Billy Elliot Digital Study Guide

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BILLY ELLIOT

Study Guide written by Luisa Appolloni, Education Associate - Enrichment Focus, Education Department, Stratford Festival

INTRODUCTION TO THE GUIDE

"What are you scared of?"

- Mrs. Wilkinson, Billy Elliot the Musical, Act I, scene 14

Set in England during the 1984-85 miners' strike, Billy Elliot the Musical is about dancing, the tension between labour and government, class struggle and gender/sexual identity. Central to the story is finding a voice, freedom of choice and expression. Eleven-year-old Billy is confined in a world that has strict rules about what a man is, how he should behave and what he should do. It's a look at what happens when you break those societal restraints and allow an individual to pursue his dreams. Juxtaposed with that is a look at a community devastated by de-industrialization and unemployment. As the hopes and dreams of the miners die, however, the community rallies to help fulfill Billy's dream. Billy Elliot the Musical resonates and inspires as it explores change, its impact on society and the importance of inclusion.

Content Advisory for Students

Explores mature themes, including issues of gender/sexual identity. Contains coarse language and staged violence.

Curriculum Connections

Suitable for students Grade 5+

  • Global Competencies:
    • Creativity
    • Learning to Learn/Self-Awareness
    • Communication
    • Collaboration
    • Critical Thinking
  • Grades 5-12:
    • Language Arts/English (listening to understand, speaking to communicate, reading for meaning),
    • Dance, Drama, Music, Visual Art
  • Grades 5-12:
    • Health and Physical Education (conflict resolution, harassment, bullying, care for self and others, stereotypes and assumptions, sexual orientation, acceptance)
  • Grade 11:
    • Introduction to Anthropology, Psychology and Sociology (explaining human behaviour and culture, socialization),
    • Gender Studies (the social construction of gender),
    • Equity, Diversity and Social Justice (power relations, social awareness and individual action, respecting diversity),
    • Dynamics of Human Relationships (self-concept and healthy relationships, making decisions)
  • Grade 12:
    • Human Development throughout the Lifespan (factors affecting social-emotional development),
    • World History Since the Fifteenth Century (social, economic and political context, communities, conflict),
    • Adventures in World History (politics and conflict, work and economics)

Themes and Motifs

  • Family: Father-Son Relationships, Expectations, Sacrifice, Conflict and Acceptance
  • Growing Up: Self-Discovery, Standing Up for Yourself, Pursuing Your Dreams, Self-Expression
  • Change: Community, Generational Shifts, Tradition, Challenging Stereotypes, Taking Risks, Re-Evaluating Personal Beliefs
  • Justice: Gender Identity and Inclusion, Socioeconomic Disparity and Conflict, the Strength of the Individual and Power in Numbers

A Perspective on the Piece from the Director and Choreographer

With Donna Feore

What excites you most about directing these two musicals?
By now you know that I love good book musicals. Billy Elliot the Musical and Little Shop of Horrors are both great shows, each with a strong message delivered with a whole lot of heart and humour. And the music! Elton John (Billy Elliot) and Alan Menken (Little Shop) are both exceptional storytellers. The songs "Electricity" from Billy Elliot and "Suddenly Seymour" from Little Shop, to name but two, pack such honest emotional force. With that music, together with lyrics by Lee Hall for Billy Elliot and by Howard Ashford for Little Shop, you cannot but be moved - and moved forward. No song is just a song. Each one moves the story and our understanding of the characters and their struggles with irresistible force.

I know it is still early days, but can you share a little bit about your vision for each production?
My vision is simple. For Billy Elliot the Musical, set in 1980s northeast England, it's going to be gritty, real, true to its place. At the same time, I'm free to reimagine everything, so I can be led by my Billy. Choreography is not only about steps - that's particularly important with Billy. His story is about a child, a family, a community in crisis. How does he discover his gift, his talent, himself? And how does he find the courage to go after it and become who he truly is under such difficult circumstances? That interests me a lot. Billy's story is universal, if the global success of the original movie is anything to go by. I hope our audiences will tap into that part of themselves that struggled to discover their best self and have that unique, special creature accepted as an equal member of their community, their country, their world.

Like The Rocky Horror Show, Little Shop of Horrors enjoys a kind of cult status because it touches something universally human that requires repeated retellings. Like children at bedtime, we never quite lose the ability to convince ourselves that we've never heard a story we've been told a thousand times. This is especially true when the story is one of overcoming adversity to become our true, fully realized self. As for the Little Shop of Horrors design - well, no one will be safe! At Stratford we are blessed with some of the greatest artisans on the planet. And they have promised that Audrey II (the fresh-meat-eating plant) will indeed take over the world!

