Why me? Why now? Why theatre?

Tristan Daws, English and Drama teacher at WHS, introduces the ‘New Views’ scriptwriting club and considers the value of writing for the stage.

New Views is a playwriting initiative run by the National Theatre. Over the course of the year, Year 11-13 students at WHS work towards writing their own one-act plays, meeting each week to read each other’s scenes, posing questions and sharing ideas as they refine their stories. Their ultimate goal is to enter a national competition, with the winning play staged at the Dorfman Theatre by a company of professional actors.

As the plays take shape, the National Theatre poses three questions to the students:

  • Why me? Or why should I be the one to tell this particular story?
  • Why now? What is it about this story that demands to be told now?
  • Why theatre? Why does this story belong on the stage, rather than in a short story or a TV sitcom?At the close of last term, prior to lockdown and school closures, I sat down with a group of WHS New Views writers to discuss these questions with them.

    Why me?

    When a playwright is asked ‘what makes me qualified to write this play?’ the immediate assumption can be that our work should be in some ways autobiographical in order to be ‘authentic’ and ‘truthful’. One of the most oft-quoted aphorisms in creative writing is a comment attributed to Mark Twain, “Write what you know.”

    Nathan Englander[1] remarks that this is “the most misunderstood, most mis-taught, most misinterpreted piece of advice that there is” and a host of great writers have lined up to support or to rebut this rule.

    Toni Morrison’s[2] pithy response is “you don’t know anything”, while Ursula Le Guin[3] suggests “I think it’s a very good rule and have always obeyed it. I write about imaginary countries, alien societies on other planets, dragons, wizards, the Napa Valley in 22002. I know these things… All this rule needs is a good definition of ‘know.’”

    The pupils have an equally clear stance when I first mention this to them: “Don’t write what you know – that’s boring!” one of them comments. “Write what you want to get to know” another adds.

    One of the aims of New Views is to sharpen students’ approach to research, and it is through this process that the group are able to explore beyond what they know. By connecting empathetically with characters living far from their own experience, the pupils have found ways to share human stories that feel both personal and alien to them. In doing so, they have been surprised by what they have learned about themselves. Ultimately, the group conclude that there is no definitive maxim to live by in their writing: “making a play, you’re constructing this whole world from your own ideas, and a lot of the time that world is going to be informed by your existence and your experience. It is informed by so much personal stuff, even if the story isn’t personal to you, and it’s such a good way of interrogating those ideas.” Perhaps, as Raymond Carver[4] puts it, “a little autobiography and a lot of imagination are best.”

    Why now?

    When New Views was established in 2011, its stated aim[5] was “to stimulate debate and discussion about key and challenging issues for contemporary society… to invite young people to explore how plays can challenge preconceptions and motivate more active participation in our communities.” The ‘nowness’ of the stories told in these plays was very much the priority, and the winning play that year was not performed at the National Theatre, but to an audience of parliamentarians and public at Westminster Hall.

    Since then, the political focus has relaxed, with the winning play moving to the Dorfman Theatre, and the pupils clearly revel in the lack of perceived constraints on their subject matter. “We’re so consumed with all the work we do that it’s just overwhelming. It’s nice to just have a place where you can explore things that don’t necessarily have to have a meaning and have to have a ‘why now?’”

    Perhaps the most meaningful ‘why now’ for the writers is not about why their plays are socially topical, but rather why they want to tell these stories at this time in their lives, when their writing is an escape from the structure of exam classes. One Year 11 participant appreciated the creative focus away from her GCSEs, while enjoying the chance to bond with other year groups; others valued being able to achieve something tangible in a fixed time period during the two years of their A Level course, particularly those that had given up ‘creative’ subjects after GCSE. Nowhere is this creative freedom more evident than in the range of stories the pupils have chosen to tell, from a metaphysical courtroom battle between God and Death to a farce about a group of office workers in pursuit of a missing Les Dennis mug.

    Les Dennis Mug

    Why theatre?

    One of the greatest challenges for the group has been to conceptualise works of drama that are distinctly theatrical, rather than cinematic. As one immediately responded when I first mentioned the three questions to them, “none of us ever know the answers to those! You ask me ‘why theatre’ and I’m like ‘I know it should be a screenplay, ok?’” Few of the group had considered writing a play before our first session together, even though many had entered short story and poetry competitions. “Writing a script wasn’t something that I thought you just did. I never thought about actually trying so it was new and exciting.”

