International Journal of Education & the Arts
Volume 1 Number 5
October 25, 2000
"The Peter Piper Pickled Pepper Mystery":
This article outlines how an arts-based collaboration unfolded between a music educator and a drama educator in a tertiary institution. The particular context was their creation of a musical play for pre-school children entitled, "The Peter Piper Pickled Pepper Mystery." Written from both educators' perspectives, this commentary provides insights into their collaborative process from the scripting and composition through to the rehearsal and performance stages. Reflecting on their journey together, the researchers identify the main characteristics which they believe contributed to their perceptions of a successful collaboration.
Barbara: Peter, it's Barbara Poston-Anderson calling. I lecture in drama education at UTS. Congratulations on getting the position as music education lecturer!That's how two arts educators, Barbara and Peter, decided to work together to write a musical play for pre- schoolers entitled, "The Peter Piper Pickled Pepper Mystery." What did they perceive were the factors that made for their successful collaboration? This question will be explored in two sections. The first presents specific information related to the collaborative process as it evolved. The educators' backgrounds and their reflections about writing and rehearsing the play are shared in order to provide insight into how their collaborative relationship worked in practice.
Peter: Thank you, Barbara.
Barbara: Is it true that you have an interest in writing children's musicals?
Peter: Yes, I do.
Barbara: So do I. Wouldn't it be great to work on one together?
Peter: Excellent idea. Maybe we could use the musical as a basis for some research, too.
Barbara: Why not? Let's talk more when you get here.
Peter: I look forward to that.
The Collaboration Process
Our BackgroundsPeter. I lecture in music education at the University of Technology, Sydney. At the time of writing I have been in this job just six months. Prior to this appointment, I taught music in the primary (elementary) school and lectured part-time in music education at another tertiary institution in a neighbouring state. To date my research interests have been in teacher autobiography. As an arts practitioner, I compose choral music and write children's fiction.
Barbara. I lecture in the area of drama education
with particular emphasis in children's theatre. My own
academic background ranges from undergraduate work in
speech and theatre arts to postgraduate work in a range of
fields including: education, rhetoric and public address,
librarianship and medieval studies. In addition to my
academic teaching, I have been an English teacher and
teacher-librarian in schools and am a storyteller for
children. I transferred into the Faculty of Education (UTS)
eighteen months ago from another Faculty in which I had
been an academic for seventeen years.
Our Reflections: How We Wrote the Musical PlayPeter. January 19th is the day we first met in person to begin our collaboration. I liked the fact that Barbara was receptive to establishing guidelines for the project immediately. I suspected this would help to focus our efforts and ensure we would not waste time.
Barbara brought a book of nursery rhymes to our meeting, our initial idea being to build the musical play around children's rhymes. We browsed through the book together, looking for characters and situations that appealed. We read twenty rhymes aloud before finding "Tinker Tailor," which we both thought could work as an overall framework for our play.
The eight characters in this rhymea rich man, poor man, beggar man, thief, doctor, lawyer, merchant and chiefwere all distinct types. We decided to attach each of them to a more specific character in another rhyme. For example, the doctor became the grown up "Little Miss Muffet," the poor man became "Simple Simon," and the chief became Mother Kitten from "The Three Little Kittens." We anticipated that the children's prior knowledge of these nursery rhyme characters would enhance their recognition of and favourable response to the characters in our play.
Barbara. In the tongue twister "Peter Piper's
Pickled Peppers" we found the key conflict to link these
characters. What if a thief stole Peter's peppers? What if
the play developed as a mystery with characters providing
Peter with clues to help him find his missing peppers? An
introductory scene could set the conflict and a concluding
scene could bring everything together to reveal the thief's
identity. We agreed that this idea had both dramatic and
Owl: Peter! What's wrong? (Owl gives a hanky to Peter, who blows his nose loudly) Let me guess. Is it because.you're sick?This dramatic presentation of the problem aimed to arouse the children's curiosity immediately and to engage their willingness to help the two main characters solve the mystery. This opening scene also provided an example of direct interaction with the children, a technique frequently used in the play. This strategy builds on the idea that "children enjoy being active participants rather than passive spectators" (Wood, 1997, p. 16). Among the types of participation built into the script are direct questioning of the children (e.g., "Do you know who's taken the peppers?"; "Can you help us?"); active involvement in actions for rhymes (e.g., Incy Wincy Spider); and a stretch break during which children stand and actively exercise with Peter and Owl.
