Standing on a giants shoulders can be a scary place. After all it is a long way to fall! On the other hand however the view is amazing. And so we find ourselves both scared of the great weight, power and might of those whose shoulders we trust ourselves upon but at the same time hardly notice the foundation we stand upon as our breath is taken away by the beauty of what lies before us.
There is a shift happening in the world of ‘applied drama’, process drama, theatre in education- terms we can debate and wrangle over a coffee. I’ve been to two conferences in the past couple of years that have highlighted this both in different yet concerning ways. The first asked us to ‘re-consider’ Heathcote and came just after her death. I went expecting that it would be focused on the ‘now’ time, how we could take her work, her legacy and what the future held because of this amazing woman’s contribution to our field. What we got instead was an anecdotal sharing that often fell in to a bizarre game of who knew her the best and at one point a very odd moment where people stood gasping asking each other if they had actually touched or seen a missing manuscript that had been located. Of course there was also a heavy sense of mourning and loss which was absolutely right and respectful but at no point were we addressed, indeed challenged with what now, what next, what beyond? Instead of re-considering it created a sense of distance between ourselves as practitioners and those giants whose footprints are mighty.
The second was a wonderful conference called Inspiring Curiosity penned as celebrating 50 years of the Belgrades Theatre in Education work. I sat and listened to the history, felt what a lucky and exciting time these people had worked within and also heavily thankful for the rigour, passion and commitment to this form that is accredited to them. (A form that has sadly been bastardised by many companies claiming they do ‘Theatre in Education’. If it’s three people in a hoody, pretending to be young people, telling them they shouldn’t do ‘drugs’, ‘have sex’ or worse at one I saw recently ‘drink and drive’ -played to a group of 14 year old mainly Muslim heritage young people- then its not TiE.) The conference made clear was was TiE and that this was about humanity, humanness, exposing and interrogating it- not finger wagging at young people. But there was also a real atmosphere of concern. There was genuine worry that TiE was dead, ‘hanging on by a thread’. That the form perhaps wasn’t even relevant in a ‘digital age’ and musings that perhaps it should be renamed what ever this ‘thing’ may be. It was despairing to hear and although truthful- no money, a government who are eradicating the arts as a privilege accessible only to the elite- I felt a great concern and alarm.
So here is the problem. In both conferences there was a sense of the great giants being in the past. That these were the only giants and a group that is becoming extinct in an increasingly ‘digital age’ where the arts is being attacked. I think it is a tone rather than the words. The words seemed to be a focus on the past and the richness of the heritage that both DiE and TiE have, how lucky we are to have this to stand upon and now we are at a time where to do this work will be entirely difficult because of attitudes to the arts and the economy. But I don’t see it as a lost cause. Young people are being told in every sense that they are not valued. Grants have cut, tuition fees have risen, benefits cut, unemployment rife etc etc etc. We have to be careful that our tone is not the same. Instead I challenge us as a community to consider what an exciting time this is to be in, what a difficult, challenging yet thrilling opportunity this current situation this is. It forces us to make our work relevant, purposeful, effective and risky. Yes, there is no money really to fund it, schools want to squash the whole year group into the space so what are we going to do about it? Yes, arts has been cut from education which has become about testing and result driven so what are we going to do about it? I spoke to an amazing woman who was working on her own unique form of DiE and she said that the method she was working on “was wrong according to everything she read”. Yet in her classrooms, in those moments deeply held alongside her children she could feel the worth, the value and indeed the importance of what they were creating together. And I felt her value, worth and indeed excitement that what she was doing was new, fresh built securely on a foundation drawn from those giants but emerging into something new. Another key concern I had was a fear of the form and its relevance in a ‘digital age’. If we go back to the heart of our work- humanness- then it is entirely relevant. Young people use social media to connect to others, to explore their own humanity and to find their communities. Drama and theatre also does this. It always has. There is no need to panic and throw out the forms to adopt new technologies or bring in forms because they are deemed ‘cool’. Of course they are useful and can be exciting if used correctly – if they serve to enrich the experience, exploration etc. But we don’t have to throw a load of ‘stuff’ at a project just because it might ‘engage young people’. Its crass and kids can smell when you are trying to be ‘cool’. We shouldn’t be involved in selling an idea of what is ‘cool’ and what is not. Of course use these forms if they help tell the story, raise the issue, debate the nodal points but they should be conventions or support the artistry rather than a panicked attempt to ‘engage’. Surely we should be looking to connect instead of widening devisions by constantly saying we are digital ‘immigrants’ and you are digital ‘natives’. Surely these terms are not only offensive but also introduce a sense of separation, a sense of ‘othering’?
So I ask us as a community to look at the amazing students we have before us. They are excited about their futures despite the world telling them that there is no future (and the often confused faces of their friends and family saying “you’re studying applied what????”) We need to change our tone, challenge them to be excited about what will be a hard and difficult slog with our art. That when the path in front is so difficult that surely this reflects why there is such a need for it. No money, no arts, a digital age, a time where we are watching as hundreds of thousands of people attempt to make a better life for themselves and dying in the process, a time where boarders are being put up, where fascism is rising, where othering and blaming others for our misfortune, the economy etc etc is heard in very news report telling us of the latest cuts to public services? What a time to be starting out! You are desperately needed! We need you, your youth, your energy, your passion, your commitment. So instead of telling them that all hope is lost, that is too hard lets ask them what are they going to do about it and how can we help. Let’s make new giants. I think the time is ‘now’.