Vol.19, No. 2, 1998, Fall/ Automne

THEATRE AS EDUCATION: A DISTINCTIVELY CANADIAN APPROACH TO SECONDARY SCHOOL DRAMA

LAWRENCE O'FARRELL

In recent decades, drama has earned an increasingly secure place in Canadian secondary school curricula. The teaching of high school drama has been influenced by a number of national and international trends, including two British variations of process drama. Focusing on the process of developing original drama through improvisation rather than on the production of scripted plays, this method is used to promote personal development and to explore issues associated with other subject areas besides drama. Critics of process drama have objected to a perceived lack of theatre knowledge and skills in this approach. Canadian teachers, however, have found an effective means of bridging the process-product divide in a multi-level programme that begins with process drama and leads to a study of interpretative theatre production. Particularly useful is the collective creation of dramatic anthologies. This strategy parallels a collective trend in Canadian theatre history while, at the same time, drawing on the inherent educational power of theatre.

Dans les décennies récentes, l'art dramatique a gagné une place de plus en plus solide dans les programmes d'études aux écoles sécondaires canadiennes. L'enseignement de l'art dramatique à l'école sécondaire a été influencé par un nombre de tendances nationales et internationales qui incluent deux variations de processus de l'art dramatique anglaises. Cette méthode ce fixe sur le processus de création de pièces dramatiques originales par l'improvisation plutôt que sur la mise en scène. Le but est d'encourager le développement personnel et d'explorer des sujets qu'on associe avec des autres programmes scolaires. Des critiques de processus de l'art dramatique ont protesté contre un manque de connaissance et des habilités théâtrales dans cette approche. Cependant des professeurs canadiens ont trouvés des moyens d'embrasser l'écart entre le processus et le produit dans un programme de plusieurs niveaux qui commence avec le processus de l'art dramatique et qui arrive à une étude de la mise en scène. On trouve particulièrement utile la création collaborative d'une anthologie dramatique. Cette stratégie est semblable à une tendance collaborative dans l'histoire théâtrale canadienne, au même temps qu'on emploie le pouvoir inhérent éducatif du théâtre.

One of the great success stories of Canadian theatre education in the late twentieth century has been the proliferation of substantial programmes at the secondary level. When I attended high school in the early 1960s, the only outlet my peers and I had for our dramatic inclination was extracurricular, usually taking the form of the school play. I will be eternally grateful to those dedicated teachers who shared with us their enthusiasm for the stage and committed hundreds of hours to rehearse us in an assortment of works by Shakespeare, Chekhov, and whoever wrote all those Samuel French comedies for teen-aged actors. Although we studied dramatic texts as literature within the English programme, the idea that theatre production could become a legitimate component of the school curriculum seemed far-fetched at best. And yet, within a decade, the province of Ontario had approved a course in Theatre Arts (later renamed Dramatic Arts), and within another decade this subject had established itself as a full partner in the educational enterprise with significant enrolments to maintain its new status.

The Ontario experience is not unique. A number of other provincial governments have approved secondary school theatre programmes and the contents of these curricula are remarkably similar, influenced by many of the same national and international factors. Some of these programmes have adopted what would now be called a discipline orientation, establishing discrete courses in, for example, stagecraft, acting, directing, and scriptwriting (British Columbia 6). Virtually all of them include a strong emphasis on production, particularly in the senior grades.

At the same time, however, most have been influenced by international trends in educational drama. One approach, originating from both the United States and the United Kingdom (in somewhat different forms), has had a particular impact on Canadian teachers of drama. Known variously as creative drama, drama-in-education or process drama, this strategy aims to enhance a student's learning through creative play, improvisation, and the development of collective creations. The teacher provides an imaginative structure in which the students' own ideas can be formed into original dramatic work -- often taking on a powerful significance for the students themselves. In the course of this activity, students gain in many areas of personal development -- self confidence, speech flow, concentration, etc. At the same time, they acquire a variety of expressive skills that enable them to communicate effectively while gaining an understanding of the art of theatre. Because it engages students in the exploration of themes, the expression of ideas, and the process of collaboration, educational drama has proved to be an excellent medium for facilitating integrated learning. Students can inquire into many aspects of the school curriculum in an active and imaginative way through the creative experience of drama.

