Creating and Spectating: The Problem with How We Teach Drama
Updated: Jun 2, 2022
It’s no secret that theatres all over the country are struggling to fill seats. Few will dispute the quality of the work that theatre-makers are producing, but aside from the big-budget musicals it can be difficult to persuade audiences to take a chance on a show. There are any number of explanations; expensive tickets, stuffy theatre culture, how theatre is marketed, the variety and type of theatre on offer, and no doubt these all play a role one way or another. Speaking as one of the few teenagers who regularly attend however, I think there is a key piece missing; how we teach young people about theatre.
When you think of stereotypical theatre kids, what’s the first thing that comes to mind? A flamboyant, confident, dare I say camp clan of social misfits, ready to belt out a fully-choreographed rendition of The Cellblock Tango at a moment’s notice? It’s an exaggerated but not entirely inaccurate image. The point is that theatre kids make theatre; we star in the school shows, we volunteer first in improvising games, we poke fun at each other’s on-stage slip-ups.
The way we learn about drama is by climbing up a step ladder. We go from playing silly games, to playing games that create characters, to devising skits, to working with scripts, to learning about theories surrounding theatre and acting. Seeing theatre outside of the classroom doesn’t come into the equation until the last rung. All of this is dependent on the quality of teaching, but it is built into the curriculum. At National 5 Drama, the written exam asks pupils to devise a show on the spot, and answer questions about how it would look. Even at university level, there’s an odd reluctance and inexperience when it comes to seeking out and attending theatre. There is, however, an unfaltering enthusiasm for participating in tutorials and even some lectures. It’s like an English literature student refusing to read a novel, but far keener and far better trained to write one.
There’s a lot to love about this system, not least because it is undeniably fun. It encourages active creativity, and Scotland has a rich scene in youth theatre on the back of it, so much so that the National Festival of Youth Theatre and the Chrysalis Festival attract enthusiastic and talented young theatre makers from across the UK every year. However, it has two major flaws. Firstly, by putting raw creativity first, it runs the risk of limiting the next generation to the boundaries of their imagination. As ironic as that sounds, art is almost always enhanced by understanding where you fit into it; what you like, what you want to see more of, what is possible. If aspiring writers are always being encouraged to read as much as possible, why don’t we encourage the same in young thespians?
The real issue though, when we look at the big picture, is keeping theatre within the brackets of an art form that is only to be enjoyed by its creators. Theatre cannot survive that way – there simply aren’t enough of us. The clan mentality is fun, being able to recognise people dotted around any given audience and asking about their latest project at the interval has created a valuable sense of community. Ultimately though, it is damaging to the Scottish theatre scene as a whole. Moreover, I think it is a genuine tragedy that there is so much theatre out there that isn't enjoyed by enough people because potential audiences my age have been taught that theatre is only for a certain, special group of people. This coming week alone there are four different shows around Glasgow that are selling tickets for little more than the cost of a cinema ticket, and more shows besides for those willing to splash out a little more.
The stereotypes of theatre kids certainly have their foundations, and I fear that the way young people (myself included) are taught about drama encourages them/us to talk first and listen later. Giving a little more focus to seeing theatre would not detract from the amount or quality of work that comes out of it. It would instead open the door for the next generation of theatre-goers, not just theatre-makers.