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  • Writer's pictureGrace Davidson-Lynch

Theatre Education Isn't About Creating Artists

In the last few weeks, the Illawarra theatre community has been buzzing with allegations of misconduct towards some young performers and students at a well-known public high school. Any allegations of this nature should be taken seriously, and should be properly investigated. It’s a developing and very sensitive situation, and I wish all students past and present the very best. However, reading these allegations of harassment and abuse, I found myself returning to the same thought again and again.


That sounds like something that happened to me.


Not in any super specific way, but the tales of children being treated like paid adult performers (read- harshly and unempathetically) is one a lot of people who have experience in youth or amateur theatre can probably relate to. For me, the most distressing experiences I had as a child performer were during my days as a dancer. It’s all still so vivid- blinking back tears as your eyeliner was applied in a hurry with a blunt pencil, being so tired that you nod off backstage, the cold of waiting on wintry evenings in parking bays behind stages when all you are wearing is a leotard. I did really love dance when I was younger, and certainly don’t regret my experiences. But I’ve been wondering about the benefits of allowing children as young as six to work a 16-hour day for a show presented by the Education Department where they perform in two tech runs, a matinee and an evening performance that concludes at 10pm- even if I had fun doing it.



The obvious benefit, as I was told when I was a child, was that performing in school plays and dance competitions was great professional experience. That’s a nice story, and there’s lots of wildly successful movie stars to point to as evidence that becoming a child actor leads into a fruitful creative career. Neil Patrick Harris, Leonardo DiCaprio, and all those who were churned out by the Disney Star Machine are proof of it. But there are plenty more child actors who go on to have careers elsewhere. Peter Ostrum, who played Charlie in the 1971 film Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, became a veterinarian; he stated in a 2014 interview that “…growing up, I always denied my part in Willy Wonka… I just didn't really want to have anything to do with it." Because the truth is that, for the vast majority of young people who perform in school musicals or as extras on TV, they will grow up to become nurses, lawyers, HR managers, small business owners, stay-at-home parents, or drama teachers.

I don’t think the value of childhood performing arts is entirely in its potential monetary value. The system isn't at its most successful when it reflects the real-world creative industries, toxicity and all.


Arts education is a very different beast, and when it is treated as such, it can work wonders in a child’s life.


There is plenty of research to show that teaching performing arts in schools can improve the overall experience of a student’s education. The American Alliance for Theatre and Education states that participating in the arts can improve student attendance, reading comprehension, standardised test scores, and general engagement. The arts can also help students improve their self-esteem, communication skills, and academic confidence. Despite the way that the arts is often perceived, in a school or learning environment is has a very different meaning than the arts as performed by professionals for $200 a ticket. Bob Morrison, founder of Quadrant Research, argues that-


“…there is a persistent myth that arts education is for the gifted and talented, but we know that the arts benefit everyone regardless of their vocational pathways… We don’t teach math solely to create mathematicians, and we don’t teach writing solely to create the next generation of novelists. The same holds true for the arts. We teach them to create well-rounded citizens who can apply the skills, knowledge and experience from being involved in the arts to their careers and lives.”



Drama education in the form of shows and plays is in a unique position to fill in the gaps where students can fall down. Inattentive, overactive, creative, fidgety, sporty students can benefit from participating in a play or musical. Drama can provide a support system and bring students out of their shell.


That was certainly the case for me.


I was very shy when I was younger, but started attending a drama class when I was 14. What I found there was an escape from the embarrassment and insecurities that plagued me. In drama class I spoke up, and my ideas were respected and explored by peers and teachers who understood that making something together is about emotional support as well as artistic vigour.


But of course, in every drama class for high school kids, there are people who don’t care.


*Adam was one of those boys.


He would get distracted and joke around with his friends, ignore the teacher and make fun of other students. He had no interest in drama, and made that clear by being disruptive. For a shy teacher’s pet like me, people like him and his friends were a nightmare. It felt like my only respite from dumb jocks and judgemental teenage girls was being taken away by the very people that made my life so stressful. These boys had sport and girlfriends and cars and social capital- yet there they were, ruining the few hours a week where that stuff didn’t matter.


