Grease. The Sound of Music. Into the Woods. Beauty and the Beast…you know the type. Glamorous, flamboyant, all singing and all dancing shows. Every year, Performing Arts departments all over the world deliberate over what show they will produce for their communities. Of course, there are countless musicals, plays and productions available to schools and yet we always end up seeing the same type of shows being produced. These are usually musicals and they are usually these broadway-type shows. And, they are usually very, very “safe”.
Of course, as educators, I’m sure we have all watched productions over the years and will have been mightily impressed with the students’ (and staffs’) skills, dedication and enthusiasm. And rightly so.
“Theatre goes beyond entertainment for entertainment’s sake. It can be powerful and it can be beautiful.”
However, as a drama teacher, I feel that schools need to be braver with their choices of productions. The theatre is a brave space. It is a place where difficult conversations and themes can be presented and one where these conversations can thrive. Theatre goes beyond entertainment for entertainment’s sake. It can be powerful and it can be beautiful.
The theatre is a place where young people can learn about the world around them, to make sense of it, and to explore their role within it. Through theatre, students can develop their individuality and their identity as well as an ability to communicate themselves authentically to build better, deeper and more connected lives.
The process of being involved in a production does all of that to some extent, through the learning and use of key transferable skills as well as production specific ones. However, if this was in conjunction with powerful content matter, the impact would surely be even greater, extending the experience to the audience, even more so.
“What is it about a school production that means we can’t allow for these conversations to take place?”
So, why aren’t schools being brave in their choices of productions when presenting to the whole school? What is it about a school production that means we can’t allow for these conversations to take place? We have them everyday in school and in the classroom. Is a production setting too “public” to present a difficult conversation? Is it because educators are fearful over how parents might react? Or, is there an overall lack of appropriate production materials out there for schools? It’s probably all of the above.
The process of deliberation over which show to produce is always a long one. Every year, the conversation is largely the same, “what can we do with the students we have, and what will the school allow?” (A principal once asked me to take the teen pregnancy “bit” out of Grease).
There is usually a conversation about overall appropriateness, too. Some musicals such as The King and I and Guys and Dolls have not aged well. Then there’s the cost to faint over. After that, the licensing companies have their say on what is actually available to perform and the list of possibilities is quite quickly reduced to two or three. And the relevance and importance of those is often questionable.
“Some musicals such as The King and I and Guys and Dolls have not aged well.”
There is a general lack of meaningful and relevant production scripts out there. Particularly for those in international contexts and settings. And, particularly, when it comes to musicals which are more likely to “get bums on seats”.
But, school productions are important. For a school community, school productions are a wonderful opportunity to celebrate students’ skills and abilities. Students, parents, governors, owners and such can all come together as a community.
“Wouldn’t it be nice if the post-show conversation extended beyond a comment such as ‘that was amazing’?”
Plus, a school production is an opportunity for a school to market itself. This could be in relation to the schools’ facilities or to demonstrate the range and quality of opportunities that are available to students.
But wouldn’t it be nice if the post-show conversation extended beyond a comment such as “that was amazing” to one that opened up a dialogue about an issue or theme that was significant to the young people in our schools?
If we remain fearful over even approaching difficult conversations and themes in a public forum, how do we expect our students to, in the real world?