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Understanding why theatre matters
In amongst all the many demands on schools, what’s the value of a trip to the theatre? Some of the answers given by students from Allerton High School, Leeds, visiting the National Theatre in October 2015, were: ‘Trips give me cultural and ‘outside’ experiences that I can use in adult life’; ‘Meeting someone in the theatre industry may help me when I’m older by letting me understand different jobs’; ‘School trips highlight the skills I have that I can transfer outside of school’; and ‘Today everyone got involved and we were learning through doing’.
The group weren’t just here to see a performance. As well as watching Our Country’s Good in the Olivier Theatre, the students took part in a pre-performance workshop led by a professional theatre director, exploring how the production had been rehearsed and directed. They also had a chance to tour behind the scenes of the Theatre, visiting the spaces where props and scenery are constructed and getting an insight into the wide range of skills and disciplines needed to put a show on one of the Theatre’s three stages.
Bringing Learning to life
The students’ comments reflect our own views at the National Theatre on our responsibilities to schools – and the reasons that more than 1,000 schools and colleges, from primary to further education (FE), get involved each year in our education programmes. Many more see National Theatre productions here on the South Bank, in the West End or broadcast to cinemas through National Theatre Live. Seeing a performance brings to life a play being studied in the English classroom. Students understand it not as words on a page but as a live medium, newly interpreted by actors, director and designer, each night creating an imaginative world shared with its audience.
Drama GCSE and A Level specifications rightly require students to develop an understanding of contemporary professional theatre practice, the different roles of theatre-makers such as directors and designers and explore the use of design, costume and lighting in performance.
But a visit to a theatre isn’t just about supporting the study of English and Drama at GCSE and A level, important though that is. This month Arts Council England launched the Cultural Education Challenge with the joint support of the Department for Education and the Department of Culture, Media and Sport. The initiative underlines the crucial role played by schools, in partnership with arts organisations, in introducing all young people to the arts and the wider creative industries – a sector that now provides one in 20 jobs and is the fastest growing in our economy.
Education Secretary Nicky Morgan argued in a speech to the Creative Industries Federation in July 2015 that access to the arts is a birthright. She said that ‘a young person’s education cannot be complete unless it includes the arts’.
Evidence shows that patterns of participation in the arts are determined in childhood, and that participation varies considerably between different socio-economic groups, with the most disadvantaged children the least likely to have access to the arts outside school. So the role of schools is vital. By organising visits to theatres and other arts experiences, or inviting artists into the classroom, schools open a door for their students not just to inspirational learning experiences but to lifelong opportunities.
The offer from theatres
Like many arts organisations, the National Theatre was founded with a mission to educate as well as entertain. An early photograph in our Archive shows a crocodile of ’70s primary school children filing into the newly-opened theatre on the South Bank. In that era, they would have been coming to watch a performance, but our idea of an education in theatre is now so much wider than seeing a play. It can encompass design, direction, technical skills in sound and lighting, the crafts of costume and prop‑making. Playwriting, devising and reviewing hone students’ creative and critical skills and their confidence in developing an idea. Plays can offer new perspectives on the complex topics, sparking debate. In the primary schools we work with much of a term’s curriculum from literacy to history and maths can be taught through a theatre-based topic.
The National Theatre has recently taken a step-change in our work with schools and opened the first dedicated spaces for education at the heart of the theatre. The new Clore Learning Centre has two spaces, one housing talks, debates, screenings, and workshops, the second designed to introduce backstage and production skills. Just across the foyer, the Dorfman Theatre is in regular daytime use as a thrilling workshop space for students, before opening to audiences each evening. And the Sherling High-Level Walkway, open daily and free of charge, allows schools visiting the South Bank to drop in for views into the Theatre’s busy backstage workshops.
