Originally posted on artsawardvoice.com
When I’m not Content Editor for Arts Award Voice, I’m producer of a theatre company for young audiences. So when I saw this Guardian article about theatre in education, I was particularly interested. Adam Barnard, from Company of Angels, outlines many of the issues with theatre inside schools, and suggests one answer is to allow students to commission plays. To me, if this were a widespread solution it would not just revolutionize theatre in education. It could also have an important impact on all theatre for young people, inside and outside the classroom, by prioritizing new writing.
As with children’s literature, society is beginning to accept that books and plays for young people don’t have to have a lesson or a moral. They can be educational in the sense that all literature and all art, for adults or children, teaches us something about ourselves and about the world. However, with the restrictions of the curriculum and financial constraints, theatre within schools is often forced to be uber-relevant: think adaptations of exam texts or plays about Pythagoras’ Theorem. This is a missed opportunity for a (literally) captive audience to engage with a creative art form. Performances at schools may also be the only chance that many young people experience theatre at all – we should be pushing for plays that will ignite their imagination and spark their soul!
So Adam Barnard’s suggestion, that we allow students to commission plays, is a great one. Company of Angels run a programme called ‘The Commissioners’. Ten professional playwrights go into schools and the students commission a play, giving their ideas to the writer who comes back with a draft which the young people edit. The play is then staged using professional actors, and the text and script rights are given to the school. The project has far-reaching educational benefits, encouraging students to articulate their ideas, and allowing them to work with a professional. It also benefits the writer, who gains an insight into the students’ world.
Why does a project like ‘The Commissioners’ have potentially far-reaching importance? Barnard lists the reasons why now ‘might be a good time to be a kid whose parents or teachers have the means and inclination to buy theatre tickets.’ More ‘challenging’ work is being created by newly enthused artists and companies, and critics like Lyn Gardner and Susan Elkin insist that we should take children’s theatre seriously. But this golden age of theatre for young audiences is not as it seems. Doesn’t it speak volumes that Gardner and Elkin must give this reminder to society? And whilst some companies are creating astounding work for young people, they are often those on the tightest budgets, playing at smaller venues. The most successful and popular productions, playing in the largest venues, on the biggest budgets, and with the highest ticket prices, continue to be adaptations. Often they are adaptations of picturebooks, like ‘The Gruffalo’, and often they are adaptations of Edwardian children’s literature beloved of parents, like ‘The Railway Children.’ It’s financially safer to stick with stuff people know.
I’m not saying that young people don’t enjoy these productions. But they overwhelmingly overshadow original work, so that new writing for young people is niche, and commercial work is prioritized. The enthusiasm for innovation is there, and plenty of companies (my own included) are desperately trying to get funding so they can create imaginative, new work, often with input from young people through workshops. In the meantime, many artists end up doing prescriptive plays in schools to make ends meet.
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