In recent years, the term "process drama" has gained currency in describing this approach, and for good reason. One of the more frequently-cited differences between it and other forms of theatre education is the overriding emphasis placed on the process of developing original drama through improvised role-playing, as opposed to the product of such development, namely, the presentation of a scripted drama before an audience. Process and product are often identified as polar opposites, located at either end of a dramatic continuum. At the process end of the scale one can find what might be called the human essence of drama -- characterization and story explored through informal role-playing. At the product end are the formal elements of production -- performing skills, set design, costumes, lighting, etc. The teaching of drama is usually understood to span the full range of the continuum. However, the pedagogical starting point is, invariably, the process, and many practitioners, particularly in the United Kingdom, have chosen to make it their chief focus throughout the secondary school drama programme.

How this process-centred drama might work in practice is illustrated in a recent manual written by a team of UK-based drama educators (Clark et al) specifically for the use of Canadian teachers. The book's title, Lessons for the Living, clearly reflects the process orientation inherent in this approach to drama education, reflecting its issue-centred content. The subtitle, Drama and the Integrated Curriculum, indicates the routine use of process drama as a medium to promote learning in a variety of other subject areas. The core of this book is a series of six drama "structures" or lesson plans intended to be taught to students in the "transition years" (ages 11-15 approximately). Each structure aims to engage students in an exploration of a current social issue -- homelessness, pollution, racism, growing up, civil war, and ethics in science. The structure entitled "Black Spruce Narrows," for example, challenges adolescent participants to see a multiplicity of different perspectives associated with environmental pollution. The students alternately adopt the roles of police officers investigating a murder (one that may have resulted, in part, from mercury poisoning), members of a task force examining claims that a polluted waterway has caused birth defects, and residents of a community that has been affected by this kind of pollution. Working in groups, students prepare short scenes that suggest how members of the community might feel about the pollution of their river. These scenes are presented to the rest of the class, but there is no suggestion that participants will go on to develop a play that can be presented to a broader audience.

The widespread teaching of process drama is not without controversy. In the United Kingdom, David Hornbrook has led a revolt against what he calls "the worst characteristics of school drama's progressive legacy" (Hornbrook 16). He is supported by Peter Abbs, who alleges that drama, used extensively as a medium for cross-curricular learning, has lost its integrity. "Devoid of art, devoid of the practices of theatre, devoid of artistic and critical terminology, drama became a method of teaching without a subject" (Abbs 2). Before I can address the issue of integrity in educational drama within a Canadian context, it is necessary to take a closer look at the pedagogy of process drama and the way it has been adapted by Canadian teachers.

Drama education in Canadian secondary schools is eclectic, responding to a number of contextual elements, including the age, experience level, and ability of students, and a range of theoretical models originating from the United Kingdom and the United States. The two models of process drama that appear to have had the most lasting influence on Canadian secondary drama teachers are developmental drama and drama as a learning medium.

Both of these approaches are post-war British innovations which Hornbrook quite rightly ascribes to the progressive education movement. Progressive education embraces the work of John Dewey (1934) and other educators of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, whose objective was a relevant, humane, interactive, and child-centred approach to schooling. As promoted by Peter Slade (1954) and Brian Way (1967), developmental drama clearly applies this objective to a study of drama. The purpose of drama is to promote the healthy growth of the individual student. Way identifies six developmental areas in which drama can be effective. They are: concentration, the senses, imagination, the physical self, speech, and emotion (Way 13). Although Way has, himself, been active in the theatre as writer, director, and actor, he follows Slade's example in defining developmental drama as fundamentally different from the art of theatre:

Does this mean that drama is yet another subject that has to be fitted into an already overcrowded curriculum? No. Drama is not another subject; theatre might be, with its groundwork in history and its study of playwrights and their works, but not drama. Drama is as intangible as personality itself, and is concerned with developing people. (Way 7)

Despite this perceived dichotomy between drama in schools and the art of theatre, developmental drama pursues its educational goals through many of the same kinds of activities that theatre schools use to train actors. For example, Way recommends improvisational work in movement, speech, and characterization. By the same token, he acknowledges the potential value of public performance and working with scripts at the secondary level. His concern is not to eliminate these practices, but rather to ensure that a creative (non-authoritarian) approach is taken when students begin to work in these areas.