In writing the script, humour, "a vital ingredient" in children's plays (Wood, 1997, p. 39), was also kept in mind. Dialogue and actions were created for the characters with the realisation that actors would develop these elements more fully during rehearsal as they create their larger-than-life nursery rhyme characters.
Peter. Musically, we decided to base our
composition and performance decisions on our knowledge of
how musical development occurs in pre-school children. We
chose familiar rhymes as the basis for the music rather
than composing original lyrics because we recognised that
by the age of five children know a wide repertoire of
standard nursery songs and can perform recognition memory
tasks better with them than they can with unfamiliar
material (Dowling, 1982). Since children would already know
the words, they could focus on the related musical
and movement activities we would develop for each rhyme.
Our Perceptions of the Script Writing ProcessPeter. I loved the idea of writing a story with dialogue, but quickly realised through engaging with the playwriting process how important it was to understand and be guided from the start by what works best with this age level. I was glad we decided to examine the research literature in our two fields before we began writing. Knowing what researchers have learned about artistic development of young children was useful to both of us in developing the script and writing the songs.
Barbara. I was amazed to see how quickly the script developed. We worked well together despite our gender, age and disciplinary differences and the fact that we didn't know each other prior to the start of the collaborationall of which had the potential for being problems but were not. Working on the same campus meant we had frequent contact with each other and were able to talk to each other face-to-face to bounce ideas off each other. I didn't feel edgy the way I sometimes do when undertaking group projects with others. I think this was largely due to the give and take which developed between the two of us. Nether one of us tried to dominate the project. Peter listened to my ideas and had good ideas himself. I respected his knowledge, judgement and the focused and efficient way in which he worked. I felt as though we complemented each other creatively very well. Although we had many of the same skills, which enabled us to appreciate the equal importance of music and dialogue to the production, we also each had less well developed areas in which the other was stronger.
Peter. What a wonderful flow of ideas! In two months by myself I doubt if I could have come up with all these ideas. The collaborative process felt great--no undue pressure, just the impetus to really work on this and achieve our nominated goals. Fortunately we had similar ideas about how the musical play should develop. We spoke openly throughout the playwriting stage about our expectations and feelings. Most importantly, we have both been highly committed to completing the musical play. We were both very passionate about this project, which naturally contributed to the success of the collaboration.
Barbara. The finished script was seamless. I
couldn't tell where Peter's contribution ended and mine
began. Instinctively I knew it would work even though in
places I felt there was still too much "tell" and not
enough "show." Fine-tuning of the script was done during
How We Rehearsed the Musical PlayPeter. Marchthe first week of lectures. Barbara's drama students, enrolled in the fourth semester of their children's theatre major, saw the draft script for the first time. I wandered into the class and watched as small groups read through the scenes. Students responded enthusiastically, trying out various characterisations. Auditions followed this class session and were well attended.
Barbara. The two students who first read together
at the auditions were the ones who got the main parts of
Owl and Peter. They had a special spark which brought the
characters to life. Others fit well into the smaller
character roles. Performing for younger children
interested them all, because previously they had acted for
older primary-aged children. This production was something
new and different for them.
Peter. During rehearsals the performers freely made suggestions for improvements to the musical play. Regarding the music, they suggested a musical introduction made up of a medley of the songs, special sound effects (i.e., rain and thunder), and tempo changes to certain songs. During rehearsals, the singers themselves focused mainly pitch; that is "singing in tune." They freely commented on each other's pitching.
Our Perceptions of the Rehearsal ProcessPeter. I was not always able to be at rehearsals because I often had lectures at the same time. When I was present, it was mainly in the role of rehearsing the songs. Ten roles involved singing solo. Although most students felt fine about that, some were hesitant. These were drama students whose first love was acting so I guess I shouldn't have been surprised.
Barbara. The three-week rehearsal period was
impossibly short. At times I wondered how we would do it.
"Arrive on time," "Learn your lines," "Stay in
character"I'm sure the students thought I sounded like a broken
record. I tried to accomplish as much as I could in each
rehearsal. Sometimes I got so involved that I didn't see
Peter when he entered the drama studio. He always fit right
into whatever was happening. We never got in each
other's way. Unlike the writing process which involved us
both in every aspect, we now concentrated on our
own particular area of expertise. I took the dominant role
in staging the play, while Peter rehearsed the actors in
their songs and worked with the keyboardist. This division
of labour was acceptable to us both and was necessary due
to the short time frame. Throughout the rehearsal period,
Peter's enthusiasm and encouragement helped to balance my
frustration about tight deadlines and actors missing
rehearsals. It amazed me how calm he remained.
