How different are theatre and education, really?

In Features, Opinion by Susan ElkinLeave a Comment

For many years now I’ve written about theatre and education and it seems to be an unusual combination for a journalist. I started out as a teacher of secondary English and somewhere along the way, theatre got into the mix big time as I gradually switched professions.

The overlaps between theatre and education are many and various. Whenever I sit in on someone’s rehearsal and watch a director at work with a group of actors, I notice the similarity to classroom work. Said director, like a good teacher, is leading, pushing and probing with skills which allow the actors to discover things they need to know about themselves, others, situations and so on.  And as for teachers well, obviously, they direct their classrooms too. And sometimes they morph into performers themselves. School assemblies, for instance, and I’ve taken hundreds of those in my time, are essentially a form of theatre.

Then there’s the education and training of actors and other theatre professionals which occupies a lot of my working life. Most actors have to be formally taught and/or helped to learn their craft. Drama schools are not called “schools” for nothing and, over the years I’ve visited many dozens of these multi-faceted learning environments which do a great deal more than teach people how to work in the performing arts industries.

Consider too the education, learning, participation, community etc etc projects which theatre companies now run and which reach and benefit huge numbers of people of all ages. From very small beginnings, education is now a massive part of what theatre is about. Take Jacqui O’Hanlon, Director of Education at RSC, whom I interviewed again recently. She now heads a team of 16 full-timers and 35 freelances many of them RSC actors who are trained in RSC education methods. There’s a similar picture at the National under Alice Fowler-King. Much work goes on in the education departments at theatres such as York Theatre Royal and Marlowe, Canterbury too. In 2017 it would be a rare company or venue, however small, which wasn’t trying to engage with education wherever possible.

Many companies take work into schools too – I regularly see shows staged in school halls when someone is kind enough to invite me. And of course there’s always preparatory and  follow-up work for the students.

And what about plays about education? I seem to see plenty of those too. History Boys has become a perennial. Still with Alan Bennett, Forty Years On – currently at Chichester, directed by Daniel Evans – asks questions about education among other things. What is it for, for example? And, from a playwright at the other end of his career Alex MacKeith’s School Play, which I saw earlier this year at Southwark Playhouse, explores similar territory in a completely different way.

I rest my case.  There is so much cross-over between theatre and education that for me at least, they are simply different slants on the same thing. And I think that’s exactly as it should be. We do far too much compartmentalising.

Susan Elkin
Susan Elkin is a former teacher of secondary English. She has also been a very active and eclectic freelance journalist for more than 25 years. She now focuses on education, performing arts and books, and was education and training editor at The Stage newspaper 2015-2016. Susan is the author of over 40 books, mostly on education and performing arts topics, including So You Want to Work in Theatre (Nick Hern Books). In 2016, she launched her personal website susanelkin.co.uk.
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Susan Elkin
Susan Elkin is a former teacher of secondary English. She has also been a very active and eclectic freelance journalist for more than 25 years. She now focuses on education, performing arts and books, and was education and training editor at The Stage newspaper 2015-2016. Susan is the author of over 40 books, mostly on education and performing arts topics, including So You Want to Work in Theatre (Nick Hern Books). In 2016, she launched her personal website susanelkin.co.uk.