or very close version.

The lullaby goes like this and perhaps became a children’s song (6) along the way of history perhaps?

It seems to me that if we use Breen’s CT method, we have the possibility of interrogating the text above for hidden meanings, constructing inquiry questions creating further imagined compound images buried in the text.

A reader may ask if any of this is new? Well no, this concept is not new, but the implications for treating the text beyond inquiry and applying Breen’s technique is. Breen himself refers to CT as a technique rather than an art form. However, his elaborate details in the structured assertionsoffer drama and theatre practitioners’ new scope and perhaps new horizons in learning and teaching praxis. We might also remember that Sam Mendes used Breen’s method to construct a deeply moving and startlingly new staged version of ‘As I lay Dying’ by William Faulkner in the 1980’s. (7)

Returning to the text above however, from a straightforward ‘inquiry’ point of view, we have many angles to consider and questions worthy of attention that drive us to seek answers to the text’s current perplexing circumstance. We are, however, very lucky as the anonymous author gives us many clues in the use of the words invented, but for what purpose must remain in the pages of historical mystery.

Our investigating learners can begin to make connections through a diverse mode, (8) of matters outlined in the text which generate layers of meaning, through hypothesis and allied conjectures.

For example:

  • The singing/speaking figure is signed as addressing another (perhaps) very young figure in some manner or other. We have no idea if the being in question is actually present or if the figure is handling ‘rabbit skin’ as a representation of the child/being.
  • There is also the question about the length of time the ‘daddy’ has been currently absent, his current whereabouts, and the implications of obtaining a rabbit, perhaps trespassing on land not owned by him resulting in his apprehension by an authority perhaps or an enemy, depending on the period of history and social circumstance we are in.
  • Also, for what purpose will the rabbit skin be required to perform when, and if, the ‘daddy’ figure returns?
  • Do the weather conditions prevalent have anything to with the circumstances?
  • How cold/hot/wet/snowy etc. is the environment the figures inhabit?
  •  Is there the need for the rabbit skin’s warmth, softness or even camouflage?
  • Where is the ‘song’ being sung?
  • Is there a tune being used, either known by habit or culture or by momentary invention by the singer?
  • Is the child/baby in a crib or in the arms of a mother, mother substitute or currently elsewhere?
  • Are the figures in a dwelling of some sort or in the wild?
  •  For what reason is the song being sung?
  • What is the health of the child/baby/figure being addressed?
  • Are the people portrayed ‘on the run’ perhaps escaping to a new place from a place of danger?
  • To which period of history does this context belong to?    
  • Beyond the singer/speaker are all people referred to currently alive?
  • Is the singer/speaker alone?                                                                                                         

However Breen warns us (9), considerations such as these, however intriguing, have the beguiling but alienating effect that emotionally isolates us and captivates us in the singular realm of intellectual engagement. In addition, the inquiry process alone distances us further from the text in the sense that we focus on the author’s creation itself, almost as in a police interrogation and keeps us in an objective ‘outside of the text’ position.  Perhaps, metaphorically looking through a window into the world of the text.

However, if drama is applied in any of its forms, the very nature of dramatic inquiry takes us emotionally closer to the edge of meanings, bizarrely through the very distancing devices within questioning, inquiry and solutions orientated pedagogy dramaturges are familiar with. Many writers have asserted similar theoretical positions, Brecht(10), Ericsson (11) alongside Nora Morgan and Juliana Saxton (12) and of course Heathcote (13).

But let us look at the text in another way, and this time from within. We can use any dramatic device of course to in order to bring the text closer to our emotional being. Breen’s techniques help us here, if we apply his beguilingly simple technique using Chamber Theatre. To do this we ask three simple questions (14):

  1. ‘Who might we select/invent to utter words in the section of text under scrutiny?
  2. In what ways can the words written be allocated to protagonists and be uttered so that we might have the opportunity to decipher the point of view the speaker(s) is aligned to, truthful to the context?
  3. Which of the chosen ‘voices’ could represent the function of the omniscient or objective narrator truthful to the context ?’

Using the text of the lullaby, suppose we invent a script in which we keep to the cardinal rule that no words can be tampered with (15), added or edited in any way, as the author’s creation must remain as written and therefore respected. In this way too, the new creators, in this case drama students building on the text, have the opportunity to investigate the questions as an ensemble. Such a process creates the conditions where the divergent is uppermost (Ken Robinson RSA Animate) and the learning will happen in groups.

‘Where great learning for growth is possible.’ Dr Ken Robinson

As investigations become more complex with the connections being invented to create the holding form, (Witkin) convergence will be necessary.

The investigators have to agree a solution to the main questions as above-who might represent the narrator (in either objective or omniscient form). Secondly, which protagonist, true to the context and invented from a variety of dramatic forms, might utter the words? Finally, to decide in situ what point of view is expressed and by whom.

An example

In the following CT example, the points of view can only be demonstrated by the space generated between people, the timbre of the words used as well as the power and pace they are uttered. It is only through drama that this is possible as no written explanation can convey the complexity of the moment of the ‘now’. This is drama’s unique ingredient as an art form and cannot be replicated in any other way. In this manner, authors create drama in the reader’s imagination in the texts designed as such. However, applying CT techniques the dramatic imaginings come to life for the story to be seen/shown and brought into the social setting of communal art. Otherwise the story remains in the mind of the reader of course. Breen’s technique and other allied dramatic procedures elevate this private individualised meaning making process to the shared social one.