    After initial drafts of their plays, often made up of several short scenes in myriad locations, as might be expected from a screen drama, the writers have learned to embrace dialogue, exploring human interaction in more depth. By envisaging a performance in three dimensions, the group think much more about physicalisation, pauses, and how characters can communicate in non-verbal ways. The most rewarding part of this process for them has been to experience their work being read by others in our weekly gatherings, and they speak animatedly about the experience of “having things performed by another human being, interpreting your words and making them their own.”

    At its core, what the pupils are responding to is the shared experience of the theatre. By making a connection with the visceral, physical aspect of watching a play, they are excited by the potential to reach their audience directly, “because it is live. You can’t pause a play, go on your phone for 15 minutes and then come back. You’re in that emotion and everyone is in the same room, feeling the same thing.” In these times of social isolation, it is easy to see why the most compelling response to ‘why theatre?’ is that communal human element, and the shared experience that theatre brings.


    References:

    1. Gots, J (2012), “Write what you know” – the most misunderstood piece of good advice, ever. Big Think, Available at: https://bigthink.com/think-tank/write-what-you-know-nil-the-most-misunderstood-piece-of-good-advice-ever

    2. Sutton, R (2014), Write, Erase, Do It Over, National Endowment for the Arts, Available at: https://www.arts.gov/NEARTS/2014v4-art-failure-importance-risk-and-experimentation/toni-morrison

    3. Le Guin, U (2003), When to bend, when to break, Los Angeles Times, Available at: https://www.latimes.com/archives/la-xpm-2003-jan-05-bk-leguin5-story.html

    4. Buzbee, L & Simpson, M (1983), Raymond Carver, The Art of Fiction No. 76, The Paris Review, Available at: https://www.theparisreview.org/interviews/3059/the-art-of-fiction-no-76-raymond-carver

    5. Londesborough, M (2011), New Views, New Voices at the National, The Guardian, Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/culture-professionals-network/culture-professionals-blog/2011/nov/07/national-theatre-new-views-programme

Does Drama have a place in the A in Steam?

Emily, Year 10, asks if enough emphasis is placed on drama as part of the A (Arts) within STEAM.

What is STEM/STEAM?

STEM was originally a government initiative to “help empower future generations through science, technology, engineering and maths to grow a dynamic, innovative economy”. Recently the A was added to STEM to include the arts, but how much emphasis, if any, is put on drama as part of this addition? Traditionally within education drama has been seen as a soft option. It was often viewed as a GCSE choice for students who are less academically capable, and few links are made between the benefits of drama and other areas of the STEM curriculum.

Why do people consider Drama as a lesser part of the A in STEAM?

When considering the A in STEAM, many people think of subjects such as art, design or and/or the humanities, with the performing arts (which includes drama) very much a secondary consideration.

Commonly drama is mistaken for a break from academia. Drama, music and dance are often under threat amongst underfunded schools subject to ever-increasing budgetary constraints. Even important figures within the performing arts world cannot be relied upon to promote drama within education. The head of the National Youth Theatre said in 2014 that “drama classes should be taken off the GCSE curriculum because they are irrelevant, and the subject is seen as soft and easy”.

Jungle Book
Above: Jungle Book by Year 8 earlier this year

How does drama help with STEAM learning in schools and in STEAM careers?

Learning drama at school, or participating in the performing arts, is beneficial and important in many different areas. The skills you develop through drama can help in all areas of your subjects including the traditional STEM subjects. Positive outcomes include:

Problem-solving – drama improves problem-solving and decision making, for example improvisation can help with quick thinking solutions. Developing problem-solving skills is a key reason why the STEM initiative started in the first place – to solve many of the world’s problems.

Imagination – In drama you need imagination; you have to make creative choices and think of new ideas. Imagination increases creativity and innovation; this is essential in, for example, engineering to design new products and processes to drive efficiency. Einstein himself said that “imagination is more important than knowledge.”

Team working skills – this is an essential skill in life which crosses all disciplines at school and in life. The ability to work well in a team, to be able to listen and incorporate other people’s ideas is as important in STEM careers as it is in any other. In drama lessons, or when putting on a school production, working well as a team is essential to the success of the project, whether you are front of stage or backstage, no project or performance succeeds unless every part of the team pulls together.

