Engaging The Next Generation with Justine Themen

Posted on 15 June 2016

In our latest blog, Justine Themen (Associate Director) addresses the vital role drama can play in helping young people to better understand their place in the world and the need to see theatre, not simply as an add on or leisure activity, but as a language in itself…

Last year, the Belgrade Theatre celebrated its 50th Anniversary as the Birthplace of Theatre in Education (TiE). TiE arose from a democratic desire for the city’s theatre to reach every child in the city. The Belgrade’s work today continues in a similarly radical vein with diversity at the heart of our work – our participatory programmes target some of the hardest to reach communities in the city, including those from socially economically disadvantaged backgrounds, and those from diverse ethnic communities.

For me the major gap in the Schools debate is the power of Theatre as a Language. Not theatre as an Industry or theatre as a Leisure Activity.

Theatre is a language that we, as humans, all naturally engage with. It is a way that we reflect on our place in the world. As such, it is a natural and powerful learning medium, a form of communication between ‘teacher’ and pupil, between artist and pupil, between pupil and pupil, between just people learning about themselves and each other.

Let me illustrate. I took my 13 year old daughter to see a Theatre in Education programme at a primary school, playing to 10 year olds. The show was called ‘Thirst for Knowledge’, and was about the ethics of scientific and anthropological exploration. The children were put in role as members of the Royal Botanical Society, and were to decide whether to confer an honour on a particular scientific explorer, weighing up the benefits his discoveries he had made with the disrespect he had at times shown to indigenous cultures. At the end of it, my daughter commented on how much more intelligent these 10 year olds were than the kids in her own class, who were 3 years older.

I asked her why she thought so, and she said that they were discussing important issues with much more detail and confidence that her peers in her classroom.

I don’t think that the children that she encountered at that show were cleverer than her classmates – they were just engaging with a more powerful learning medium. It is this ability of theatre and drama to engage and promote intelligent debate, expression and discussion that is missing in too many classrooms. If drama and theatre were a regular part of our teaching and our communication in and out of school, I believe that attending theatre as a leisure activity would be more likely to follow suit, as would a broader diversity of young people entering the profession. Theatre is a language that we all speak naturally as small children, but it is beaten out of us as we are exposed to a system of learning that is still too often focused on sitting on our hands. How many of us are filled with dread if we have to do role play in a training course (and we work in the Theatre sector), when we happily worked out complex adult relationships by playing ‘mummies and daddies’ when we were children?

I think that the answer to this is Teacher Training – how can we as a sector, partner with teacher training programmes to build in basic drama skills for teaching, alongside skills in questioning to promote higher order thinking amongst our young people. In short, to build understanding of theatre as a language that is an innate part of who we are as human beings. Our cultural entitlement, not something that the least arts-engaged people should be given access to.

And for those of us working in arts organisations, I would suggest that we stop seeing our education, community and participation teams as a support activity. They are at the heart of theatre as a means to reflect on our own humanity, and as we have so articulately heard from previous speakers they ARE theatre, not an add on.

This speech was originally delivered as part of the 2016 UK Theatre conference.