Theatre in education has seen many changes since it was first conceived in Coventry fifty years ago. Justine Themen tracks its history from the original aim to develop drama appreciation in schools.
Fifty years ago the first theatre in education (TiE) company was established here at the Belgrade Theatre in Coventry in a ground-breaking partnership between the theatre and the city council. The birth of TiE was a key development in the evolution of the youth arts sector, as outlined in the recent Culture at King’s report Step by Step: arts policy and young people 1944-2014. Dedicated to using theatrical performance and drama activities to explore issues of cultural, social, political and moral significance, our work was offered as part of a free service to schools and the young people of Coventry.
This radical vision was funded by putting a half penny on the rates of every household in the city, and was born out of the national post-war drive for social change. On the one side, the education system was being influenced by new teaching methods from across the Atlantic that promoted child-centered learning and an erosion of class divisions. On the other side, theatres were looking for ways to reach out to new audiences – and none more so than the Belgrade, Coventry City Council’s purpose-built civic theatre, tasked through a council resolution to assist in the development of drama appreciation in schools. And what better way to reach every child in the city than to take theatre performances out to the schools themselves?
Participants were encouraged to find solutions for themselves and to develop their own voices and opinions around complex issues
What was distinctive about TiE was that it gave children and young people the opportunity to explore issues and dilemmas as if they were real. This engagement in activities linked to the ‘real’ world of the show gave children a lived experience of complex situations, while the knowledge that it was not real enabled participants to make mistakes within a safe environment. In so doing, participants were encouraged to find solutions for themselves and develop their own voices and opinions around complex issues. As one seven-year-old put it: “The Belgrade Theatre came to our school. They do plays. They make you think… we join in… it’s real… the plays are mostly about other people’s lives.”
By the early 1970s TiE had grown into a movement and spread to theatres across the UK. The thinking and practice that informed it was growing in sophistication, with companies exploring new theatrical forms (from Japanese Kabuki to outdoor adventure trails) and issues as diverse and challenging as ecological responsibility (our own ‘Rare Earth’), and sexual abuse (‘The Pitcher Plant’, Cockpit TiE).
But with the arrival of a Conservative government in 1979, the TiE movement encountered serious challenges. A combination of factors, such as a new national curriculum, the decline in public funding for the arts, the decentralisation of schools funding and a more conservative attitude towards open debate, contributed to companies restricting their activities, and in many cases, closing over the ensuing ten years. Many of those that survived did so at the expense of the key factors that defined them as TiE, some losing the interactive elements of their performances, others losing performance altogether and turning to participatory practice.
The Belgrade TiE Company continued to inspire many, including a young Michael Boyd, Trainee Director at the Belgrade. In a play about the Irish potato famine, he and a participating child were asked to decide what to do with their last potato – either to eat it or to use it to seed a crop. Michael suggested eating it so that they could live to fight another day. The child looked at him square in the eye and said: “We have to think of the future.” Michael said: ‘I learnt more about the Irish famine through that show… than from any textbook that I studied at school, or indeed from any folklore that as a Northern Irish man I’d learnt in my childhood.” A resounding testament to the ability of TiE to cut to the heart of an issue.
By 1996, however, we were struggling with a growing deficit, and after a period of erosion of the autonomy of the TiE company, it was finally and controversially cut to restabilise the theatre’s financial position. Other companies making TiE have survived including those programmed for our Inspiring Curiosity 50th Anniversary festival in October. Many have adapted quickly to the changing funding climate – with Big Brum having lost its NPO status in the last round of Arts Council England (ACE) funding cuts, and Birmingham’s The Play House having recently moved its offices into the Birmingham Rep.
Aside from the remaining pockets of TiE practice, our legacy can be seen in the proliferation of participatory or applied arts practices in theatre and non-theatre environments since the early 1990s – in health, prisons and youth theatre. Here at the Belgrade, we are proud to build on our legacy, with our community and education programme at the heart of our artistic vision. Our work is inspired by some of the key principles of TiE – giving a voice to the experiences of young people, inspiring their curiosity in the world around them, and working in partnership with organisations to meet the needs of our communities. Programmes include Acting Out, which uses participatory theatre practices to work with young people not fulfilling their potential in mainstream school, and The New Black, which works with the city’s black and minority communities.
Since the disbanding of the full-time TiE company, we have been able to deliver one TiE show on a regular basis. The Big School TiE tour helps prepare young people for the transition from primary to secondary school, reaching 30 to 50 primary schools per year. In an external evaluation it was found to develop practical knowledge and skills, a personal sense of agency in the young people and an improved understanding of social behaviour and relationship with others.
Fifty years on, this is our first year without funding for a TiE programme. We could look on this as the final laying to rest of a once radical vision. But there is something about the current climate that feels familiar – a schooling system that is foundering under a return to traditional values and a marginalisation of the arts; an arts sector that is burgeoning with site-specific performance and audience interaction; and ACE promoting the creative case for diversity. As we look again for creative ways to engage children and young people in their learning, and for new ways to make the arts central to the lives of every citizen, our sector would do well to look to the extraordinary skill and expertise that lies at the heart of our theatre in education legacy.
Justine Themen is Associate Director at the Belgrade Theatre Coventry with responsibility for its community and education programme.