From ‘The Merchant of Venice’, the School’s first-ever Shakespeare production at Crick Road, to the first Bardwell Road Dragon opera performance of Pirates of Penzance in April 1914, Dragons have been far from strangers to the glare of the footlights and that much-loved blue velvet curtain. Today’s major Prep productions take place in Lynam Hall under the direction of current teachers and Head of Drama, Charlie Ponder. Charlie joined the Dragon from Winchester House School this September, is passionate about promoting the value of Drama at the Dragon and is excited for what the future holds.
Welcome to the Dragon, Charlie. Tell us a little bit about yourself. What led you to a career in teaching and your love of live performance?
It’s an exciting and important time for Drama at Dragon, and I am grateful for the opportunity to share my thoughts and vision for the development of Drama at the School.
I grew up in Sheringham, North Norfolk, where I attended Gresham’s Prep and Senior Schools. My father taught for over 30 years at Gresham’s and he was quite the inspiration to me. Initially, it was sport that I was most interested in at school, but I also enjoyed performing in school productions. It wasn’t until studying Theatre Studies at A-Level, that my passion for theatre really took off. After A-Levels I took three gap years at three different schools, mainly working in Drama and Sport, and from there I felt very confident that a career in education was the right path for me. I studied Drama at university and went on to do a PGCE.
I have never really been that interested in being an actor myself, which is often a surprise to some people, but providing the opportunity for others and seeing them thrive is what gives me the most pleasure. I am also fascinated and motivated by all that encompasses performance: creativity, teaching, writing, directing, collaboration, etc.
Why Dragon School? What excites you most about working here?
The first time I visited Dragon was when I was working as Head of Drama at Cheam School. I remember being immediately impressed and inspired by the energy and buzz around the School, and by its amazing geographical position at the centre of Oxford. I visited the Dragon many more times subsequently, and I got to know some of the superb staff, and a lot more about the School’s long history of success in Drama. The opportunity to join Dragon felt like a great challenge and one I feel like I have the experience and enthusiasm to take on.
I am most excited about the potential that we have at the Dragon and believe that it is a school that could lead the way for prep school Drama. The students are fantastic, my colleagues are amazing, and the location of the School is incredible. I am excited about what can be achieved.
Dragons have been ‘treading the boards’ since 1878. From Shakespeare and the treasured Gilbert & Sullivan operettas to the more recent productions of ‘A Christmas Carol’ and ‘Oliver!’, which productions do you have planned for the department this year?
As you will know, the performing arts, in general, have been hit terribly by the pandemic and it has been a difficult couple of years for schools as well as professional theatres. However, this year we hope to be able to welcome back audiences in person, although we do still plan to stream productions to those who can’t attend. This December we had the Upper School production of ‘Blood Brothers’ (a non-musical version) as well as a selection of C Block pantomimes as part of the Christmas festivities, and a Pre-Prep Christmas Show.
Early next term, we will be performing the Upper School musical ‘Guys & Dolls’, with some D Block Shakespeare Shorts, a Middle School production and a B Block studio performance to follow later in the year. We also hope to create many more varied opportunities for as many Dragons to be involved in the performances as possible.
What skills and lessons does the study of Drama equip our young Dragons with? In your opinion, what value does the subject have within the curriculum?
I see quite a difference between the curricular and extra-curricular work that we do in Drama. This is similar to PE lessons and Sports teams, cricket for example, or Music lessons and Music groups, such as orchestras.
In my approach, curricular Drama primarily aims to teach six essential skills that are relevant to ALL students. These are: Creativity, Collaboration, Communication, Confidence, Respect and Fun. These skills are fundamental building blocks for anybody, whatever path they take in life, and as such, I think that curriculum Drama plays a really important part of the weekly timetable for all pupils.
Extra-curricular Drama works on more specific skills, largely acting at this stage, and grants the opportunity to work in a more focussed performance environment. Of course, there is a lot of crossover between the two.
You’re passionate about promoting the value and successes of Drama and performance at the School. What’s next for Drama at the Dragon?
I am unquestionably passionate about promoting the value and success of Drama at the Dragon. I see the vast opportunity for the School to become a leading light in school drama, not only because of its brilliant history but because of the children’s talent, too. To top it all off, we have an incredibly exciting Music and Performing Arts Centre on the way.
There are a number of new initiatives that I would like to introduce, including Dragon Drama tours to the Edinburgh Fringe; a collaborative Drama production, where Dragons in E—C Block team up with local primary schools to put on an annual performance; Dragon TV, this is the concept of a night’s entertainment (some live, some recorded) to be broadcast live from Dragon to your homes (this was as a result of the success of live streaming in lockdown); and an annual Dragon Drama festival, where small companies of actors from schools across the country come to perform and take part in workshops at the Dragon.