Empathy – drama teaches you the skill of empathy and develops your emotional intelligence. You have to understand a character’s motivation and actions by putting yourself in their shoes. EQ is becoming an increasingly important skill in the workplace.

Confidence in speaking – drama lessons often translate into better communication skills and self-confidence. Drama students are encouraged to ask questions and explain their thoughts, and of course to perform in front of a live audience. The ability to be able to speak effectively in public and present your ideas confidently is a key leadership skill that will help with an individual’s career progression.

WHS Play
Above: ‘Education, Education, Education’ – the WHS Senior Play this term

How else can drama help?

In 2012 the National Endowment for the Arts released a report showing that low-income student’s who had access to the arts tended to have better academic results, when music, dance and drama are part of people’s life they generally then go on to have better work opportunities. You also cannot underestimate the importance of a balanced education, and drama can act as an important emotional release from the demands of academia and the pressures of modern life.

Conclusion

Overall, I believe that drama does deserve a place in the A in STEAM. Many skills that drama help you develop are vital to those needed for success in STEAM careers and in everyday life.


References

https://www.edweek.org/tm/articles/2014/11/18/ctq-jolly-stem-vs-steam.html

http://www.childdrama.com/why.html

https://www.independent.co.uk/news/education/education-news/take-drama-off-gcse-curriculum-insists-national-youth-theatre-boss-9831791.html

https://leftbraincraftbrain.com/what-is-steam-and-why-is-steam-important

https://www.shoutoutuk.org/

https://www.teachercast.net/

A review of the Musical Theatre Concert & how to engage young people of different ages in musicals

Ms Katie Butler, Performing Arts Assistant, looks back to our recent Musical Theatre Concert here at WHS, as well as how we can engage different age groups in this popular form.

From Tap Dancing to Trunchbull

This year’s Musical Theatre Concert featured a selection of solos, duets and group numbers, with the very on-brand Wimbledon High theme of “Imagine”. This enabled us to tie numbers together through a common thread, while still allowing us to explore all sorts of different styles and stories. We hired in professional choreographer Lily Howkins to help create more specialised dance numbers, along with a brilliant three-piece band who really brought the music to life. This concert showcases the singing and dancing talents of girls across the senior school, providing a chance for Year 7s to perform with Sixth Formers, and for younger girls to have a taste of solo singing without the pressure of a whole show.

Sweeney Todd
Sweeney Todd was the WHS Senior Musical, with performances in January 2019

After Lilly and Emma kicked off the show with ‘Pure Imagination’ from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, we enjoyed Year 8’s spectacular ‘Revolting Children’ from Matilda, featuring ten girls stepping out of their sensible Wimbledon High personas and into a rebellious, anti-Trunchbull mob, with ties tied around their heads and hockey sticks as weapons. We featured more Year 8 talent in the upbeat, energetic Hollywood party number ‘Someone in the Crowd’ from La La Land, with Lauren, Amelia, Phoebe and Alyssa combining pitch-perfect vocals with challenging choreography to their usual high standard.

Another choreography highlight was the tap-toed delight that was ‘Singin’ in the Rain’, with Melody and Lizzy’s vocals combined with the brilliant tap skills of Jasmine and Shangavi. Musical theatre stalwart Erin gave a convincing performance as Evan Hansen, showing real resilience and deftly taking on various characters throughout the night. Sweeney Todd’s ‘By the Sea’ and ‘Seventeen’ from Heathers were presented together, as despite the different musical styles and the twenty-five years between their creation, they explore very similar themes of women trying to convince murderous men to live a normal life with them. For the latter, Erin was joined by Lizzie, who also showcased her fantastic vocal versatility in the contrasting ‘I Feel Pretty’. All in all, it was a wonderful celebration of dramatic skill and musicianship from the entire WHS community.

Little Shop of Horrors
This dramatic moment from Little Shop of Horrors – the Year 9 and 10 musical in June 2018

Curating a Programme

As a facilitator of these kinds of events, the challenge for me was to choose a programme that was varied, interesting, and age-appropriate, engaging all the girls. Appreciation of musical theatre, and indeed of all strands of the arts and storytelling deepens with age, maturity, and life experience, and personal development is particularly accelerated during these teenage years; it’s the reason that Year 11 can sob their way through Les Miserables, yet many Year 8s are twiddling their thumbs by ‘I Dreamed a Dream’, and I was keen to curate a concert that reflected this and provided something for everyone to enjoy.

