A BRIEF HISTORY OF
THEATRE IN EDUCATION
Written by Richard A. Cope
Theatre in Education began in 1965 as a project undertaken by the Belgrade Theatre in Coventry. At that time, the 1960’s was at a point of change. There was a worldwide movement of protest and change and all kinds of revolution were forming. All aspects of society were affected by this – including education and theatre.
Education was moving away from the talk and listening methods that had been used for many years. Instead, these old methods were being replaced by learning and doing through experience - children were beginning to work in groups on projects. It was also preparing them for a culturally richer life. And in the theatre, things were changing too. There was a desire to push away the fourth-wall and to try new ideas and styles, looking at new topics for the content and exploring theatre outside of the theatres themselves.
The people who started TIE were influenced by this change in society. They were radical thinkers and were unsatisfied by the way things were. They were wanting to bring a change in society, questioning everything and having a form of theatre that could do this. Social issues had to be addressed that were relevant and immediate for their audiences. The entertainment in theatre was not enough, and so they linked it with the emotional and intellectual - through learning.
The Belgrade Theatre project, Pow Wow, took a group of children and they formed a relationship with a cowboy. They then met an Indian who was kept in a cage as a prisoner. The children were given information about both characters and their opposing views in the situation. In the end, they had to decide whether to free to the prisoned Indian or not. Their loyalties at this point were split between the two. The project had successfully merged theatre and education together in a new way that had never been seen before. From this beginning, TIE companies had to create their own work. This was done either by the company members or by a playwright. But of course every idea was just as good as the last because it was something totally new and specific. (Time, age, society and geography, for example). After Belgrade, many other TIE companies appeared in England: Bolton, Glasgow, Leeds, Nottingham. The companies offered a free service that was funded the LEA, which meant that schools didn’t have to pay.
The TIE companies consisted of about 4-6 actors and took one class at a time. The actor also doubled up as a teacher. The programme for TIE went as follows:
· The performance did not stand alone, but was part of an educational package.
· There would be a pre-view and a discussion with the teachers.
· There would be pre-work in the classroom.
· The TIE company would often make more than one visit.
· Classroom work took inbetween the performance/s.
· Follow-up work in the classroom after the theatre company had finished its involvement.
· The TIE companies work would often last a full term.
The children would be involved in all sorts of ways, either in a role or as themselves, and getting them to face up to important decisions in the performance. The childrens involvement was crucial in aiding the development of TIE
This programme continued to develop throughout the 1970’s, but there were problems with the structure of some of the companies, with content, form, and whether writers are better than devising the performances and so on. In the early Thatcher years of the 1980’s, funding for Theatre in Education was cut. The Tories believed that art should be value for money, and in theatre terms, TIE was too expensive. And so, many TIE companies vanished. Those that could survive were told to find sponsors, but even then schools were finding it hard to fit TIE into their new timetables, which meant that the companies were getting less work than before.
The 1980’s saw another change to society. Politically, the government wasn’t so keen on experimental theatre and pushed their views of ‘value for money.’ The education system was changing, which meant that funding was none existent and making TIE companies charge for their visits. (An average £250 for just one class). Drama was taken out from the National Curriculum and then put back in - but not as a core subject, serving the English syllabus and other subjects. Due to the league tables, schools were concentrating on the ‘basics’ – literacy and numeracy. (More ‘simple’, than ‘basic’).
Theatre itself was changing too, with audience participation going out of fashion and the call for more artistic experience. It was felt that there was too much emphasis on education, not theatre. In the end, TIE companies could not decide the conditions for their work – the schools did. This meant a performance followed by a workshop was becoming more common, sometimes to more than one class at the same time putting too much pressure on the companies. The schools even began to censor the content - and some still do today.
The end of the 1990’s is a world totally different to that of the 1960’s. Technology has stepped up, communication is growing even more and everything in the world can be seen in the newspapers, on the radio or on television. We have access to all of this and we can choose to ignore the problems and hope that they go away. But there are some things that the children are more aware of then the rest of us: things that are happening in schools, on the playground, on the way home, in the local park. It could be bullying, drugs, gang fighting and so on. These things are probably the equivalent to what’s happening in the world to a child. To us, it might not be as important as watching the tension between countries getting tighter or worrying about your income. Schools will look at issues, such as bullying and drugs with the children, but it is not enough. They can only explain and show them so much without going to far.
A recent report showed that children are becoming more aware of sex at a younger age, and so the government are showing videos and talking to them at primary school level. When I was in the 1st Year at secondary school, we watched a video on sex education – and that was it. We didn’t care about things like that at that age and I’m sure that primary school children aren’t that bothered either. But surely, getting children to watch sex education videos will only encourage them to try it? I certainly think so. And why can’t the parents teach them about the ‘facts of life?’
But what I cannot understand is why teach them sex and not teach them how to cope in life – how to deal with situations such as bullying or being offered drugs, or even everyday situations. It is as though these subjects are a taboo. My younger brother had to get a letter from my parents giving him permission just so that he could listen to a teacher explaining what drugs are and what effect they have you. I didn’t have to have a letter. We were told and we learnt. During that week a TIE company came in a showed us the effects of taking drugs. It was simple, but effective. The company had clearly done their research and taught us more in the performance than any parent or teacher could tell us. The actors were on our level and knew what would work and make us listen. They didn’t have a learning pack from the government, guiding them and aiding them, telling them what to look at and what not to look at. The company had obviously done plenty of research, asking the children themselves how they felt about drugs and if they had ever been offered them. They went out there in the world and asked the children. It was reflected in the performance and it was in your face. There were no statistics from some report that the government had put together, no guessing about what we really thought and acted like. The performance was re-acting situations and experiences that had happened to other children.
Unlike a television set, radio or a newspaper where you can simple change a channel, turn over a page and ignore what’s happening - theatre is there in front of you. You can shut your eyes and take your mind away from it, but it’s there. It can show you the world as it really is. It makes you think. It can even change society.
Theatre in Education can take a class and show them anything. They could be shown things from their history, everyday situations and how to deal with them, give them the confidence they’ve needed. It can create a huge amount of awareness, such as why we do things the way we do. It can explain to them our culture and other cultures; our fears that can shape our thoughts and actions; it can explore our mental states, preconceptions, ways of thinking; and most importantly, what makes us who we are. TIE creates an awareness of important themes and issues of every day life in society, and it can show and help us to understand the cost of the choices we make and the cost of the decisions we take.
It asks who is in control..?
What are they after..?
What is in it for them..?
What is in it for us..?
Of course the children play an important role in the performance. No matter what the performance is about, it will usually get the children to believe in what they are seeing. They may have to make a decision (such as the prisoned Indian in Pow Wow), to act upon that decision and to reflect upon it. As a whole they would have to listen to each other and begin to understand why it is important to take themselves and others seriously. This is something that no other subject in a school can do.
I feel that Theatre in Education is very important and that if more money could be given to the companies, if schools could find more time for drama and explore issues, we might finally get children thinking for themselves about society and making them understand and care.
After all, one day our future will be in their hands.