PRE-SHOW DISCUSSION QUESTIONS

Ask students:

  • What is prejudice? Find a definition of the word. Are there instances of prejudice in our school and/or community?
  • How do you define gender? In what ways have understandings of gender changed since 1984, when this play is set?
  • How do families affect who we are?
  • Why do parents sometimes misunderstand their children?
  • Have you ever chosen an activity of which your family disapproved or did not understand? If you feel comfortable in sharing your experience, tell your partner or small group. If not, write a few sentences in your journal about this experience.
  • What makes someone a dancer?
  • Is there a perceived prejudice against ballet and dance in our society today?
  • What are the similarities and differences between dancers and athletes?

WARM-UP EXERCISE: What's that word?

Objective:

This exercise is designed to help students understand issues around equity, gender, inclusion and access. Through research, they will discover how certain individuals overcame social/gender barriers to achieve their goals.

Materials:

  • Computers
  • A space in which to present and discuss their findings

Directions:

1. Ask students the following:

  • Individually: Write down in your journal what you think is the first thing people notice about you? Why? Next, write down the first thing you notice about a person. Compare your two answers - are they different? If so, why?
  • As a class: Find out exact definitions for stereotype, equity, gender, inclusivity and access. Write these definitions on the board, or place them on large chart paper and post them around the room.
  • Are there particular jobs, sports or other activities that are still restricted, or perceived to be restricted, by gender? Brainstorm these together and write them on the board or chart paper.
  • Discuss ways in which attitudes or rules around gender affect access and equity.
  • In what ways have these restrictions been challenged in our society? Give some examples.

2. Have each student choose and do research on one of the following: an artist, athlete, politician or businessperson who became famous because of their hard work and perseverance, and because they were able to cross the gender barrier (or were accepted for their non-binary status).

3. Next, have each student share their findings with the rest of the class in a short presentation in a format of their choosing.

Debriefing Questions:

  • Do you think we have attained equity and inclusivity in the arts, sports, politics, business, etc.? Why or why not?
  • What actions will you take to further foster (encourage or promote) equity across all genders?
  • What kinds of strategies would you use to reduce stereotyping in your school environment?

EXERCISE: an anthem to your cause!

Objective:

Students will examine one of the songs from Billy Elliot the Musical before seeing the show. They will create their own anthem poems and present them as choral spoken pieces with movement, with a focus on analysing and communicating how their performance reveals key emotions and motivations to the audience.

Materials:

  • YouTube link to "Once We Were Kings" https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=t9P_ZsCrqOk
  • Handout of the lyrics of "Once We Were Kings," from Billy Elliot the Musical
  • A space in which to move
  • Pen, pencils, paper

Directions:

1. Hand out copies of "Once We Were Kings" lyrics to each student.

2. Stand in a circle and read aloud, with each person taking one line.

3. Review all unfamiliar words and phrases, and check for understanding.

4.Read the lyrics together several times while listening to the YouTube recording. Ask students:

  • What is communicated through the lyrics?
  • What is the tone (e.g., happy, mournful, energizing, etc.) of the piece?
  • What does this song mean to you?
  • What techniques do Elton John and Lee Hall use to evoke some sort of emotion in the listener?
  • How do you imagine the piece would be staged?

5. As a class, make a list of justice or community issues that matter to you.

6. Next, divide the students into groups of three or four. Each group will write their own anthem poem (minimum eight lines). Each group will write about a cause they believe in or something they wish to praise or show loyalty to (e.g., sports team, school, community, city, nation, etc.).

7. Once the poems are written, encourage students to get each one on its feet, incorporating various techniques (e.g., choral speaking,* movement,** etc.) to present it.

8.Have each group rehearse and perform their piece for the rest of the class.

*Choral Speaking: Students explore the poem by reading aloud in many different ways. Encourage them to experiment with tone, pace, tempo, volume, repetition, various emotions and even incorporating different variations of groupings (e.g., solo, in twos, threes, and using the whole group). The students offer each other helpful suggestions and revisit the poem, trying it in different ways and patterns. [NOTE: This activity helps struggling readers gain more confidence, as they are working together as an ensemble.]

**Movement: When you get a poem "up on its feet" with the students as actors, language quite literally comes alive. As the students solve the pragmatic problems of staging, such as "Where do I stand?" "Who do I say this to?" and so on, they gain greater command of the unfolding events and of the poem's development. The students should consider the following: where they move to or around the playing space; how they move with characterization; and how they move in relation to others around them in the playing space.