While we had Year 12 Izzy performing the wistful ‘The Movie in My Mind’ from Miss Saigon, a ballad by a Thai showgirl during the Vietnam War dreaming of a better life, we also enjoyed Izzy from Year 8’s delicately beautiful rendition of ‘Jenny’s Piano Song’ from Howard Goodall’s little-known 2010 musical Love Story (an adaptation of the 1970 film), as well as Anna’s (Year 11) infectiously positive ‘I Can Hear the Bells’ from Hairspray.

The key to a successful programme is contrast – and so with powerhouse, belting performances like Anna’s and Eleni’s rendition of ‘Let Me Be Your Star’ from NBC’s Smash, we also had numbers like Anna’s (Year 13) genuine and engaging ‘I’m Not Afraid of Anything’ from Jason Robert Brown’s song cycle Songs for a New World, and Eleni’s other number, the vulnerable ‘When He Sees Me’ from Waitress, showing off her real versatility as an actress, and brilliant comic timing.

Other performances included the wittily staged ‘Show Off’ from The Drowsy Chaperone by Jasmine & Lilly in Year 12, and the always brilliant Musical Theatre Choir taking on an arrangement of Hamilton’s Helpless that even girls much older and more experienced would have found challenging. As Year 7 girls took to the stage with a lively Disney medley, featuring solos from Melina, Martha, Hannah and Sophia, it was clear that the future of musical theatre at Wimbledon High is in very safe hands. We ended the show with two more similar numbers: ‘The Life I Never Led’ from Sister Act and ‘Nothing Stops Another Day’ from Ghost, sensitively performed by Millie and Shangavi (Year 12) respectively, followed by a rousing ‘We’re All In This Together’ from the upcoming Year 9 & 10 production of High School Musical.

Musical Theatre: more than jazz hands

Having a concert solely dedicated to musical theatre, and particularly lots of different numbers from different shows, allows students to experiment with the differences between acting through song compared to acting through prose, and how despite the snobbery that often surrounds it, musical theatre absolutely provides as much opportunity to get stuck into interesting, complicated characters as straight theatre.

For next year’s concert, I’m keen to develop this further, delving into shows by writers like Sondheim that challenge these stereotypes better than anything else. As a writer of musical theatre myself, I’m particularly interested in using platforms like this to explore adolescent pastoral themes, and with shows like Dear Evan Hansen and Heathers featured, we were able to open up conversations about darker issues like mental health, bullying and violence in schools, performing songs from musicals that wouldn’t necessarily be appropriate as school productions, but that are absolutely worthy of attention and that many of the girls know and love.

I also hope that it introduced both cast and audience to some lesser-known shows, further fuelling their interest in and passion for musicals, and that it demonstrates the versatility of musical theatre as an art form, showing that it isn’t all jazz hands and happy endings, but can be a medium to explore all manner of themes, issues and musical styles.

Does taking part in co-curricular activities really improve academic outcomes?

Jenny Cox, Director of Co-curricular and Partnerships at Wimbledon High, looks at the links between co-curricular activities and the impact these can have on academic outcomes in the classroom.

There has been much research over the years investigating the link between Sport and its benefits – not only to a healthy lifestyle – but to the academic progress of students in schools and universities.  Research has shown that regular physical activity leads to improvements in a range of cognitive functions, including information processing, attention and executive function (Chaddock et al. 2011). However, does involvement in any co-curricular club facilitate academic outcomes?

‘Flow’

Can you think of a time when you have ever been so absorbed in an activity that you have completely lost track of time? That whatever you were doing was challenging, totally captivating, was extending your skills and you were virtually operating in the subconscious? If you can, it’s likely that you were experiencing a phenomenon known as ‘flow’. Psychologist Csikszentmihalyi writing in the 1960s researched this initially with it really coming to the forefront of sports psychology in the 1990s.