Drama as a learning medium, like developmental drama, emerged from initiatives in progressive education. As practised by Dorothy Heathcote (see Johnson and O'Neill, 1984) and Gavin Bolton (1992), it is characterized by an emphasis on integrative learning and the improvisational technique of teacher-in-role. Since the onslaught of criticism from the Hornbrook-Abbs camp, practitioners of this method have begun to reexamine the relationship between their work and the art of theatre. For example, Bolton, in response to criticism from Abbs, affirms the relevance of school drama to theatre form: "I firmly believe that much of the work done in the drama classroom creates a rich soil from which actor-training or academic study of theatre can grow" (Bolton 7). Nevertheless, the practice of drama as a learning medium is rooted in an educational concern which appears to be peripheral to the art of theatre -- the teaching of other subjects.

While sharing a number of goals and methods with developmental drama (a focus on the student's own ideas, improvisation, and the establishment of a non-judgemental learning environment), the work of Heathcote and Bolton differs from the work of Slade and Way in the emphasis it places on cognitive learning and the willingness to place drama at the service of other subjects in the curriculum. While championing what she calls an "existentialist" approach to drama education, Cecily O'Neill explains the attraction of drama as a learning medium to beleaguered teachers:

In recent years, drama teachers who have become profoundly dissatisfied with the paucity of aim and content in their lessons have begun to see a way forward in the use of drama as a means of understanding academic subject areas. They look to the example of such teachers as Dorothy Heathcote and Gavin Bolton, whose work is patently full of learning for their pupils. Teachers find it possible to identify this learning, and see its value, so that the idea of drama as a method -- a tool in the teaching of cognitive skills -- is gaining acceptance. (O'Neill 29)

Another difference between the two schools of process drama is the innovative technique called "teacher-in-role," introduced to practitioners of drama as a learning medium by Dorothy Heathcote. In using this method, the teacher works inside the drama that is being created, taking on roles which help the students to clarify and direct the work. From this vantage point, s/he stimulates a dramatic response among participants, challenging them to extend the storyline and deepen their characterization. The teacher who uses this approach is often rewarded with student performances of an extraordinary quality, characterized by clarity of vision and depth of emotional commitment. Apologists for drama as a learning medium, like Bolton, argue that an introduction to theatre through a dramatic experience of this quality is preferable to a superficial and undigested experience in conventional, text-centred, theatre production. "Working from the inside of theatre I know that what I do in the classroom is part of our cultural heritage" (Bolton 7 - original emphasis).

While our colleagues in the United Kingdom continue to debate the questions of whether process drama provides sufficient education in the art of theatre and whether discipline-based drama offers an adequately engaging approach to education, Canadian teachers have long been happy to combine orientations to produce a multi-level programme of drama education that begins with a heavy accent on process and gradually moves toward a discipline orientation (including script analysis, production, and playwriting).

When I visit Ontario secondary school drama studios, I am struck time and again by the facility with which teachers can embrace both major orientations simultaneously. They will critique the quality of a student production with a practised eye one moment, and comment on the personal growth that has taken place among members of the performing group the next. Perhaps I should not be surprised by this phenomenon, given the teachers' dual responsibility -- to teach drama as a subject and to teach their students as a client group. The teacher who loves the theatre and loves to work with young people will quite naturally find a way to accommodate both responsibilities within the same set of activities.

But, is their work lacking in integrity? The debate that rages on the far side of the Atlantic would seem to suggest that an emphasis on process will diminish the integrity of the subject area, while an emphasis on product will diminish the integrity of the educational enterprise. Could it be that by embracing both process and discipline-based approaches, Canadian teachers are hopelessly compromised? I would argue emphatically not. It seems clear to me that the stereotypical way in which each side of the debate has characterized the work of the other presents a set of false premises that result in flawed arguments.

Is it true, as Abbs would have it, that process drama is devoid of art, theatre practices, and critical terminology? Not at all. Notwithstanding the disclaimers of Way, Heathcote, and others that they are not working in "theatre," the work they do is manifestly theatre art. A review of twentieth-century theories of performance (Artaud 1958 ed., Brook 1968, Grotowski 1968, Schechner 1988) will show that text is no longer regarded as the essence of the art form, nor is conventional Broadway or West End production the uncontested norm in world theatre. By working in improvisation and collective creation, teachers of process drama are clearly engaging their students in the art of theatre. Whether they are covering a sufficiently wide range of theatrical forms, or not, can only be determined by looking at each teacher's work in detail. But, a commitment to process drama does not, in itself, relegate the work to artistic limbo.

Nor is it true, as Bolton suggests, that a discipline-based critic of process drama is necessarily an outsider looking in on the educational experience of drama. "Such an experience has never been important to you," he responds to Abbs, "and you cannot be expected to understand its spiritual, intellectual and aesthetic power" (Bolton 7). It may be true that some teachers of dramatic art have approached their task from an authoritarian stance and others have exploited young actors for the sake of a production undertaken to enhance their own status. But this deplorable kind of teaching is by no means a common characteristic of all teachers who choose to introduce their students to script work or scenic design.