The PerformancesTwo performances of "The Peter Piper Pickled Pepper Mystery," each lasting 55 minutes, were presented on March 21st and 22nd in the university drama studio which has a 75 person capacity. The child audience for both performances was drawn from the local on-campus day care centre. An estimate of the ages of the children attending the play ranged from three to eight years. Children were seated around the edges of a tri-level acting area consisting of a lowered square pit in front backed by the higher floor level on which a portable platform was placed. Most children sat directly in front of the pit area with a direct view of all levels. Only these acting areas were lit by stage lighting. Live music and sound effects were provided for the songs using a keyboard. The accompaniments were kept simple in line with the songs. Some songs were performed acapella by the actors.
During the performances both of us completed written evaluations. Afterwards we agreed that, even though the play may have been a little long for the youngest, it was well received by the children. This was evidenced by their active involvement with the characters (e.g., calling out encouragement, laughing) and their participation in the songs and actions. This perception was shared by the actors, one of whom wrote: "The children loved the show, the older members of the audience loved the kids' responses and participated in the songs and actions, and we loved the adults laughing."
The Collaborative Process
From the start, we were both highly motivated to make this project a success. Within our Faculty, Peter was a recent appointment and Barbara had relocated within the last eighteen months from somewhere else in the University. Both of us were anxious to make a scholarly contribution to the Faculty and thought that this project would be an appropriate way to do it. Likewise, as colleagues who would be working together in the creative arts for some time, we realised that the sooner we developed a positive working relationship the better.
Interpersonal aspects, part of the relational/social dimension, were also perceived as essential to the success of our collaboration. From the beginning, we respected each other's talents. Despite differences in academic rank, we regarded each other as equals. Neither one of us had hidden agendas or tried to "compete" with the other. We were each willing to give and take and to accept constructive criticism.
With regard to the task itself, the transactional/task dimension, we both had a high commitment to complete the project. Our goals were similar from the start. We knew we wanted to create a musical play for pre- schoolers. The fact that we both had previous music and drama experience was beneficial to our appreciation of the importance of both areas to the play's development. We also both agreed that the musical should be consistent with research relating to the musical and drama development of pre-schoolers. All of these factors helped to unify our focus throughout the writing, rehearsing and performance stages of the project.
Our roles at various project stages evolved naturally. In the first stage of script development, by mutual consent, the scenes were divided equally. Peter took most of the responsibility for composing the music. In the second stage, rehearsing the play, our roles became more differentiated with Barbara blocking and directing the script while Peter rehearsed the music. When preparing manuscripts for publication based on the project, we discussed the overall structure and direction, then Peter usually took the lead in developing an initial draft, while Barbara completed the revisions. This built on each of our strengths, Peter being a fluent writer who gets ideas down quickly while Barbara likes to take time to fine-tune the phrasing. These work style differences did not cause conflict between us, but did involve adjusting our expectations related to time frames for publication submission.
What we have learned from our experience of working together on this project is consistent with findings from qualitative research studies on collaboration in other fields. For example, of the six dynamics on which collaborators in higher education research define their relationships and work processes (Baldwin & Austin, 1995, p. 60), we found "proximity of partners"(i.e. same institution), "explicit definitions" of roles and "shared responsibility" to be most useful in describing factors which facilitated our situation. We also found that a similarity of standards and expectations enabled us to work with a definite agreed purpose and outcome in mind. We believe this contributed greatly to the crisis- free script development stage and to our satisfaction with the end product of our collaboration, the musical play and its performance.
Also, with regard to "positive" behaviours in the process of research collaboration in management (Bozeman, Street & Fiorito, 1999, p. 163), "consideration" and "dependability" were ranked highly. In our collaborative relationship, too, consideration was a key factor, especially the social/relational elements of mutual respect and valuing of each other's ideas. Because we both realised we had the best interests of the project in mind, we were able to give and accept constructive feedback without taking offence. This was a critical factor in helping us to improve the play as we progressed toward the performance. Although unstated, we also trusted each other to complete our commitments to the project.
In the process of creating "The Peter Piper Pickled Pepper Mystery," we have built on each of our strengths to accomplish more together than we could have alone. For us, working collaboratively has been a positive experience with the added benefit that it has resulted in a new musical play for pre-schoolers.
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About the AuthorsBarbara Poston-Anderson
Associate Professor Barbara Poston-Anderson lectures in education at the University of Technology, Sydney. She is a creative scholar in the Centre for Research and Education in the Arts, and has research interests in children studies. She has written a number of plays and musicals that have been performed throughout Australia.