He described it as:

“A deeply rewarding and optimal experience characterised

by intense focus on a specific activity

to the point of becoming totally absorbed in it”

Csikszentmihalyi suggested that experiencing ‘flow’ makes us happier and more successful, which in turn leads to increased performance. To get to this point, he pointed out that tasks have to be constantly challenging which in turn results in personal growth and development. This doesn’t mean that we always have to be in a state of optimal performance, but more that we are fully immersed in the process of the task in hand, as shown in the diagram below:

Activities & Flow diagram by Csikszentmihalyi

‘Flow’ experiences can happen as part of everyday life, and Csikszentmihalyi suggested overlearning a concept or a skill can help people experience flow. Within a sporting context, it is sometimes referred to a “being in the zone”, experiencing a loss of self-consciousness and feeling a sense of complete mastery.

Motivation

In addition to overlearning, another key component of finding ‘flow’ is doing activities that we are intrinsically motivated to take part in. This means work and activities that we feel real meaning behind and enjoy doing for the sake of doing. Financial gain, awards and praise can be by-products of the ‘flow’ activities you do, but they cannot be the core motivation behind what you’re doing. Csikszentmihalyi even goes further, saying the feeling should be “such that often the end goal is just an excuse for the process.”

Academic success

So why is this relevant to our school co-curricular programme and can it be linked to academic success?  The links here are two-fold.

Firstly, the co-curricular programme is designed to inspire and enhance the general learning of new skills and concepts. It gives us more time to focus on over-learning a skill or concept because there is no pressure of being examined, therefore no exact specification or course content to get through. We have the luxury of taking our time, over-rehearsing, over practising to a point of taking part in an activity with a loss of sub-consciousness. We may repeat skills so frequently because we revisit them two, three, four, seven, eight times a week, (think of rowing, drama, and music to name just three activities that have repeat weekly sessions), that the feeling of knowing a skill, a sequence, a technique really well and performing is sub-consciously really does happen.

Secondly, with this feeling of ‘flow’ comes those ‘magic moments’ we can all benefit from at any point during the day. The mere fact we are immersed in activity we enjoy could result in us being ‘in the zone’. We are busy immersed in something which is likely to mean we are automatically not thinking about an essay, a grade, a piece of coursework, a friendship or relationship issue at that time and so as a consequence that time contributes enormously to our state of well-being and happiness. This, in turn, is highly likely to lead to a more productive ‘head space’ for work when we return to it, less procrastinating, greater focus and possibly better outcomes.

So can we draw a link between participation in co-curricular activities and academic outcomes? There is research to indicate we can….. happy reading!

References

  • Chaddock, L., C. H. Hillman, S. M. Buck, and N. J. Cohen. 2011. “Aerobic Fitness and Executive Control of Relational Memory in Preadolescent Children.” Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise 43 (2): 344–349.
  • Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1990). Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. Harper & Row
  • Bailey R. (2016): Sport, physical activity and educational achievement – towards an explanatory model, Sport in Society

 

 

Rehearsal, Rehearsal, Rehearsal – how repetition helps us learn

Anna, Year 13, discusses not only how rehearsal is the key to a good performance but also how the repetitive nature of rehearsing can aid studying.

For those who favour the more ‘academic’ subjects, drama may seem like a discipline which requires substantially less work than the sciences due to the propagated belief that a student does not need to revise as much, as well as the active nature which makes it more of a practical subject than academic. However, while there is certainly more action involved than with other subjects (with ‘acting’ being the most vital part of theatre for an audience), the claim that revision is not necessary is entirely false.

When speaking of acting, an audience member often reviews what they can see in front of them in one moment as, more often than not, they are not privy to the behind-the-scenes rehearsal process. While it is true that the audience impact is a vital part of theatre performance and theory, it is the rehearsal process itself which allows the final finished product to flourish; without it, the actor would not know how to act the line in order to achieve the greatest impact for the audience. Having studied drama myself for the entirety of my Wimbledon High attendance, as well as gotten involved in various plays and musicals over the years, I have come to think of this rehearsal process as high-intensity interval training (without the exercise, thankfully) which results in muscle memory and allows an actor to create the intended effect.