The newly-opened spaces have transformed our offer to schools. Primary schools are invited to our Make Theatre Days, active introductions to theatre-making for children in Years 4-6. Options include a hands-on puppetry workshop where children create and animate their own animal puppet, performance skills, focusing on speech and movement, and a design workshop, where children create a set model, costume design or prop. All sessions are led by professional artists, skilled at sharing their craft with young people.
Teachers value the combination of inspiration, skill-development and enjoyment the days offer. One said: “All our children, including those who have special educational needs, were well looked after, included and fully engaged in the whole day. [They] will have memories to cherish forever.”
Another teacher commented: “An amazing workshop, inspiring all of our children to be confident and brave. They all learnt so many skills and we did too.”
The National Theatre’s offer to secondary schools and FE colleges, similarly, combines practical and hands-on skills development with insights into professional theatre, introducing students to a wide range of disciplines. The programme is designed to support the English and Drama performing and production arts curriculums, although there are also valuable opportunities to enhance Art and Design and Design Technology curriculum and indeed STEM subjects. Where else but in a theatre can students witness such an extraordinary marriage of technology, design and story-telling?
National Theatre productions require skilled engineers, technicians specialising in sound, lighting, video and automation; designers and craftspeople to realise their designs in 3D costumes, props and scenery – and playwrights, actors, musicians, directors and stage managers. Creative Choices, a regular event for Key Stage 4 students, gives an insight into this diversity of careers opportunities.
Students can also take part in practical workshops linked to productions, offered on performance skills, directing and design. Archive Learning Days explore key National Theatre productions and theatre genres through screenings of past productions, costume bibles, production images and press reviews. For students at Key Stage 4 and Key Stage 5 with a developed interest in technical theatre, masterclasses with some of the UK’s most senior theatre practitioners are on offer. The breadth of provision means that schools can build a day’s visit to the NT, giving their students the chance to engage with professionals and develop new skills, as well as seeing a production.
Inspiring opportunities and the chance to meet and work with professionals are also available to teachers. A highlight of the year is our Drama Teachers’s conference, two days of practical workshops with some of the UK’s leading theatre practitioners. This year’s conference on 18 and 19 February 2016 will include the chance to work with the director Katie Mitchell.
A teacher at the 2015 Conference said: “The sessions I attended were fabulous in terms of creative rejuvenation. There were so many ideas, practical tasks and approaches that I can directly apply to my work and it was excellent to have access to such experts in their field.”
The National Theatre is also increasingly using digital technology to bring theatre directly into schools. This September we launched National Theatre On Demand In Schools, a free streaming service which will enable students to see three iconic National Theatre productions in the classroom. Othello, Hamlet and Frankenstein, in which actors Benedict Cumberbatch and Johnny Lee Miller alternate in the title role, are now available to watch with supporting learning content. The offer compliments, rather than replaces, trips to see live performances, enabling students to study the play in performance day-to-day in their classroom.
Not every school can get to London. Some of our programmes, like Connections, our nationwide youth theatre festival, or New Views, a playwriting course and competition, take place in schools throughout the country. But there are also brilliant theatres, on
all scales, in towns and cities throughout the country, offering exciting performances and inspiring opportunities for primary and secondary students to get involved in theatre. Theatre education departments can guide you on the projects available and the suitability of plays for different age-groups; some will offer work experience or insights into careers in the creative industries.
The Arts Council’s re-launched Arts Mark can help schools to plan, deliver and evaluate their approach to cultural education, and provide evidence of a broad and balanced curriculum and the Social, Moral, Spiritual and Cultural development of all pupils. And with budgets increasingly stretched, many organisations including the National Theatre offer free or highly-subsidised projects; while schools are using Pupil Premium funding to narrow the gap in access to the arts for disadvantaged students.
Many of us who work at the National Theatre today can pinpoint the an experience at school – a theatre visit, an inspirational teacher, an encounter with a professional artist – as the spark to their career. Not all students will go on to work in theatre. But every one of them should have the chance to experience it before they leave school. As schools and theatres, let’s work together to make that a reality.