Learning through drama – social distance without emotional distance

Ava Hunt and Roger Wooster explore whether applied theatre has a future in a post-Covid world.

This article is published in Arts Professional and listed in full below:

If you are working in the performing arts sector you will be well aware of the threats (‘challenges’ is not a strong enough word) to your livelihood, your career and to your development as an artist posed by Covid-19 regulations. But there is an additional threat posed to a branch of theatre that usually takes place beyond the theatre building – one which you may be involved in. Theatre and drama experiences for young people and children in schools have been profoundly affected. 

Experience lost

University of Derby’s second year undergraduate students had planned to tour a production of David Holman’s Drink the Mercury into primary schools in Derby City in February 2021. The third lockdown in January forced a rapid re-planning. Converting a participatory theatre in education programme into a digital format was not easy. The director, Nathan Powell, worked with the actor students online. The students then recorded their performances and submitted footage to be edited. Such an approach relies on the teacher to facilitate the material rather than the trained creators of the programme. Pupils no longer make the journey into the school hall to interact and participate with actor-teachers in a specially created context. This experience is being lost. 

Learning through drama allows children and young people to put themselves into someone else’s shoes, developing empathy, an essential building block of cultivating emotional intelligence. Drama in schools also offers children an opportunity to develop their analytical skills, unpacking complex ideas. The children are engaged by the actor-teachers, who ask questions of the children: “I’m worried, what do you think I should do?” Playing out different options as suggested by the children provides valuable learning as they seek a range of creative solutions.

Fifty-year inertia

Does this matter? You may be old enough to remember when classrooms were arranged in serried ranks facing the fountain of knowledge – the teacher. In the last 50 years, education has moved towards a more organic arrangement: working in clusters, sharing ideas and supporting each other’s learning. In the first arrangement the dialogue is between individual class members and the ‘oracle’, the teacher; in the latter, ideas and concepts can explored among peers with the teacher facilitating extended knowledge. For understandable reasons education under the pandemic has returned us to that oracle-to-individual model. 

Theatre in education, applied drama and applied theatre evolved from the progressive education reforms of the 60s to offer ways in which theatre and drama can be tools for learning. These modes of education have rarely been acknowledged by the curriculum makers, who are largely ignorant about their existence. Since the first National Curriculum in 1982, ‘theatre’ has been a subject to be studied, critiqued and performed. It has not been considered a way to provide educational insight into society and certainly not as a tool to challenge and change the world. Later versions of the National Curriculum acknowledged theatre in education’s existence but again without understanding, regarding it solely as a vehicle to convey the personal, social, health and citizenship agenda. Further, the quality of education that young people receive through applied drama can’t be easily examined or assessed – and as we know if you cannot measure it, it is not worth measuring! 

We have a unique learning resource that seeks to educate the whole child, but the pandemic means applied theatre cannot be delivered when it is desperately needed. Applied theatre may not be there to offer this support, even assuming education returns to its pre-Covid form.

Digital integration

In our post-truth epoch, projects such as Drink the Mercury have never been more essential. Drink the Mercury focuses on the poisoning of the fishing waters in Minimata, Japan in 1970s. Derby’s production, created for year 6 pupils, invites the audience to consider the people of Minimata and what actions they have available to them. 

The children are encouraged to research environmental issues, identify issues they feel strongly about and learn through discussions and practical exercises set by the actor-teachers – now on screen. The children respond to the filmed scenes, problem solve and engage with creative lesson plans. This is a compromise: digital material produced by theatre companies is unlikely to offer sophisticated aesthetics. Some companies are experimenting with producing filmed material, and we know primary school teachers are integrating digital resources into everyday lessons very effectively. But what happens to the visiting artist enriching children’s learning in the classroom or school hall? How do we assess what has been learned from such projects? 

As we emerge from the current crisis, it will be crucial to find ways of repairing our social values, nurturing creativity and rebuilding human relationships. We have a skilled freelance workforce who may be left out of schools forever, with only well-funded companies able to produce high-spec filmed material. Perhaps you are working on solutions to these challenges, or you are aware of projects to pursue this vital role of the arts. Do get in touch and share. 

Ava Hunt is a Theatre Maker and Senior Lecturer and Programme Leader in MA Applied Theatre. Roger Wooster is a retired actor-teacher, academic and author.

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