‘If I ran the country…’

This post is written by Lexi Earl on her trip to Sacred Heart Catholic School for Girls.

As I was walking to catch a train at Newcastle central station, I started to listen to an episode of Desert Island Discs. I’m not sure about you but I find Desert Island Discs very comforting, the combination of music and life stories is soothing. This particular episode was a conversation with Paul Greengrass, director of (amongst other things) The Bourne series of films. In her opening monologue, Kirsty Young (the show’s host) quotes Paul as saying, “I don’t want people watching from the outside, I want them to be participants. Drama can take you there in a way that the facts can’t”. Paul went on to explain that it is the immersion in cinema that transports you to a particular place, and lets you into people’s lives, and (I think) allows you to empathise with them.

Sac H drama board

But it was the line ‘drama can take you there in a way that the facts can’t’ that stuck with me on my journey home. I had just spent two days at Sacred Heart Catholic School for Girls, talking to drama students and drama teachers. The girls I spoke to were very aware of the power of drama to explain events, or alter people’s lives, or teach them skills that they couldn’t necessarily learn in other classes.

In our conversation, some of the Year 12 girls explained the importance they felt Drama had beyond the standard curriculum.

“If I ran the country […] I would make Drama compulsory. I don’t know if I’d put it at the same standard as Maths and English because not everyone likes Drama, but the skills you get from it are so important. And people undermine Drama and say it is a soft subject. But everyone who does Drama knows the amount of work and stress. I hate it when people say that [it’s easy]. It’s horrible sometimes. But when you’re little and you’re shy, Drama is the only way you can break out your shell. […] And in fact not everyone is good at Maths and English and Science. And the only thing they’re good at is the arts, and people tend to neglect those kids who only can do the arts.”

The girls identified skills that Drama had helped them learn; that they thought would be valuable in their future lives.

“The skills that you use like team work. That will help you in your career because there are a lot of skills you need.”

“Public speaking. You learn so much about diction and volume. The speed you’re meant to go at so people can understand you. And if you don’t do Drama you’ve missed out.”

The students I spoke to at Sacred Heart understood that Drama was not just about learning plays, or acting scenes. Drama gave them skills that they could then apply to later life. While this may not have been what Greengrass meant when he said ‘drama can take you there in a way that the facts can’t’, his comment helped me see the importance of Drama as more than simply a subject at school. Drama has ‘real world’ value. The girls at Sacred Heart knew that.

a wall, a lion and a moon

I have been immersed in Shakespeare for the past few weeks. Many of the schools I have visited as part of our Year 3 research visits have been RSC partnership schools and so I have been watching students learn sword-fighting, talking to young people about their participation in productions of The Tempest, or observing them devise stage directions for particular scenes. This is all fairly usual daily work.

A few weeks ago, while visiting Towers School in Kent, I had the opportunity to watch several groups of students perform scenes from different plays as part of their last English lessons before half-term. Becca Gardner, an English teacher and leader of the RSC work at the school, explained that allowing students to perform was a lovely way to end their 6-week study of a particular play.

The Year 7 classes had been studying A Midsummer Night’s Dream. This is one of my favourite plays, and they were performing one of my favourite scenes – the play within the play, put on by The Mechanicals, that can be a masterful portrayal of comedy. I have seen A Midsummer Night’s Dream performed on several occasions but watching the Year 7s understand the comical aspects of the scene and master the language was truly enthralling.

The class took place within the school hall, which has a large stage and elevated seating area for the audience. The students were not intimidated by this theatre size nor by performing in front of their peers. They were all given about 15 minutes to rehearse the scene in their groups, and were then invited to share their performance with the class.

During rehearsals, the room was full of movement, laughter, dramatic falling, negotiation, exclamations, pulling, pushing, dashing, lying on the floor… On stage, the students were a joy to watch. In one of the first performances, Wall had to be bodily carried off stage by the other actors, so heavy was his imaginary wall costume. In one group, Moonshine was pulled around the stage by an imaginary dog, interrupting other scenes as he dashed past. Then he stood enthusiastically in front of Pyramus who was trying his best to deliver his final speech as an eager Moonshine held the ‘moonlight’ in his face. Eventually Pyramus grew so frustrated that he shoved Moonshine out of the way so the audience might watch his dramatic death.

In another group, Wall spoke in a high squeaky voice and took ballerina steps off the stage (going the wrong way), much to his audience’s amusement. In this group, Thisby whispered audibly to Pyramus in the final scene, “just die already!” One group had actors wandering around looking lost, even after the Wall had started to speak, as if they weren’t quite sure whether the performance had started or not. Pyramus died, then awoke and died again, then woke again and died once more. Even as they were taking their bows, Pyramus remained in character, collapsing and dying once more. They ended with a forlorn Moonshine on a quest for his lost dog. “Seriously, though,” Moonshine asked the audience, “has anyone seen my dog?”

I laughed so much during these performances that tears ran down my face and the young people in the audience looked at myself and Becca (who was also in tears of laughter) with wide, surprised eyes.

The students use of asides, gazing knowingly at the audience, physical movement, expressions, and complete immersion as The Mechanicals playing Pyramus and Thisby spoke to a deeper understanding of the play, and the power of comedy. They all really understood the humour in the scene. None were intimidated by the language. They were completed immersed in the lesson and fully willing to embrace the ridiculousness of the play.

What a wonderful way to end a six-week block of Shakespeare lessons! If anyone tells you Shakespeare is boring, or serious, or requires a lot of annotated texts to understand, I urge you to send them to Towers School, where the young people will quite happily prove you wrong.