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DRAMA 221 A: Visual Narrative in Performance

Meeting Time: 
TTh 9:30am - 11:20am
HUT 155
Kwame Braun standing outside in a grey jacket
Kwame Braun

Syllabus Description:

Drama 221A: Visual Narrative in Performance:

“Story”—or narrative—structures most forms of crafted performance events.  Theater, dance, live music, fashion runway or halftime shows: all have narrative arcs, a deliberate sequence of changes over time. Designers concerned with shaping these experiences are fundamentally concerned with narrative structure, and with how their design choices can support, enhance, complicate, or undermine the trajectories of these “stories.” While this introductory course will examine the standard design categories of scenery, costumes, sound, and lighting through the lens of narrative, its primary focus is on the raw materials of experience itself: image and sound, space, time, and above all, change. Through a range of analytic exercises, creative assignments, and collective devising, students will work towards individual design projects developed for a selection of short plays or developed expansions of previous work.


Drama 221: Visual Narrative in Performance                                                                Autumn 2021

Instructor: Kwame Braun nkwameb@uw.edu                                                         Tu/Th 9:30-11:20

Office Hours: Immediately after class (HUT 168) or by appointment                                 HUT 130


All art is experienced in time, although the duration of that experience is variable—set and predetermined (movies), left up to us, or something in between. It is only the performing arts—live music, dance, theater, etc.—in which the passage of the event is generally experienced by the performers and their audiences simultaneously. It happens in real time, and that shared experience is in fact its most salient feature: we “go through it” together. In a very real sense, that time spent together is the story.

Designers for such events are concerned not only with shaping how the story is told but, more crucially, how it is perceived. While in some cases, as in costumes or sets, their designs may be discrete, a series of unchanging conditions—at least for the duration of a scene—in others, in lighting or sound design for example, the design is precisely one of flux, shifting as need be over time. But in all cases the designers must address in their plans the larger narrative structure, the arc of the story as a whole: the necessary scene-to-scene changes of clothing, for example, or the transformation of a set from one location to another. Or not: each project requires its own approach.

This class is an introductory design class in a school of theater, but it's really more about perception—about paying attention to our own experiences of the real world circumstances, conditions & events that will eventually give substance and interest to our designs: our experience of space, for example, and the other people in it, through a passage of time; the information we derive from light and the way that sound can affect mood almost undetected; the dance between the ordinary and the extravagant, in clothing & setting; and the tension between the real and the imaginary and the artifice that goes into tapping them simultaneously to dramatic purpose.  Our definition of narrative performance is broad enough to encompass both Olympic opening ceremonial spectacles and routine campus tours—anything that has been shaped and sequenced for cumulative aesthetic experience for a participating audience. We will work out from where we are already, from what we have and what we know, to try and coax magic from our grounded lives, to find something richer within them.

The class is divided into 3 basic overlapping units: Ideas & Concepts; Arts & Crafts; and Projects. The topics that comprise each unit are organized in weekly modules, two topics united by theme more than obvious affinity, with in-class exercises and homework assignments to activate your exploration of each of them. Each assignment includes an opportunity for self-assessment, as well as to respond to classmates' work. Some of these assignments build on each other in sequence; others are stand-alone. At least one will be a group project. Some may be used as foundations for final projects, though there will be alternatives to choose from as well.  Collaborations are welcome, but not required. I'm not looking for skill or polish, but for engagement, focus, and growth.

Learning goals:

  • Students will learn to identify, analyze, and devise the structures of a performance event (play, dance, campus tour, etc.), and to develop design concepts that address the changes over time these structures may require.
  • They will develop familiarity with various practices in the deployment of performers, such as blocking, focus, pacing, sightlines, and transitions, in order to design effectively for them.
  • They will acquire language and tools to talk about, explore, and design for the performance space through set, lighting, costumes, sound, and other technologies.
  • Individually and in groups, they will devise and present designs for short performances in found spaces, utilizing concepts and tools mentioned above.
  • They will cultivate practices of observation and discernment of the impact of design on human experience, in both audiences and in themselves.


         By focusing on the questions of change, duration and sequence common to all performative events, this course prepares students to think of their design objectives holistically, as mutable components of a larger expressive project through time, as opposed to discrete finished works.  Further, by proposing a more capacious definition of the narrative event, the class invites students to draw ideas and inspiration more liberally from their own experiences of the world.


GRADING Total Points (points for individual assignments TBD):                     

  • Class community engagement—in class, Canvas discussions & peer reviews: 25%
  • Homework—reading prep for class & creative assignments: 25%
  • Group projects: 25%     
  • Final Project: 25%

Class community engagement is: participation in discussions & activities in class, contributing to discussions in Canvas, and reviewing peer work posted in Canvas.

Homework will entail: reading assigned texts & preparation to discuss them in class; and a variety of individual creative exercises, some of them written, others imagery.

Group projects: collaborative research with presentations on assigned topics; collectively devised and presented narrative events.

Final Projects: selected from several options & presented in the last week. Collaborative projects are welcome but must be proportionally more ambitious.



There are no books to buy. All assigned readings will be available in Canvas as pdf. In Canvas Files.

Technology: While I will be delighted if you want to submit your designs as drawings, you may generally prefer to create them in various design apps like Photoshop or Illustrator, then upload the finished work to Canvas. Some of the assignments will be “mood boards,” essentially collages of images you’ve selected. There are free collage apps online.

The Adobe Creative Cloud package—Photoshop, Illustrator, Lightroom, Premiere, After Effects—can be subscribed at the educational rate of $30 a month.  The School of Drama has some computers with design apps on them in rooms that you can access during “daytime hours.” You can also find the apps on computers in the Odegaard Library Learning Commons. Unfortunately, Odegaard is also only open 9 to 5. If these hours do not work for you, let me know and we’ll see what we can do to accommodate you in Hutchinson. You may also get a laptop loan for the term from the Student Technology Loan Program.