Rehearsing is primarily an active, practical activity; the repeated action over time enhances memory, which then lets an actor read off book (without a script) without any doubt of what they are going to do next or what their line is. For my fellow kinaesthetic learners – who Professors Dunn and Dunn describe as ‘students who require whole-body movement to process new and difficult information’ – this is already a behaviour that we are familiar with; when I am trying to memorise tricky English quotes or mathematic formulae, it is not uncommon to see me pacing back and forth or jumping up and down in order to enhance my learning. Viewing rehearsal as a study form automatically demonstrates academic benefits, as this subconscious form of learning that is routine for a drama student or actor can be employed elsewhere as a studying technique where ‘spaced repetition’ (that is, learning the same thing over a long time with regular intervals) where repetition over a month will result in 90% memorisation. This allows for more consolidation of information, and so ultimately the person will remember more than if they simply crammed the night before. Not only this, but it allows for muscle memory (a form of memory where there isn’t conscious awareness of the actions) to be developed; with resultant feedback received in rehearsal from the director, it means that a person not only develops skills and learning but allows more information to be absorbed as a result.

Therefore, when considering the long-term repetitive nature of rehearsal, it seems logical that it can be labelled a form of active revision; the act of rehearsal instills both useful studying tools in a person without them even realising, as well as a fun way to showcase messages to audiences with the eventual performance.

The creative-academic problem: why we should value the creative curriculum.

Richard Bristow, Director of Music at WHS, looks at recent developments in the creative curriculum.

News report:

‘Creative industries worth almost £10 million an hour to economy’

Dept. of Digital, Culture, Media & Sport, January 2016

 

‘Creative industries grow twice as fast as UK economy in 2015-16, making up 5.3% of the economy’

Economic Estimates for 2016 Report

 

‘The government is aiming for 90% of Year 10 pupils to be studying the EBacc…by 2025’

Telegraph April 2018

 

 ‘Arts education should be the entitlement of every child’

Nick Gibb, Schools Minister, April 2018

 

 

‘Music could “face extinction” in secondary schools in England, researchers have warned’

BBC, March 2017

 

“A combination of cuts to school budgets and the consequential loss of specialist teachers has created a skills loss”

Prof Colin Lawson, Director of RCM, March 2018

 

‘How to improve the school results: not extra maths but music, and loads of it’

Guardian, October 2017

 

‘Axe looms for county music service: 7000 school instrumental lessons impacted’

Sussex Express, April 2018

 

The creative-academic problem:

The news reports above pose a dilemma. On one hand, Creative Industries in the UK have had a celebrated few years, adding significant value to the UK economy; on the other, cuts to creative (and specifically Music) education in secondary schools in England paint a bleak picture of an emerging skills gap, threatening this very success.

A recent BBC survey with data collected from over 1200 schools – some 40% of all secondary schools in England – revealed a damming 90% of schools have made cuts to staffing, resourcing or facilities to at least one creative arts subject over the last year. Music, Drama, Art and Design and Technology all find themselves squeezed because of a growing need to teach ‘academic’ subjects – a key feature of the new English Baccalaureate (or EBacc for short), which has become a compulsory part of state education in England. This division of academic and creative is a central problem in education. After all, we want creative solutions to scientific problems, and an academic approach to art allows for increased understanding. Yes, the Theory of Relativity is complex, but so is Schenkerian musical analysis. Why do we have to choose? Why can we not value both?

90% of schools have made cuts to the creative arts over the last year

BBC Survey

The EBacc

Introduced from 2010, the EBacc seeks to counter the fall in numbers of pupils studying foreign languages and sciences (see here) by measuring pupil progress in English, maths, the sciences, a language and either history or geography.

EBacc Subjects:
  • English Literature
  • English Language
  • Maths
  • Combined or Triple Science
  • History or Geography
  • A Language – ancient or modern

The Government originally set a target of 90% of Year 10 pupils studying the EBacc to be achieved by 2025. This however has recently been reduced to 75% in the latest Conservative manifesto – not to allow for a broadening of the EBacc subjects, but because there are not enough Modern Foreign Language teachers to allow the original target to be met. The cuts to language teaching are a little more established than the more recent cuts to creative subjects, showing the ‘boom and bust’ approach to education in the UK in the 21st Century (see here for more information on MFL provision).

