Volume 11 editorial - NATIONAL DRAMA

Volume 11 editorial

At this time of national ‘lock down’ during the coronavirus pandemic, when the similarities to prison life resonate most strongly, it is entirely fortuitous that this issue of Drama Research publishes two articles whose focus of study is the use of Drama and Theatre with inmates in prisons: one in the UK and one in the USA.
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At this time of national ‘lock down’ during the coronavirus pandemic, when the similarities to prison life resonate most strongly, it is entirely fortuitous that this issue of Drama Research publishes two articles whose focus of study is the use of Drama and Theatre with inmates in prisons: one in the UK and one in the USA.

In ‘Action is eloquence’: Creating Space for Shakespeare in HMP Gartree, Rowan MacKenzie reports on a project she led in 2019 with the prisoners in HMP Gartree, a category B men’s prison in Leicestershire, UK, for those serving indeterminate or life sentences, predominantly for murder. As the title of her article indicates, she hoped to ‘create a space’ whereby the prisoners, who may suffer metaphorical as well as physical imprisonment, could engage with one of Shakespeare’s plays in the belief that

‘Shakespeare can offer them the opportunity to create space outside of these constraints where they can allow their imagination and skills to develop.’

Mackenzie framed her work around Foucault’s concept of heterotopia and Lefebvre’s spatial triad and asked the key question:

‘To what extent can this work free their minds from the shackles of their past and their present and open a window to the potential for a future with opportunities rather than limitations?’

At first thought, Macbeth may seem a risky choice to engage such people in such an environment: after all, it features a catalogue of various acts of murder, including regicide and infanticide, not to mention the contract killing of a best friend. However, it became apparent, as the project unfolded, that the men in Gartree became extremely committed to the exploration of the content, possibly because it resonated with their own life experiences and therefore had special meaning for them; and also to the method of exploration: the drama and theatre form.

Working in the neutral space of the prison library, the work brought together a disparate group of prisoners and for the duration of the sessions

‘we were in a Scottish castle rather than a prison library.’

As the project progressed, it became apparent that the desire to free the men’s minds ‘from the shackles of their past’ was being reflected in the observations of the participants:

‘For a few short hours every week we are free; although physically we remain within the boundaries of the prison our spirits soar far above the walls and fences..’ (Michael 2019).

This article is a fascinating and important account of some exceptional work in one of the most difficult environments possible.

The other article which draws on experiences of theatre with prison inmates is Applying Commedia dell’Arte by Olly Crick, who includes a report on the work of The Actors Gang, a Commedia theatre group in California, USA. Crick’s description of the essential nature of Commedia dell’Arte as a theatre form provides insight into why this type of theatre may appeal to those whose access to resources is strictly limited and whose systems of hierarchy may be stark:

‘Commedia is nothing if not a running argument about access to resources, fought between the ambitions and emotional needs of the higher status Masks, and the bellies and security of the lower status roles.’

This project, like the Gartree project, has proved successful. The company reports:

‘Although we are not allowed to track our actors outside prison, we have heard that our guys have had 0% recidivism rate. Zero. That’s against the 65.1% currently’(Williams, 2013: Internet).

While some may feel that Commedia is an archaic theatre form of little contemporary relevance, Crick’s article is an intelligent analysis of, and passionate advocate for, its educational and political relevance today, noting that Commedia is embedded in the Ontario school curriculum, and argues that

‘Historically Commedia dell’Arte thrived on performing the current hot topic, and contemporary iterations of the genre often suffer by having one foot in the past. The overriding narrative within the genre is how to modernise it and engage modern audiences.’

In its appendix, this article also includes some very rare video footage of four Commedia performances, La Famme dello Zanni, broadcast by RAI, the Italian Broadcasting Service in 2008 and makes an important contribution to our knowledge and understanding of this particular theatre form.

