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An example of speech and drama helping to overcome fears

In this week’s blog post, read a true story of channeling speech & drama skills to overcome fear, as experienced by one of our fabulous teachers - Jess Macdonald.

As I stepped up to the stage, adrenaline and fear coursing through my body, I wondered how on earth I'd got there. Now, two months later, I'm happy to say it was because of your children.

My curiosity for stand-up began a couple of years ago, when I attended the NZ Comedy Festival and briefly wondered if I could unite my two career professions (writing and drama) with my love for laughter.

A complete novice, I read a couple of theory books and then began writing out anecdotes - longwinded passages of stories which had, at the time, made me laugh. They meandered to something resembling a punch-line, but as you might expect this first foray into comedy was a complete disaster.

Then something unexpected happened. In December last year I was hosting end of year showcases for my Head Held High students. If you haven't been along to one, they are a wonderful opportunity for students to perform to parents and peers. Students are often understandably nervous beforehand, but we work on confidence techniques to harness that fear into something magical - to lift their poems and scenes off the page.

I watched with amazement as my students combatted their nerves and performed in front of a room full of strangers - some as young as five, many speaking in their second language - and I realised I couldn't hide from fear any longer. It was time to lead by example.

I knew I had aspirations to try stand-up, but realised I needed guidance instead of trying to do it alone. Inspired by my final showcase session, I immediately signed up to the mailing list of the NZ Comedy School. My aim was to participate in their month-long training academy which would culminate in a graduation show and five long, terrifying minutes stage time.

The course itself took up a couple of hours every week - we assembled in The Classic comedy studio and tried not to be the first person our teacher Tim asked to perform.

The fear of failure was so great in those early days, as we pieced together jokes and said them out loud to real people for the first time. Trickles of laughter let us know whether we were on the right track, and two writing sessions with Tim helped us hone our sets even further.

The atmosphere was a lot like a classroom at Head Held High - supportive, encouraging and inspiring as each performer stepped up. As I watched my classmates gaining more confidence each week, I couldn't help but picture many of my students in a similar position - nervous but confident, harnessing their unique power as their audience listens.

Just like when your child comes home with a section of a poem to learn each week, I too had weekly tasks to memorise my set. Repetition and recording my words were key to developing confidence – as well as utilising my classmates as an audience for feedback. Just like our students approaching a scene or poem, I had to experiment with expression and 'modulation' - using my voice to find the most engaging way to communicate. Did a joke land better if I was happy, or sad? How do our students’ characters change, if they sound happy or sad..?

The course made me reflect on how far I've come since I was in your child's shoes - attending speech and drama lessons throughout my childhood. Without a doubt, those lessons shaped me into someone who has the confidence and resilience to try – and often fail - but succeed in spirit either way.

I was nervous about performing at my grad show and, on the day, I had an anxious knot at the pit of my stomach. By the time I was on stage, all my nerves had disappeared. I used nerve-calming techniques, encouraged by the amount of prep I'd done. Just like our students,

I had performed my words countless times before - the only difference was the amount of smiling faces before me. I enjoyed every minute of my five-minute set, bolstered by the laughs of my wonderful Head Held High whanau who came to support.

I have no doubt that my comedy classes have helped me to become a better teacher, by exploring empathy around nerves, practicing my memorising techniques and exploring the power of expression. I've already started adopting some of the skills - e.g. joke analysis and encouragement - within my classes.

I'm sure I don't need to tell you that many of our students are hilariously funny and revel in the opportunity to improvise a scene - or perform a comedy skit. With encouragement, students feel empowered to give the gift of laughter.

In these testing times, along with other large-scale events, the NZ Comedy Festival has been cancelled and with it their annual free comedy taster session for age 13+ students. There's no doubt we can all be united by laughter and performance - even on a small scale.

That said, if you do have a budding comic at home, we can work with you to bring out the best in them - in their Head Held High sessions and beyond.

Jess Macdonald Head Held High teacher

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