Debriefing Questions:

  • What did you discover during the rehearsal process when you got your anthem poem up on its feet?
  • What did you discover while watching and listening to other anthem poems? What were the similarities and what were the differences?

POST-SHOW DISCUSSION QUESTIONS

Ask students:

  • Billy feels best when he is dancing - he describes it as "electricity." Is there an activity in your life that makes you feel like this?
  • What character did you admire the most? What character did you least admire? What was it about that character that made such an impact on you?
  • Were Billy and Mrs. Wilkinson right to keep his training and audition a secret? Why or why not?
  • Why do you think Billy's father and brother had trouble understanding his love of dance?
  • Evaluate Billy's father at the beginning of the musical and at the end. In what ways did he grow? What do you think made him change?
  • What does masculinity mean to you? Do you think it means something different to Michael than it does to his brother and father? Why do you think this is?
  • Billy is trying to discover himself. In what ways does our culture today encourage this and in what ways does it not?
  • How does Billy's relationship with and memory of his mother influence his journey?
  • Describe the role of the miners' strike in the musical. What were the miners fighting for?
  • How did the sets, costumes, lighting and sound contribute to the mood the creative team (director, designers, technical experts, etc.) was trying to establish?
  • How did the music (by Elton John) and book and lyrics (by Lee Hall) enhance the story being told?

CULMINATING EXERCISE: CORRIDOR OF DREAMS

Objective:

Students will use the elements and conventions of writing and drama techniques, both individually and collaboratively, to create and develop a dramatic ensemble work.

Materials:

  • Paper, pens, pencils and/or iPads, computers
  • Handout of "Electricity" from Billy Elliot the Musical
  • YouTube audio link for "Electricity" https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=n1Q08xO7Zsg
  • Open space in which to move around

Directions:

1. Discuss with the students what words and images best illustrated how Billy felt about dancing.

2. Then hand out copies of "Electricity" to each student and have them listen to the recording several times.

3. Have each student think of an activity they like/love to do and have them each write a description of how it makes them feel. Use the prompting questions below to help them get started:

  • How did you discover this activity?
  • Has it always made you feel like this?
  • How often are you able to participate in this activity?
  • If you had to describe it to someone who had never done it, what would you say?
  • Like Billy, is there a simile or metaphor that helps you to communicate how it makes you feel?

4. If the students feel comfortable sharing their work, invite them to read their work with a partner or small group.

5. Next, have students reread their work and have them underline specific words or lines in their text that best describes their feelings.

6. Ask each student to find a line or word that they believe captures the essence of how doing their activity makes them feel.

7. Now ask students to form two lines, so that they are facing one another. The teacher will walk in between the two lines. As the teacher approaches, students on either side will say their line or word in a clear, loud voice. This exercise may be done several times, using students volunteering to walk the corridor.

Debriefing Questions:

  • Describe the effect of hearing all these voices.
  • What were the similarities or differences among the words and voices you heard?
  • How would you feel if you weren't allowed to pursue your favourite activity or dream?
  • What would have happened if Billy had not been allowed to dance?
  • How will dancing impact his life?

SOURCES & RESOURCES

SELECTED BIBLIOGRAPHY FOR BILLY ELLIOT THE MUSICAL STUDY GUIDE

 

BILLY ELLIOT

Burgess, Melvin. Billy Elliot. Pearson Education Ltd., 2008.

 

WEB RESOURCES

Allmusic: Elton John. https://www.allmusic.com/artist/elton-john-mn0000796734/biography

Independent: "Lee Hall: 'Cambridge taught me I was short' " https://www.independent.co.uk/news/people/profiles/lee-hall-cambridge-taught-me-i-was-short-1830512.html

Quartz: "Billy Elliot's director explains the true meaning behind the film's most memorable scene" https://qz.com/1096401/director-stephen-daldry-on-billy-elliot-the-meaning-and-message-behind-the-films-most-memorable-scene/

   

BILLY ELLIOT ON FILM, VIDEO and DVD

2000 (UK) Billy Elliot. Directed by Stephen Daldry; starring Jamie Bell, Julie Walters and Gary Lewis.

2014 (UK) Billy Elliot the Musical Live. Directed by Stephen Daldry and Brett Sullivan; starring Elliot Hanna, Ollie Jochim, Bradley Peret, Matteo Zecca and Ruthie Henshall.

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