In this issue we have two articles which reference the Mantle of the Expert format in their research. Amanda Kipling’s article, ‘But I knew better’: Permeating the Correlationist Membrane in the Drama Classroom, reflects on a drama session she led thirty years ago which was

‘..designed using a whole class immersive improvisation approach harnessing a ‘Mantle of the Expert’ process leading to a ‘Man in a Mess’ situation. ‘

The lesson centred around a situation which simulated

‘a conflict of interest between town planners and a tribe living in an area earmarked for development.’

Her article has a thread of philosophy running through it by which she hopes to illuminate the thinking processes of one student, ‘Nina’, while engaging in the dramatic context.

‘The writing of this paper has been driven by the writer’s recent study of the work of eighteenth century philosopher, Hume (Hume 2000) and contemporary philosopher Meillassoux (Meillassoux 2008). Their thoughts on correlationism illuminated this drama lesson, and its impact on one student in particular.’

Central to her exploration are the key questions:

‘Do learners have opportunities to challenge existing knowledge or explore the barriers of correlationism? Or does education simply expect the rearrangement of existing ideas with pre-existing correlational links? Moreover, are learners discouraged or even condemned for attempting to think against the correlationist grain?’

It is a gallant expedition into very elusive territory containing ‘crossing, synapsing pathways’, which she illustrates through the creation of a ‘Starmatrix’ to assist the reader to navigate them. These are very complex issues indeed, which surely deserve further exploration.

The other article referencing Mantle of the Expert is Mantle of the Expert 2.0: from drama in education towards education in drama, in which Bob Selderslaghs argues that

‘There has been little research examining the balance between process and product in children’s arts education.’

Selderslaghs is interested to examine

‘..whether drama in education, or drama for learning (Heathcote and Bolton 1994), can make a contribution to high-quality education in drama.’

To do so he set up a Mantle of the Expert drama in order to create a non-scripted drama performance. Although the study group was limited – only seven children between eight and ten years old, six girls and one boy, participated – Selderslaghs concludes

‘..that Mantle of the Expert can make an important contribution to strengthening an artistic process in drama education with young target groups, with a view to achieving a significant artistic product such as a non-scripted theatre performance.’

Also featuring research with Primary aged children, The improvement of critical thinking through Drama Education for students in the fifth grade of Primary school by Aikaterini Dima and Asterios Tsiaras, describes a research project in Greece in which the authors attempted

‘to demonstrate how an intervention programme based on Drama education techniques can improve the critical thinking skills of students in the fifth grade of Primary school.’

The researchers examined

‘..five key critical thinking skills that could be improved by a Drama education intervention programme: Abstraction, Induction, Reliability, Observation, Hypothesis.’

Using a combination of participant observation and The Cornell Class-Reasoning Test, (Form X) the research was conducted with two classes of 25 children each Primary school in Nafplio, Greece. Their research appears to show that in three out of the five thinking skills were significantly improved and, additionally

‘..the students’ encouraging and humorous comments to each other, the mutual respect for each other’s opinion and the lack of peer criticism emerged as a very important outcome of the investigation.’

The other two articles in this volume focus on the value of young people’s theatre in the contemporary world, and we are particularly pleased that the online format of this journal has enabled us to reproduce video clips that illustrate the themes of their articles.

In their article, Creating Community Resilience: Theatre for Young Audiences and the Mental Health Crisis, Danny Braverman and Ava Hunt

‘..explore the assertion that TYA in schools can play a significant role in addressing the mental health crisis affecting young people in the UK, with implications globally.

However, the current context in the UK is extremely challenging:

‘As arts have been marginalised in the curriculum, TYA has been decimated by funding cuts, particularly work in schools.  In this context, it may seem remote that this movement can thrive again as a response to the current mental health crisis.’

The authors draw on two projects that they have been involved with in response to these conditions: Braverman’s Dialogue Across Difference and Hunt’s practice-as-research project, Journeys of Destiny.

Dialogue Across Difference looks at four inter-connected areas of audience engagement: social, educational, emotional and spiritual, and uses the exemplar of Theatre Centre UK and David Johnston’s leadership, including a film made in 1986 as an illustration of this work, hosted on this website at ‘A History of Radicalism In Theatre for Young Audiences (TYA)’.

