Drama in the Classroom Moves Centre Stage

By Susan Battye

 First published in Tomorrows Schools Today NZ 05 May 2016

Drama in the classroom – a frippery at best or an essential part of the curriculum? 
It depends who you talk to, but since 2001 when Drama first became a stand-alone subject in the New Zealand curriculum, we could say that the impact has been significant. 
In 2015 almost 13,000 students entered one or more NCEA Drama examinations at Levels 1-3. The numbers compare favourably with other more traditional performing arts subjects such as Music and Dance. 

It is important to consider what has kept Drama as a subject buoyant over the past 14 years. 
A television commercial was being shot on location in my neighbour’s house today when I went for my morning walk. Picking my way around the white and red-striped cones that lined the footpath, I almost ran into the director, Tammy Davis (aka Munter from South Pacific Television’s series, Outrageous Fortune).

It is not uncommon in the New Zealand Film and Television industry to find people doing more than one job. The art of being flexible and resilient is the key to survival in this people-heavy industry.

Before 8 am, more than 20 highly-focused people were busy positioning trucks, setting up lighting and camera rigs, dressing the set, organising the wardrobe, no doubt putting make-up on the talent, recording the sound, and getting ready to the shoot the commercial. Elsewhere, the producer will be checking the budget and talking with the client, while an editor will be liaising with a composer or animator. 

It’s a good bet that the majority of the crew working on this TV commercial will have attended a New Zealand secondary school in the past where they were introduced to the world of drama, film and television and the creative arts as part of their regular classroom studies.

According to a 2015 Price Waterhouse Cooper report on the Employment and National GDP Impacts of music, book publishing, film and television and games in New Zealand, 7699 people were directly employed in Film and Television production in 2013 and many more were employed indirectly in the industry. There is no reason to expect that this number will significantly decrease. Moreover, the report says that: “The direct contribution to New Zealand’s economy of these industries was over $1,742 million. After accounting for spillover effects, the total contribution of the measured creative industries was $3,848 million.” (PWC 2016)

What is the relevance of this report for schools, if any? Could it be that the introduction of Drama as a subject in the curriculum might be linked to a developing a level of confidence in our film and television industry?

Following the 1984 visit of Professor Dorothy Heathcote, the British Drama as a Medium for Learning exponent, to New Zealand I became the founding president of the New Zealand Association for Drama in Education, now known as Drama New Zealand. Together with and the Curriculum Officer for Drama, Sunny Amey the members of the association, I lobbied the government for the recognition of Drama as a subject in its own right. 

Today Drama and Dance are well embedded in the New Zealand Curriculum together with the pre-existing subjects of Music and Visual Arts. Given that students are now able to gain Levels 1, 2, and 3 Achievement Standards in Drama as well Scholarship Drama, one could be forgiven for thinking that all the battles have been won. And, indeed, students are able to gain the required number of Literacy credits for University Entrance by obtaining Achieved or better in Level 2 and 3 Drama Achievement Standards. 

But there are many reasons to be nervous. Secondary Drama as a subject would not exist if it were not for the direct encouragement given to the subject by primary and intermediate school teachers. It is they who ignite a spark by providing opportunities in and out of the classroom for students to experience drama. In the present climate, literacy and numeracy are centre stage by virtue of the fact that they are assessed through National Standards.

Concerning the current status of Drama in Primary education an Auckland Drama teacher, Chris Horne says,
“The current status of drama in primary education is that of increasing marginalisation due to schools being forced to focus on literacy and numeracy at the expense of the Arts. There are no drama advisors and no funding for Professional Development. The arts are slowly dying and what is being taught is often mediocre and window dressing for PR purposes. “ 

As a direct result, there is a danger that Drama, a subject and a medium for learning, which directly supports literacy, will be marginalised. Teachers themselves could begin to lose confidence in their abilities to use drama if they are not supported to do so.

One organisation which works directly with primary teachers and junior high school teachers to encourage the use of drama as a medium for learning is the Mantle of Expert NZ. The cluster groups are co-ordinated by Dr Viv Aitken from Napier’s Eastern Institute of Technology. The organisation will offer a practical series of workshops at a forthcoming symposium, Te AhoTapu: Precious Threads to be held at Hamilton’s Rototuna Junior High School (15-16 October 2016). 

There are many reasons why students should be given every opportunity to experience drama, both as a participant and as an audience member. 

Schools frequently find it easier to support the latter rather than the former. Between February and April 2016, excited by the advent of the Pop Up Globe Theatre in Auckland, schools brought thousands of secondary school to see a wonderful range of Shakespeare’s plays being performed ‘in the round’. The quality performances which were presented to mark the four hundredth year anniversary of the death of William Shakespeare, were over-subscribed. 
It must be clear by now that that Shakespeare’s themes as presented in Romeo and Juliet, Twelfth Night, and other plays during the season are still relevant to students today.

The Australian artistic director of Polyglot theatre, Sue Giles, recently wrote in the ASSITEJ Newsletter about the transformative power of theatre: “The nature of theatre; subjective, nuanced, intangible – is one of the things that enables human beings to realise their individual power of expression and belief. The private world of experience is the strength within us all no matter our knowledge or expertise…my thoughts are my own.” (Giles 2016). 

I have often been amazed at the reactions I have had in the past to my own plays and to the plays written and presented by my Year 12 drama class students when I was teaching at Epsom Girls Grammar School. In an increasingly complex world students can safely explore moral and spiritual dilemmas through classroom drama. On a daily basis they will be ticking the ‘Key Competencies’ and ‘Values’ boxes.

Students who choose Drama as a subject will be on a path to becoming potential earners in a growth industry. Many will find themselves in demand as paid performers even before they leave school. 

In their drama classes they will in fact begin to understand the nature of the contract that exists between performer and audience. However not everyone wants to be an actor, but understanding an actor’s needs will make someone a better script writer, lighting designer, animator or production accountant in the long run.

The more support schools can give Drama teachers to make the delivery of their subject attractive and safe, the richer and more long-lasting the impact will be. In conclusion far from being a frippery, it seems that Drama has, in fact, moved centre stage and thoroughly deserves to be supported both as a subject and as a medium for learning by the Ministry of Education, principals and teachers alike.

PWC (2016) Employment and national GDP impacts of music, book publishing, film and television and games in New Zealand: Author
Giles, Sue (2016, April) Introduction. ASSITEJ Newsletter N°74, April 2016.
Susan Battye is the former Head of Drama at Epsom Girls’ Grammar School and the current managing director of Drama Magic Ltd, a company dedicated to providing quality, purpose built stage set elements for schools.
Contact: info@dramamagic.com
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