Rewriting the Script (Or, The GCSE and the Culture of Devised Theatre in the UK, Pt. 2)

During my first week abroad, I attended a devised performance created by Complex Youth Theatre. Much of Ireland's theatre education culture revolves around extracurricular programs that aren't attached to schools. Complex Youth Theatre (CYT), for instance, is managed by a larger arts organization in Dublin 7 -- the North West Inner City. Many of these youth theatres have similar programming. Students meet once a week (every Saturday for CYT) to attend a workshop. (CYT offers an introductory drama workshop in the mornings and an advanced drama workshop in the afternoon. The advanced workshop leads to an annual public performance.) Youth theatres tend to work with small groups of students to maintain the intimacy required for successful theatre-making. Frequently, these programs receive far more applications from interested students than they have spaces available. The highly-competitive Dublin Youth Theatre (DYT) only has about a 30% acceptance rate. However, many of these programs have policies where students who come back to audition multiple years in a row (thus showing their dedication to the program) will eventually be accepted. And since students are allowed to enroll in a youth theatre from ages 14-22, they have many years to enjoy their membership and take advantage of training opportunities.

This year marked the centennial of the 1916 Easter Rising. If you're unfamiliar with Irish history, the Rising was when Irish nationalists declared their intention to separate from Great Britain and form the Irish Republic. While the rebellion was suppressed and its leaders were executed, the push for independence gained momentum and, in 1922, the Republic of Ireland was established. In honor of the occasion, the government distributed funding to arts programs that were creating work about the Rising. This meant that every weekend, the members of CYT would gather and learn about their country's history. Together, they created a short work (about 30-45 minutes) that examined the Rising through a historical lens -- giving equal weight to both the Irish nationalists and the British loyalists. DYT, meanwhile, will be taking a different approach later this month with Rising, a collaboration with documentary playwright Helena Enright that explores "what revolution means to young people in Ireland now."


Meanwhile, in the UK, students were also creating devised works this summer. I had the privilege of attending the kick-off of Open Court, the three weeks when the Royal Court "hands over the keys" to young producers, artists, and playwrights so that they can curate an entire mini-season of new works. In their words: "Pushing boundaries and taking over the entire building, Open Court will spill out of the stage into corridors, offices, rehearsal rooms, the bar & kitchen and online." The programming for this year includes new devised and scripted works by young artists, as well as installations and panels and concerts (not to mention workshops and other educational events). The Royal Court has long been known for their dedication to the development of young playwrights, particularly ones giving voice to issues confronting Millennials and Generation Z (which will get its own nomenclature eventually). Open Court is specifically curated by the Royal Court Youth Board, a group of students (ages 15-19) who are interested in arts administration and dramaturgy. Obviously, I'm going to try to get into a youth board meeting during the Fulbright program because there's nothing that interests me more than authentic student leadership in theatres.

The performance that I saw at Open Court was called Follow Me -- the culmination of the Royal Court's annual collaboration with Pimlico Academy's Year 10 BTEC Drama class. Based on the talkback afterwards, the program seems similar to our in-school teaching artist residencies. (Interestingly, the parents emphasized repeatedly how the students had come to think of the Royal Court as their theatre -- something that's dissimilar from traditional teaching artist residencies [which usually have little connection to the host theatre] and that has interesting implications for developing future generations of arts patrons.) Pimlico Academy, which was once a failing school but has since been rated "Outstanding" by OFSTED, works with Royal Court staff to create devised works about topics that are important to them. Follow Me dealt with the Internet. Upon entering the theatre, you were labeled with an Emoji sticker by Young Court staff and told to keep your cell phone on. Unfortunately, the performance used neither these Emoji stickers for audience interaction/collaboration nor the cell phones, to my knowledge. (Since I had an international number, they couldn't really call/text me.) Definitely some missed opportunities.

In Follow Me, students were encouraged to share their thoughts on online relationships, video game violence, and even Anonymous and hacktivism. (They frequently shouted out the refrain of "BANG! And there goes the poor," mocking quick fixes for economic inequity.) While the students' analyses were somewhat cursory, the act of being able to share their voices onstage obviously had a huge impact. In the discussion afterwards, one of the students said that working with the Royal Court boosted her confidence and gave her a platform to be heard. She believed that working with the theatre company created a powerful relationship for teens who frequently struggle to connect. (During this discussion, the theatre teacher at Pimlico Academy talked about how strict adherence to the GCSE curriculum meant a push towards memorization in schools and that fewer teachers saw teaching drama as a desirable job. She also noted that there wasn't universal access to theatres in schools; instead, students were pushed to join youth theatres that charge a membership fee. As someone who views both the GCSE and youth theatres and being two "stand-out" parts of the UK's arts education system, I really appreciated the dissenting opinion -- especially one that so strongly echoed issues in the US around standardized testing, teacher recruitment/retention, and equal access.)

The idea of "handing over the keys" to young artists really resonates with me. One of the things that I took away from my trip to the UK is the power of an arts organization having "a room of one's own," as Virginia Woolf would say.

During my time abroad, I also volunteered at the International Youth Arts Festival in Kingston upon Thames. While working box office, I had the opportunity to watch a new devised physical theatre work by JADA Theatre School. Property of Society explored gender dichotomies and how they can limit self-expression and self-representation. While the performance dipped into transgender issues, I felt that it focused more on individuals whose gender presentation simply wasn't "traditional." (For instance, there was the question of whether, for the masculine-of-center girl, her feelings were provoked by society privileging male thoughts and actions. I really expected this to be articulated in the talkback afterwards, but no one addressed it.) These young artists created some really stirring images -- like young women being physically constrained by harness-like bra-straps and a young man having his image literally reflected back at him (through a series of mirrors) by every member of society. Once again, I wanted the talkback to dig a little deeper into these issues (especially considering the power of the material being shown onstage), but, regardless, it was obvious that working in devised theatre really pushed the students to reflect on how our society functions and what we can do to improve it.

JADA Theatre School's phenomenal devised physical theatre work, Property of Society.

While I do have some background in physical theatre, watching JADA made me really want to explore how dance and drama can intersect outside of the traditional musical theatre structure.

I strongly believe that drama programs in the US lean too heavily on scripted work. The devised theatre that I saw being created in the UK was exceptionally powerful -- and, more importantly, engaged students in thinking about their history, their politics, and their society. During my Philosophy of Education class in grad school, the professor used to ask us: "To what end, education?" Why have we made schooling mandatory? Why does it matter if students have a solid grasp on core academic subjects? Because eventually, these students will be the ones responsible for the public good. And, in order to handle that responsibility, we need to make sure that they understand how the world around them operates. Devised theatre deepens that understanding and starts them down the path of solving (or at least grappling with) our world's problems. If we want our students to be politically involved (and, as the US has notoriously low voter turnout, I think that we must), then we need to use every opportunity available to start them down the path of civic responsibility. Devised theatre is one path that our schools are not taking full advantage of.

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