A Little Revolution by Dan Rebellato
School is one of the most powerful ways that people become addicted to theatre. At my school, they didn’t do Drama GCSE or Theatre Studies A-Level – this was 30 years ago and anyway it wasn’t that sort of school. But we did have a visionary head of English who was obsessed with theatre. His name was and is Peter Coulson and he only taught plays to his English students; he helped create the school’s studio theatre and watched over what happened in it with a supportive but sometimes brutally critical eye. And when he directed the school play, he made you feel like there was nothing more important anyone could be doing, anywhere in the world. After a run, he gave notes like he was surveying the battlefield and enumerating the dead. If you gave him a good performance, it was as if he had been panning for gold and found some. When he taught us Hamlet for A Level, he made trying to reconcile the Hamlet of Act 4 and the Hamlet of Act 5 feel as urgent and intractable as trying to reconcile the warring parts of the former Yugoslavia. From that moment, my name slightly changed and my life totally changed. I’ll deny it if you ever ask, but secretly I think when you’re making a piece of theatre there is nothing more important anyone could be doing, anywhere in the world.
Except education. Okay, there’s education. That’s pretty important too. It really is one of the few things that has a chance to save us. Trying to foster in people a love of questioning, learning new things, making distinctions, exploring your own creativity, your own ignorance, your own capacity to discover, imagine if we succeeded in doing all that? What a world we would create. So when I think about theatre education, a bit of me thinks we’re doing the two most important things in the world.
Which makes it all the sadder that we theatre educationalists – or drama teachers, to give us our more common name – are often kept apart. Secondary school Drama teachers and university Drama academics have almost everything in common and yet we rarely spend any time together. Drama academics sometimes bitch about secondary school teachers and secondary school teachers sure as hell bitch about drama academics.
Yes, in the universities we would sometimes like students to come to us with a broader range of references, more history, more up-to-date theatremakers, more finely honed critical vocabularies. And yes, in the universities, sometimes we don’t help ourselves. Our books can be arcane, incomprehensibly written; academics can have a rather scornful attitude to secondary education – I’ve known more than one academic treat first-year students as if they were repositories of falsehoods and misinformation which it is our sad duty to correct. Most of us don’t know what happens in schools. When did most of my colleagues look at the Ofqual Subject Criteria for Drama and Theatre? Most of them, I’d guess, never.
But you know why? In part, it’s deliberate. We are specifically told not to engage with secondary education. You may know that the big test of all academic department is the REF: the Research Excellence Framework. It happens every seven years and the quality of the work we have produced is assessed and money and prestige follows from it, promotions too. Mostly the REF tests traditional research (books and articles), but in the most recent iteration, we were also assessed on our ‘impact’; that is, the impact we had made on the world outside academia. That sounds good, you might think, and this might be a mechanism to encourage us to engage with secondary education. But no: the rubric specifically excludes having an impact on education as impact-worthy.
And, like you, we’re busy: teaching our classes, doing our admin, publishing our research. How to make working with secondary education a priority against all the other priorities that higher education imposes on us? Similarly, how will you find the time for speculative meetings with academics that promise nothing and may just end up frustrating and fruitless? My partner’s an English and Drama teacher and I see first-hand the pressures on her. In her position, I’d not consider it a priority to write new schemes of work every year.
This is why I am excited to see an initiative like Essential Drama, which wants to connect secondary drama education, higher education and the theatre industry. Because it’s all learning and we are all connected. Yes, it’s all learning. Everything we offer our students, all of us. We are all trying to nurture that engagement with culture, that rich creative expression, that ever more sophisticated good taste in theatre, that alertness to the world outside and that insistence that the theatre can talk about absolutely anything and everything and usually does. Almost all drama academics got their first addictive exposure to theatre at school, probably, like me, acting in countless school plays. And I guess almost all drama teachers had their enthusiasm for theatre shaped and challenged and enriched at university. And, for all we sometimes moan, the students you give us are remarkable: creative, enthusiastic, articulate, adaptable, questioning, confident, usually brilliantly good humoured, smart and generous. You equip your students with a huge range of skills; we try to build on that. We are working together already, though it doesn’t always seem that way.
But we should be doing more. We need to find a way of overcoming the barriers and work together. We would benefit in universities from knowing more about the kinds of work you do with your students and, of course, we have a huge amount to offer you. Here’s an offer: I’d dearly like to see a broader range of practitioners taught at A Level than the usual Brecht, Stanislavski, Artaud. Important and brilliant though these guys are, they were all born more than a century ago. What about Tim Crouch? Or Katie Mitchell? Or Forced Entertainment? Or Howard Barker? Or Rimini Protokoll? Obviously, I’m talking about people I particularly know and care about – but if you think you’d like to teach their work, let’s talk. I’ll work with you to create a scheme of work, put together the resources, figure out some really great workshop exercises, and then we’ll make it all available on this site for anyone to use. Who’s up for it?
Interviews will be a feature of Essential Drama. I like that idea. One of the millions of brilliant and weird ironies of theatre is that the first really substantial thing anyone ever wrote about the theatre is also probably the most brutally critical about the theatre. Book X of Plato’s Republic sets out in great detail why the theatre is mendacious, perverting, fraudulent, banal, and pretentious and why, in the perfect city of its title, theatre simply wouldn’t be permitted or even necessary. But there’s a further fascinating irony in that the Republic like almost all of Plato’s works is written in dialogue form. These are the famous Socratic dialogues, in which, supposedly, Socrates hangs around the forum waiting for people to tell him what they confidently know about the world (about truth, or God, or justice, or virtue, etc.) and then by asking questions, Socrates shows them that really they know absolutely nothing at all. The irony here is that, despite what Plato says, it’s dramatic dialogue: the expression of the theatre’s awfulness is expressed in a theatrical form. So it seems eminently right that this site should host a lot of dramatic dialogues – conversations, debates, interviews, interrogations.
This is a monologue trying to become dialogue. I really want to work with teachers, to open a two-way dialogue.
I think this could catch on. Academics can be amazingly competitive; if students start coming through with expertise in Tim Crouch, they’re going to start wanting their favourite theatremakers to be taught in schools too – and they’ll have to start working with you to create their own schemes of work, on verbatim theatre and Ontoerend Goed and Rotozaza and Blast Theory. And I bet you serious money that teachers won’t want to be left out and this will stimulate even more innovation and exploration in new (and old, let’s not forget the brilliant but old) theatre forms in schools.
So I’m serious about this. Let’s work together. Because governments can divide us, make us compete, resent each other, when really we should be doing the theatre thing, working together, creating together. And if we did, we could start a little revolution here. Who wants to join this revolution?
Royal Holloway, University of London
Dan is Professor of Contemporary Theatre at Royal Holloway. He specialises in post-war British theatre. 1956 and All That (Routledge, 1999) is a rereading of the ‘theatrical revolution’ thought to have taken place at the Royal Court around Look Back in Anger. Dan is also an award-winning playwright, and his work has been performed across Britain and in Europe and America, on stage and radio.