My teacher saw this. He knew the boys needed to be dealt with, but he also saw that my friends and I were genuinely interested in what were exploring in class. It was only natural that he break down the tension between these groups and pair us all off.


That’s how I got stuck with Adam for a scene.


We sat down to start working on our performance, and it was as if Adam’s oxygen supply was cut off. He was quiet and almost shy. Being split off from his friends took away all the loudness and attitude that made him so terrifying to me. I spoke more to him in that first 20-minute rehearsal than I had in the 4 years of school we had had together by that point.


But what was most surprising was how willing he was to participate.


Over the next few weeks, he would always show up for rehearsal. He learnt his lines, and started to get interested in his character and the play we were studying. When we talked about why he chose to do drama, he admitted that it was just a bludge for him. But he was starting to enjoy it more and more. During class, we started talking about things other than the work. In the corridors when we would pass each other, we would even say brief hellos, even when we were with our respective friend groups.


After our assessment, I remember asking if he would be doing drama the following year. He seemed to really enjoy it. He had a natural charisma; the kind that makes for a disruptive class clown, but also a really good actor. He put more effort in than anyone had expected of him.


But he said he wouldn’t. I don’t know why.


After that, we would still smile in the halls at each other, but we were never friendly beyond that. He went back to his world, and I remained in mine. I sometimes think about where he is, and what he could have done if he had continued to explore acting. I doubt he would have followed that career path- most who study drama as kids don’t take it to a professional level. But would he have benefitted in other ways? Could it have aided his academic confidence, attendance, and communication skills? Would it have broadened his horizons?


Statistically, the answer is yes.


When I hear horror stories of schools and other institutions treating their young artists badly, I think back to how vulnerable Adam was to other people’s perceptions. I think about how lucky I was that I happened to find drama when I did. Drama and dance made me feel proud of myself in ways that all children and young adults should feel proud. It made me understand the value of persistence, of being confident and creative, and communicating and trusting my gut. I got better at these things in other aspects of my education and life more broadly.


High school musicals are not designed to be critically acclaimed, or to create new DiCaprios. Arts education is one part of a system designed to prepare young people for the real world. And no parent, teacher, or know-it-all adult has the right to ruin that magic for all the kids that find their purpose, creativity, and voice through performing arts.

What do you think about arts education and the impact on young artists? Please share your musings in the comments!

References


American Alliance for Theatre & Education 2018, 'The Effects of Theatre Education', American Alliance for Theatre & Education, <https://www.aate.com/benefits-of-theatre-ed>.


Aronica, L & Robinson, K 2018, 'Why dance is just as important as math in school', ideas.ted, 21 March, <https://ideas.ted.com/why-dance-is-just-as-important-as-math-in-school/>.


Latifi, A 2020, 'Allegations of racism at Wollongong high school', The Illawarra Mercury, 27 August, <https://www.illawarramercury.com.au/story/6898858/wollongong-school-racism-allegations-to-be-investigated-after-facebook-post/>.


Ogunjimi, O 2020, 'Peter Ostrum's life after playing Charlie Bucket in 'Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory', AmoMama, 4 February, <https://news.amomama.com/192533-life-peter-ostrum-playing-charlie-willy.html>.

Robinson, K 2013, 'How to escape education's death valley', TED Talks Education, <https://www.ted.com/talks/sir_ken_robinson_how_to_escape_education_s_death_valley>.


Vukovic, R 2018, 'Live theatre improves learning and tolerance', Teacher Magazine, 13 June, <https://www.teachermagazine.com.au/articles/live-theatre-improves-learning-and-tolerance>.


Images

Tap shoes photograph © Wix Media

School Spectacular photograph © Anna Warr for NSW Department of Education

Choir and microphone photograph © Wix Media


*not their real name

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