IF YOU ARE WORKING ON UNIVERSITY COMPUTERS YOU MUST HAVE A SEPARATE FILE STORAGE DEVICE OF YOUR OWN. If you save your work on the computer, it will be deleted at the end of the day. I would recommend a device of no less than 64GB.


This class will be in-person, though that may change if circumstances require it.  We go forward with the assumption that everyone in class has been vaccinated. Come to class wearing your mask and wear it throughout. Try to maintain social distancing both while seated and during activities. The classroom will be equipped with an air filter.
That said, “breakthrough” cases in vaccinated people are not uncommon. If you are not feeling well with any of the Covid symptoms—fever, couch, loss of taste, etc.—DO NOT COME TO CLASS.  Let me know and try to complete the assignments as best you can. 
But not everyone infected will have symptoms. If you know that anyone you’ve had close contact with in a closed space for more than 15 minutes over the course of 24 hours—that describes this class!get tested before returning to class.

Above all, take this seriously and behave responsibly.  If anyone in this class tests positive, in-person class will be suspended and go back online for 2 weeks. After 18 months of that already, no one wants that.

Health authorities are urging us to get flu shots as soon as possible.

There are several good reasons to do this: Due to Covid precautions very few people got the flu last year, so most of us have less resistance than usual; If you get the flu, your symptoms will resemble Covid symptoms, triggering tests and probable quarantine; Most crucially, get the shot to reduce the chances that you, or someone else you've exposed, have to be hospitalized. Hospitals everywhere are under extraordinary strain from the pandemic, with severe shortages of intensive care beds and staff. Keeping yourself healthy as best you can is a civic good.


The diversity students bring to this class (including gender identity, sexuality, dis/ability, age, socioeconomic status, ethnicity, race, nationality, religion, and culture) should be honored as a resource, strength and benefit. We will do our best to create an online environment in which each class member is able to hear and respect others. If something is said or done in the virtual classroom, or in a discussion, or in the group project process, by one of the instructors or other students, that is particularly troubling or causes discomfort or offense, we would like to know about it. While our intention may not be to cause discomfort or offense, the impact is something that we consider to be very important and deserving of attention. The School of Drama developed the following resource that can help you navigate how to proceed if you would like to voice a concern beyond one of us as your instructor: https://drama.washington.edu/process-voicing-concerns


Academic Accommodations:

Your experience in this class is important to me. It is the policy and practice of the University of Washington to create inclusive and accessible learning environments consistent with federal and state law. If you have already established accommodations with Disability Resources for Students (DRS), please activate your accommodations via myDRS so we can discuss how they will be implemented in this course.

If you have not yet established services through DRS, but have a temporary health condition or permanent disability that requires accommodations (conditions include but not limited to; mental health, attention-related, learning, vision, hearing, physical or health impacts), contact DRS directly to set up an Access Plan. DRS facilitates the interactive process that establishes reasonable accommodations. Contact DRS at disability.uw.edu.


Pandemic Accommodations: These are difficult times, and we want to accommodate students as best we can. The university has resources or health and wellness, please take advantage of them if you want or need to. https://wellbeing.uw.edu/

If you are experiencing technical difficulties with remote classes, please alert your instructors to discuss accommodations. Most importantly, please take your self-care seriously.


The UW Food Pantry:

A student should never have to make the choice between buying food or textbooks. The UW Food Pantry helps mitigate the social and academic effects of campus food insecurity. We aim to lessen the financial burden of purchasing food by providing students with access to food and hygiene products at no-cost. Students can expect to receive 4 to 5 days’ worth of supplemental food support when they visit the Pantry. For information including operating hours, location, and additional food support resources visit https://www.washington.edu/anyhungryhusky/the-uw-food-pantry/


Religious Accommodations

Washington state law requires that UW develop a policy for accommodation of student absences or significant hardship due to reasons of faith or conscience, or for organized religious activities. The UW’s policy, including more information about how to request an accommodation, is available at Religious Accommodations Policy (https://registrar.washington.edu/staffandfaculty/religious-accommodations-policy/). Accommodations must be requested within the first two weeks of this course using the Religious Accommodations Request form (https://registrar.washington.edu/students/religious-accommodations-request/).


Disability Resource Services

Your experience in this class is important to us. If you have already established accommodations with Disability Resources for Students (DRS), please communicate yourapproved accommodations to me at your earliest convenience so we can discuss your needs in this course.

If you have not yet established services through DRS, but have a temporary health condition or permanent disability that requires accommodations (conditions include but not limited to; mental health, attention-related, learning, vision, hearing, physical or health impacts), you are welcome to contact DRS at 206-543-8924 or uwdrs@uw.edu or disability.uw.edu. DRS offers resources and coordinates reasonable accommodations for students with disabilities and/or temporary health conditions. Reasonable accommodations are established through an interactive process between you, your instructor(s) and DRS.  It is the policy and practice of the University of Washington to create inclusive and accessible learning environments consistent with federal and state law.



Safe Campus:  https://www.washington.edu/safecampus/

Call SafeCampus at 206-685-7233 anytime – no matter where you work or study – to anonymously discuss safety and well-being concerns for yourself or others. SafeCampus’s team of caring professionals will provide individualized support, while discussing short- and long-term solutions and connecting you with additional resources when requested.



Catalog Description: 
Narrative critically structures many forms of visual design that go into creating performance events. Includes ritual and guided tours. Uses change over time as an essential lens for developing effective sets, lighting, costumes, and other design elements. Includes class exercises, weekly assignments, and a final project.
GE Requirements: 
Arts and Humanities (A&H)
Last updated: 
October 20, 2022 - 9:58pm