Now perhaps we can begin to understand how Dr Heathcote in the 1950’s and 60’s began to apply and incorporate CT technique to her formidable pioneering educational practices. CT and Breen’s allied theoretical framework examining points of view for example and representational concepts in texts, showing the story as opposed to just telling the story, began to tackle and perhaps, answer many of her emerging quandaries concerning the universal nature of theatre and drama forms. Here in the one domain of Chamber Theatre, was a technique that could unify context drama, process drama, theatre form and theatre for performance, in the intimacy of a studio/classroom/workshop.

As history has demonstrated, for Heathcote, this was only a beginning to her application of the diverse forms of theatre and drama later to be incorporated into Mantle of the Expert. As many who attempt the fathoming of her techniques, methods and inventions, we find out to our cost, isolating one small aspect of her genius and claiming to know how her work in entirety, is deeply fallacious. Her work is an amalgam of many inventions. Like any great artist, her emerging collective techniques would be applied as if from a shimmering dramatic based kaleidoscopic palate, and all in situ. This marvellous palate ranged from applied theatre emanations such as Process Drama, Drama for Learning, Context Drama, Drama and Role Play, Mantle of the Expert, Rolling Role, Chamber Theatre and the 4 Projections of Role. In her dynamic way of working these were all practically trialled and developed under her intellectual leadership in the academic drama field. Yet in her work, as seen in the deeply moving account of her work in Ankara Turkey (published in the ND publication, The World’s Greatest Drama Teachers) we glimpse the unerring nature of her quest for the new even in applying such a dynamic learning experience for the learners involved, as well as the teachers and others who witnessed the events.

In the following CT example below, we see a possible outcome from discussions and trials of tackling the main tenets of Breen’s amazingly revealing technique, that of showing the story within the context of an anonymous lullaby rather than telling the story.

[Scenario: The text is set in a remote landscape in Medieval England. A number of figures can be seen around a bundle of cloth of what might be a baby. An armed figure is seen pointing at a figure of a woman who lies still on the ground. The First woman kneels over the lying figure.]

First woman: Bye baby bunting.

Father’s voice: Your daddy’s gone a hunting.

Armed figure: To fetch a little ‘rabbit’s’ skin

Second woman (Narrator): To put a baby bunting in.

In this version we might perceive the beginnings of a tragedy, a mystery or even a black comedy? What has happened here is clearly the result of much debate and discussion within the group as the dramatic context unfolds from the initial seed of the text. The drama students creating this small piece of theatrical art have clearly understood much of how to create theatre form in a textual invention through the choices they have made. In terms of scrutiny we can analyse the 3 questions needed for CT and ask ourselves if, from the newly allocated worded structure, they have been incorporated. We would it seems to me, have to witness the piece live to understand how points of view have been woven in as the bare bones of the theatre text is not sufficient.

The performance issues and enigmas still remain of course. How is the father’s voice emanated and from where? How are the words spoken and signed to emanate meaning? What are points of view expressed by the speakers and so on? All this to be answered by the live representation/performance of a piece of text created years ago and anonymously.



1)      Chamber Theatre Robert Breen Published by Prentice Hall ISBN 0-13-125211-9

2)      QERCD-the Qattan Education Research is the Ramallah based foundation created by the Qattan family to support arts and education in the Occupied Territories of Palestine. The Jordanian Summer School supports over 120 drama teachers a year. This course was initiated and tutored by David Davies (UWE) and Wasim Kurdi (QERCD).

3)      Ibid

4)      The dramatic imagination is a concept of dramatic theory developed and analysed by Dr Dorothy Heathcote.  The dimensions are-SOUND AND SILENCE, MOVEMENT AND STILLNESS, LIGHTNESS AND DARKNESS

5)      I well remember a day in Southend Essex in 2001, visiting a class who had investigated bees in their nursery. As a visitor disempowered, I was a member of an imaginary team of visiting bee experts trying to emulate the successes of the nursery class in our bee place. I had to undergo a gentle interview, wear gloves at all times, sign a declaration that I would not touch or harm the hives and wear a visitors badge too. At the end of the afternoon I was awarded a commendation as a visitor who kept to all the agreed procedures agreed at the outset. The curriculum tasks resulting for these children elevated the experience for one visiting HMI as a lesson of outstanding learning impact.

6)      The Opie’s wrote the seminal text ‘The Lore and Language of School children’ in 1959 and in other texts I have yet to find the lullaby mentioned.

7)      William Faulkner ‘As I lay dying’. (1930)

8)      Dr Ken Robinson (RSA Animate 2010)

9)      Breen op cit.

10)    Verfremdung Effect- Berthold Brecht in ‘Brecht on Theatre’

11)    Stig Erickson – Distancing at Close Range Oy Arkmedia Ab ISBN 978-952-12-2314-3

12)    Nora Morgan and Juliana Saxton. “Drama-a mind on many colours” …..

13)    Dr Dorothy Heathcote & Oliver Fialla in Drama as Context NATE 1980

14)    Breen op cit

15)    Breen pages 85-86 op cit

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