St Mary’s College in Hull has an impressive proscenium theatre and an ambitious programme of productions. Director of Performance, Neil Wood, has worked in musical theatre professionally and he draws on this background in his approach to teaching:
I always say to my students right at the beginning that when they walk through the doors of my classroom they are walking into a rehearsal studio and they are very much young actors. We will be creating theatre together and I expect them to be evaluative actors who can look back and also comment on other people’s work in a supportive environment. So I very much treat the classroom as a studio space.
The productions are led by students often as part of their courses, supported by staff, but with considerable responsibility for all the different aspects of production. In one term there might be a musical production, a play, a dance performance and a talent show alongside the school’s existing commitment to a programme of work as an RSC Associate School and in partnership with Hull Truck Theatre. Senior management support the work fully and see it as integral to the ethos of the school:
I think it sits very comfortably with our spiritual ethos because spirituality isn’t something that is only linked with religion. It is about the discovery of self. I am always struck by the self-esteem that goes with acting and performing. I sometimes think I see therapy in art and design and, in acting. I see therapy in the escape of taking on a role and the ability to be someone else and to explore their nature. The curriculum should provide as many kinds of opportunities for that kind of spiritual experience and that kind of self-discovery.
Deputy Head, Damian Walmsley
The TALE research team are currently analysing the data we have collected from the first year of visits and it’s very interesting to see what the students themselves say about what they learn when they take part in professional productions. The focus group of twenty four students we interviewed suggested they developed a wide range of skills:
- Active engagement
- Dealing with pressure.
- Social skills
- Thinking on your feet
- Portraying the right image
- Being proud of who you are
- Trial and error
- Being able to give and take constructive criticism
Students often talk about pushing themselves to perform and the way this their increases confidence and as these year 10 students suggests, it is not always easy:
Some people used to run off if they were asked to go on stage whereas now, they might not love doing it, but they will volunteer.
In drama, even if you don’t feel confident, you get up on that stage and forget about everything and express yourself.
As the students go on to suggest:
You can’t take anything back when you are doing this kind of thing [live performance].
So much of what they do involves taking risks, but they have a clear sense of the value this has to their own development:
In drama you learn to exploit yourself and embody your ideas. You perform in real life.
I asked Neil how the RSC Associate School programme fitted with his approach to teaching:
I’ve always had this view of my classroom being a rehearsal space but to go along and work with a worldwide leading company and find that is what they were trying to do too…they were trying to bring Shakespeare into the classroom as a rehearsal room practice. And with the very first CPD we did that unlocked Shakespeare for me and I suddenly had these ways of unlocking texts.
Clearly this student, who said he previously did not like Shakespeare, has also found new ways to think about the plays:
I loved reading it. He has so many different ways – like there’s a battle and they’ll be a comedy section in it. That’s why I love it because I want to think about why he did that.
Despite the challenges schools currently face in relation to the government position on arts education, the leadership team at St Mary’s are confident that they know what will best support the learning and success of their students:
2017 is a huge opportunity for us in terms of the cultural agenda and I hope that we take it to heart as a school and I really hope the city does as well.
Deputy Head, Damian Walmsley
We look forward to catching up with staff and students at St Mary’s and to hearing more about their experiences of being part of the UK City of Culture later in the year.