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Theatre and the arts are not about the curriculum or a fix for society’s problems

We need to radically rethink why we teach art and culture in schools, says Purni Morell of the Unicorn Theatre

By Purni Morell (Artistic director, Unicorn Theatre)

14 October 2014 at 3.27pm | 6 Comments

I am often asked to discuss the arts in education, or asked where I stand on creative learning, or cultural education; I’m asked what I think of the curriculum, or schools in general. I care about education very much, of course, as any sane person cares about our children and their development and therefore has a view on the systems we as a society have set up. But I also feel there’s no need for me to have a view on education at all. I am a theatre-maker, not an educator, and in fact my job has nothing whatsoever to do with education.

I find a lot of the language around the arts in formal education very disheartening because often, my art form and I become a branch of English Literature. We’re given to understand drama can be incredibly useful in improving literacy, or it can be a fun and accessible way to teach children about the Tudors, or we should read Shakespeare and consider what he meant and techniques for bringing that to the stage and we might learn something by the odd theatre visit. I don’t dispute any of this, but we must remember that theatre’s not a part of literature. Theatre’s got nothing to do with literature, it doesn't even depend on verbal communication. It’s a completely different thing, about the soul and not about the mind, and based on the relationship between performer and audience, entirely unlearnable in a classroom.

It therefore bothers me that when we take a group of children to the theatre, too often we’re doing it for small reasons, to do with the curriculum and measurable outcomes, and not for big reasons, which are about being human.

We start asking questions like: 'How will this fit into the child’s development?', or 'How will we be able to achieve X and Y through this visit?'. I understand that there are pressures on time and money, and that teachers have to make choices. But I want to change the way we think about why children should experience art – I want us to move away from the idea that a visit to the theatre should have value.

That question, 'What is the value of art?', is an irrelevance, I think. I am baffled as to why art for art’s sake has become so unfashionable, and why we are so embarrassed to simply allow that we need it, without really understanding why. It’s like asking, what is the value of life? We don’t know. That’s the whole point. That’s why we have art.

If we really believed that art is part of what makes us human, wouldn’t we change how we teach the arts in schools?

At the start of this piece, I called myself a theatre-maker not an educator, even though I create shows for children. I’ll add to that and say I don’t really mind whether children like theatre. I’m not especially concerned with whether they understand how theatre works, though it’s often fun showing them the secrets. Crucially, I’m not interested in creating the audience of the future. What I am interested in, the only thing I’m interested in, is the experience of the audience, those children in that theatre, today, now. The play that is happening in their heads is what is valuable to me, not the teaching that happens about it afterwards.

I believe in art within education because schools are an absolutely vital tool in reaching children whose families might not automatically take them to a play or a concert or a painting. But just because we want to place art in schools, it doesn’t follow we have to teach it or control it. What I would like us to do is to simply give children regular and frequent opportunities to go and see dance, music, art, theatre - unmediated, unprescribed, unexplained, and from the assumption that adult and child have in common that they are part of an audience, at a conversation in which the artists and audience have in common that none of us knows why we are here. In those circumstances, free from the measurable outcomes and the learning objectives that close down our perspectives and lead us to think in terms of value, anything could happen. If we could just see children as equals, and limit our involvement to buying them the tickets and then getting out of their way, I firmly believe that children will manage the rest for themselves.

Purni Morell is the artistic director of the Unicorn Theatre

This article is taken from a speech Purni delivered at the ROH Bridge Culture Counts conference earlier this year. Her thoughts form part of a series asking why access to the arts and cultural learning are so important

By Purni Morell (Artistic director, Unicorn Theatre)

14 October 2014 at 3.27pm

This article has been categorised Learning and tagged Arts Education, cultural learning, learning and participation, ROH Bridge, Royal Opera House Bridge, unicorn theatre, young people

This article has 6 comments

  1. In 1994 I wrote an article for MailOut on my concerns about using the arts as an all-purpose catchall to heal and mend. Writing then, I felt that the arts in the UK is all too often used as a brightly coloured sticking plaster to cover the wounds in society that the government does not properly tackle. These days I work in Higher Education teaching students about the many aspects of theatre and I am saddened that their common perception of theatre for young people is one of issue-based education projects where the audience is "told what to think". There have been some glorious examples of writing and performance produced for young audiences but in times of tight budgets,schools are not buying into these and want instead something that will "tick as many boxes as possible".

  2. Thanks Purni,
    Delightful and insightful. I wish it could be so.

  3. Barbara wouters responded on 23 October 2014 at 9:51pm Reply

    Pretending is as natural as breathing! When someone imagines and then puts that into a form for performing it can be magical! Theatre is magical and wonderful! How music and theatre could be eliminated from education curriculum is demonic!?

  4. Jane Whitehouse responded on 30 October 2014 at 9:09am Reply

    I am in complete agreement with the importance of providing young people with regular opportunities to experience live performance and that the moment of that experience is the most crucial. However I also witness the excitement and energetic identification which comes when those young people understand the creative process they are witnessing and the strong desire they have to share those feelings and realisations when given a space to reflect. Positive arts education is a vehicle for that. It is true there are many stultifying approaches to teaching the arts but when student and teacher stand alongside each other sharing a common language then the magic is not lost but only enhanced.

  5. Michael Merrick responded on 30 October 2014 at 5:27pm Reply

    Bravo!!!

  6. David Osa Amadasun responded on 2 November 2014 at 5:12pm Reply

    Thanks for being bold enough to be honest!

    Your word remind me of what was/is at the essence of Maria Montessori's theory - an environment of freedom for children to explore without [too much] adult intervention, because children are more than capable.

    It is a shame that 'curriculum, and 'measurable outcomes' have pervaded all aspects of our children's lives and that a lack of resources and passion in schools has meant that the maximisation of utility trumps life experiences :-(

    Something needs to be change. I think finding new "points of entry" for more families to engage with the theatre/the arts could help realign the focus. But I'm sure there are other solutions out there in the collective consciousness, it's for us to help draw them out - funnily enough the Latin root for educate is to 'draw out' :-)

    Peace

    David Osa Amadasun

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