Johnston believed that theatre for young audiences must

‘…communicate ideas, thoughts about a real world and cannot afford to be an escapist fantasy, a diversion from twentieth century reality… [that] school is the environment where that communication can be made most effective…[and] the visit from a theatre company must potentially present a very different experience’ (Johnston 1981).

Journeys of Destiny was a practice-as-research investigation with several interconnected starting points.  It was designed principally for the oldest primary school children, preparing for their transition to secondary school; a time when many young people experience high levels of anxiety. Hunt was moved by the true story of Saad Al Kassab, a young Syrian refugee, also in transition, and, with writer Craig Christie, worked with Saad to develop his story into a participatory community musical, a video of which is included in this volume in ‘A Case Study: Journeys of Destiny.’

As Saad’s actual story involved his witnessing killings and torture

‘..the team were cognisant of the need to tell this story of trauma truthfully, but in a way that would not be psychologically damaging.’

The proof of whether they achieved this delicate balance is reflected in the feedback comments of the participants. The writers assert:

‘But in a larger sense, the event itself enabled everyone concerned to imagine a more hopeful world; what Jill Dolan describes as a ‘utopian performative’.

The remaining article in this volume likewise is concerned with enabling us ‘to imagine a more hopeful world’ and contains important video illustrations of its themes.

In her article, No More Thoughts and Prayers: What the Performance of Youth Protest in Real-World and Online Communities Might Tell Us About the Future of Theatre for and with Young People in the United States of America, Amy Jensen observes that

‘..we make more theatre for young audiences than we do theatre with young people acting as co-creators and full collaborators in the United States,’

which explains the crossing through of the words ‘for and’ in the title of her article. Her article focuses on what can be learned from an event which reverberated around the world:

‘Using the youth response to the Parkland, Florida school shooting in 2018 I make the case that our institutions need to reimagine more inclusive relationships with young people in ways that value their capacities as agents of change.’

She encourages us to dismiss notions of young people as only ‘becoming’ and instead asks,

‘What kinds of human beings are our children already?’

Citing the examples of Greta Thurnberg, Malala Yousafzai and Manu Gaspar she notes that

‘Young activists are changing the world as they aggressively use their voices to interact with others and make change.’

Her article focuses on the actions of two young people after the Parkland school shooting, David Hogg and Emma González, captured in videos during and after the event, in order to illustrate the general point that ‘Centennials’ are already well equipped to influence the world politically and that they do so with an implicit understanding and practice of theatre especially theatre generated by digital media.

‘Like other Centennials, Hogg demonstrates a deep understanding of live and digital communication.’

David Hogg recorded on his phone his thoughts and experiences while taking cover during the attack itself; people all over the world will have witnessed Gonzalez’s extraordinary performance while addressing her fellow students at the school after the event. She spoke aloud the names of each of her dead colleagues, starting with her friends, then on to all the others

‘until finally her rhetoric consisted of the name of a lost child paired with the phrase ‘never again’:

‘Alyssa Alhadeff would never. Jamie Guttenberg would never…. Meadow Pollack would never….’

and then Emma González stood silent for an excruciating 4 minutes.’

We are again in the fortunate position to be able, in this online journal, to reproduce the videos of both Hogg and Gonzales, which are so important to understand the full impact of their actions.

Both students received hostility in some quarters of the firearm loving USA for their public witnessing of the event in these ways, Hogg being dismissed as a ‘crisis actor’, and in Gonzalez’s case

‘The unmistakably theatrical conventions employed by Ms. González, and now attached to her very body and thunderously silent being, can, and are, dismissively interpreted as mere ‘political theatre.’

Jensen concludes her extremely topical and well-argued article by reminding all theatre practitioners that

‘ [we] should again carefully note the fluency of theatrical meaning making that is demonstrated by the students—it is, in many ways, their first and natural language of political speech, and should encourage all of us to think about how we might do theatre with young people rather than for young people.

It is a thought that should resonate with us all into what has become an uncertain future.

National Drama

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