 

However, despite the significant press coverage of schools closing their music departments (see here) and some schools even charging pupils to study Music at GCSE (see here) the data seems to show a mismatch. A New Schools Network report (which can be viewed here) analysing data for all state school GCSE entries between 2011/12 and 2015/16 actually shows a rise in the number of pupils sitting at least one creative subject at GCSE over the period and confirms that pupils who achieve the very best EBacc grades are likely to have also achieved well in a creative arts subject. However, it also shows other issues:

  • A reduction in the funding in the creative arts in secondary schools, suggesting state schools have ‘misunderstood’ the requirements of the EBacc to prioritise named subjects at the expense of non-named subjects
  • The impact of this funding reduction has not yet impacted achievement, but it may well do so in the future
  • That the Government can be more enthusiastic about the value of the creative arts
  • That the biggest decline in the take up of creative subjects was in the Independent Sector, who are not required to follow the EBacc, recording a 12.9% fall in take up of at least one creative arts subject at GCSE from 2011/12 to 2015/16
  • That the independent sector has seen a 30% fall in total GCSE and IGCSE entries over the 2011/12 to 2015/16 period

These points add to the confusion. If the picture is as positive as this report suggests, why are we seeing reports suggesting the ‘extinction’ of subjects like Music in state schools? If the picture is one where the evidence shows the EBacc has not declined the provision of arts education, why are Music departments and Music hubs closing? How can pupils access an arts curriculum if the department is not physically there?

Perhaps the biggest problem with the report is that it does not give data for individual subjects. It might show a rise for the pupils studying the creative arts, but it does not show a rise in all creative subjects. So whilst the numbers studying Art or Design and Technology (part of the STEAM initiative) might have risen sharply, this might be at the expense of Music or Drama, who might have seen a strong decline in education provision. This data is needed to truly understand the impact of the EBacc on individual creative subjects.

Partnerships

The NSN Arts Report also calls upon Art Providers to be more active in helping to engage pupils in the creative arts (see Kendall et al, The Longer-Term Impact of Creative Partnerships on the Attainment of Young People). This might be via art organisations setting up free schools, or more likely to encourage art organisations to engage with a cultural education programme with school pupils.

One such example is the Philharmonia Orchestra who have recently completed their Universe of Sound and 360 Experience Project. This exciting project uses virtual reality to film the Philharmonia Orchestra performing Holst’s The Planets allowing people to experience and learn more about the symphony orchestra. They have also commissioned new music by Joby Talbot to give a contemporary interpretation to writing music to represent time and space. I have been lucky enough to do some work on the education resources for this programme over the Easter break, and it is hoped that this experience can offer pupils, parents and teachers a way into linking Music to other STEAM subjects, rising cultural engagement and musical understanding. If you would like to learn more about the project, please visit here for more information.

Final thoughts

If we are to view subjects by their perceived academic worth, then it can be useful to view how the subject has been taught through history. Whilst many would view Music as now being a creative (and not academic subject), it is important to remember that Music as an academic and theoretical subject was one of the Ancient Greek seven liberal arts and a part of the quadrivium (arithmetic, geometry, music and astronomy) which was taught after the trivium (grammar, logic and rhetoric). Rather than being marginalised as a non-academic subject, we should relish the fact that Music can and has informed scientific understanding throughout history. Practical study of Music is obviously a useful skill, but it is the academic and theoretical knowledge that comes from advanced study of the subject that can really inspire the very best musicians. Perhaps we should redefine STEAM to STEAMM – Science, Technology, Engineering, Art, Maths and Music.

Or maybe we should lose the hierarchy altogether; perhaps, instead of putting subjects against each other in some fruitless competition, we should value passion, enjoyment and the love of learning, seeing the subjects as having equal worth. As Ian McEwan states:

“Science, the humanities and the arts are all forms of investigation,

driven by curiosity and delight in discovery.

The child who flourishes in one should flourish in the others.

The best, the liveliest education, would nourish all three.”

Richard Bristow, 21st April 2018

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Lorca’s Women

Federico García Lorca explored the female soul as no other male writer had done before. His vivid presentation of the effects of oppression and the internalisation of emotion that women endure, in the plays Bodas de Sangre, Yerma and La Casa de Bernarda Alba, is unique and profound. Moreover, Lorca was highly influenced by the period of “modernismo” that was ensuing in Spain during his lifetime. He was, indeed, close friends with Cubist painter Salvador Dalí. Modernist writing reflects less on society and more on individuals, thus it gave Lorca the opportunity to delve deeper into the psychological “state” that is womanhood. Bella Gate (Year 12) summarises her findings to tell us more about Lorca’s work.  