On the contrary, teachers with a deep understanding of the art form have long been drawn to a process-centred methodology. Actors who teach acting spend a substantial amount of time leading their students through improvisations and scene study. Public performance in a full production tends to come only after extensive development of the actor's personal resources. A similar commitment to non-judgemental development can be found among other theatre artists in their work with students. For example, a study I conducted into the educational ideas of Canadian playwrights revealed a strong process orientation. Playwrights collectively presented a vivid picture of an ideal playwriting teacher whose responsibility was largely one of encouragement. S/he was responsible for promoting the student's individual creativity, avoiding doctrinaire positions and harsh judgements. S/he was required to establish a happy and liberating classroom atmosphere in which students would feel free to make their own choices, one in which process would take precedence over product (O'Farrell 106-116).

By the end of a four- or five-year programme of drama education in a Canadian secondary school, students can be expected to have participated in many aspects of interpretive theatre production, from scene study to set design. They can also be expected to have some understanding of the historical and cultural context in which theatre lives. However, the starting point for most of these students is a course in process drama. Canadian drama teachers employ a number of pedagogical methods to bridge the gap between an improvisational, exploratory experience of process drama, and the presentational, frequently interpretive experience, of theatre production.

One widely-used approach that reflects a national theatre tradition is the collective creation of an anthology programme. The term anthology refers to one kind of collective creation, introduced in the early 1970s by David Kemp (1972) at Queen's University and subsequently adopted by teachers throughout Ontario and beyond. It is a thematically-unified presentation, one that generally lacks a central story line but includes a variety of dramatic components -- scenes from scripted plays, improvised scenes and exercises, poetry (interpreted dramatically or spoken chorally), music, dramatized excerpts from non-dramatic literature, and a unifying transitional device or concept.

An anthology is often used to provide an initial theatrical experience for high school students who have already had extensive practice in improvisation. It offers a number of advantages over the conventional production of a dramatic text for these students. It provides an opportunity to perform for an audience in a relatively non-threatening context. It introduces a number of production values without placing excessive demands on performers who have no experience in staging plays. It requires a minimum of interpretive skills and relies, instead, on extending the process of improvised drama with which students are already familiar. It reflects the students' own ideas and interests and provides an outlet for any talent they might have in related areas such as writing, music, or dance. It allows everyone to function both as an actor and as a production worker. It also encourages the use of process drama activities and skills as an integral part of the performance.

While neither collective creation nor the anthology format is an exclusively Canadian form, together they have played a substantial role in the development of Canadian theatre. From Paul Thompson's innovative work with Theatre Passe Muraille in the 1970s to the issue-driven performances of theatre collectives today, collaborative theatre works structured on an anthology model have provided some of the most compelling contributions to Canadian theatre over three decades. Ted Johns' description of the development of Theatre Passe Muraille's Farm Show matches closely the experience of secondary school students building an anthology programme:

The dramatic techniques, and the songs, grew out of the actors' attempts to dramatize their discoveries in daily improvisations. At first the result did not seem like a play: no lights, no costumes, no set, a barn for a theatre, haybales for seats. Simply pure performance. (Usmiani 49)

The presence of the anthology and other alternative theatre forms at the heart of the secondary school drama programme can be seen to reflect professional theatre traditions in a distinctively Canadian way. It also demonstrates a significant accord between the thinking of drama educators and that of theatre practitioners, one that validates the integrity of the school programme from a discipline orientation.

The relative compatibility of artists' and teachers' views on theatre education methods may come as a surprise to those teachers who fear that artists will be inflexible and doctrinaire about teaching their subject. It may also surprise those artists who assume that teachers are excessively remote and analytical in their approach to art. But none of us should be surprised that the aims of teachers and theatre artists can overlap in important ways. Aristotle made the point 2500 years ago that theatre is a form of education. This idea has frequently been taken to mean that theatre artists are engaged in a form of propaganda -- performing plays that deliver an unequivocal message. But, this view relies on an excessively narrow concept of both theatre and education. Theatre can provide a powerfully transformative experience in which a participant's entire world view is renewed. This is education at its most profound. Canadian drama teachers employ a blend of process drama and discipline orientation in an effort to achieve this challenging educational goal.

WORKS CITED

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