When Lorca first published Bodas de Sangre (Blood Wedding), Yerma and La Casa de Bernarda Alba (The House of Bernarda Alba) as a complete set he called them Duende: Obras Completas. Whilst “Obras Completas” quite simply means “Complete Plays”, “duende” has a myriad of different possible translation. Its literal translation is “goblin” or “elf”, however, in this case Lorca seems to be referring to the “soul” which some of his characters have and quite notably others don’t. The “soul” that Lorca was most interested in exploring was certainly female as one can see in these plays. 

The theory of Canadian poet and critic Janis Rapoport is that these plays should be seen as a complete set with Bodas de Sangre, Yerma and La Casa de Bernarda Alba being seen as a thesis, antithesis and synthesis, respectively. She sees the women in Bodas de Sangre as being like mirrors due to their ability to make the audience reflect on social conventions. Yerma to her is a prism – a self-contained entity that refracts and distorts the qualities of light and image with both internal and external barriers. In La Casa de Bernarda Alba she sees the women as collectively forming a kaleidoscope as they reflect and refract off each other. She goes so far as to say that the house in the play represents the soul of one individual woman.

In Bodas de Sangre women are bound by their social functions. The characters are not endowed with names, thus they lose a sense of their identity. The principle women are the Bride, Mother and Beggar Woman. Perhaps the most interesting woman to analyse is the Bride. The Bride is continually bound by her circumstances. We see women oppressing women in the form of her servant lady attempting to instil morality into her. For the Bride this acts as an imprisoning ideology which hinders her in her pursuit of sexual fulfilment. However, this pursuit results in tragedy due to the societal expectations of virginity before marriage that are put on the Bride. The Mother, Janis Rapoport notes, is an affected character rather than an affecting one. She is greatly affected by the grief that she feels for her husband and son (and eventually sons). She is continually let down by men and her entire identity is defined by this. The Beggar Woman symbolises one of the play’s more profound themes – the mysteries of life and death – conveying that she is somewhat liberated by old age. However, Lorca highlights how all women are bound throughout the generations in different ways. A young woman’s predicament is centred around her sexuality whereas an older woman’s is centred around the lives of her sons. Lorca uses water imagery to portray a contrast between a free and a controlled woman. The control and oppression of women is very much the central theme of the play.

Yerma’s themes are, perhaps, a little more nuanced. There is again the representation of women of all generations, the eldest being the Pagan Crone who has been long repressed by the requirements of honour and strict morality placed upon her. The middle-aged Dolores represents a dichotomy of faith and the supernatural. She prays frequently yet she practises magic in her fertility rituals with Yerma. Then, there is Yerma herself. Yerma quite literally means “barren” – ostensibly referring to her inability to produce a child with her husband Juan. However, this barrenness is also symptomatic of the psychological and emotional (as well as physical) emptiness of womanhood. One may see Yerma’s quest for a child as a yearning for confirmation of feminine identity. However, like the Mother in Bodas de Sangre, she is, bizarrely, indirectly responsible for the death of her own son. By strangling her husband Juan in the end she essentially ruins all chances of having a child. In both Bodas de Sangre and Yerma women’s passionate sexuality, in the case of the bride, or erotic deficiency, in the case of Yerma, lead to tragedy. Thus, Lorca highlights the lack of agency over their sexuality that women had in rural Spain.

Rapoport puts forward the idea that the house in La Casa de Bernarda Alba, with its “thick walls”, embodies the soul of a single woman. Each of the sisters become fragments of a woman’s soul. Adela is the most significant of the sisters perhaps due to her naïveté. She longs for freedom but does not appreciate that it may result in more oppression under the sexual authority of Pepe El Romano – her lover. Bernarda, despite her tyrannical behaviour, is as much a victim of the patriarchy as her daughters, if not more as she has absorbed such oppressive values into her own psyche. The different views and lives of the women reflect off each other in the play.

Fundamentally, Lorca, remarkably whilst being a man himself, strikingly presents life for women in rural Spain and the psychological and philosophical impact of oppression – perhaps because he, himself, was a homosexual who would later be killed under Franco’s fascist regime.

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