The Importance of Drama

“I wanted to use this morning to give you a bit of an insight into why I think Drama is important. But it’s actually quite a difficult question to answer in a short space of time.

I asked my son what he thought. He’s seven. I wasn’t really expecting him to have an opinion, but he said:

“It helps you in your life, to negotiate with your parents.”

And, whilst that maybe says more about his relationship with his parents than it does about Drama per se, I think there’s something in it. Acting is something we do every day. We are instinctive chameleons – our character changes moment by moment, depending on who’s in the room, who we’re trying to impress, what we’re scared of.

But the fact is, I used to be a little bit embarrassed about being a Drama teacher.

Given my chosen career path, this was problematic.

I didn’t grow up in an environment that seemed to value such things. Aside from the occasional cringe-worthy pantomime with my Nan, I had never even been to the theatre. It just wasn’t something we did.

I used to particularly dread having my hair cut. The conversation would go something like this:

“You not at work today?”

“No. It’s the school holidays. I’m a teacher.”

“Oh, yeah? What do you teach?”

And that’s where I would struggle.

Out on the High Street, in the real world, a world in which wars were being fought, and people were fighting off disease, and struggling to make a living it just seemed ridiculous to say: “I’m a Drama Teacher”. It seemed so insignificant.

Looking back, this insecurity had its roots in my own education. In many ways, I was incredibly lucky. Aged eleven, I found myself in a school with an amazing theatre. It opened the door to a whole new world. And I couldn’t get enough of it: I auditioned for everything; I joined the Technical Crew; I directed fellow pupils in house plays.

But there was a catch. The same school that had opened the door was also responsible, like so many others, for restricting access.

I was doing well at school. I worked hard and was considered ‘clever’. As a result, I was channelled towards ‘proper’ subjects. It was made very clear to me that Drama was the thing you did if you couldn’t do anything else. A sort of educational drip tray.

What’s shocking, is that some people still see it that way.

When asked what I taught, I would lie. I used to say I was an English teacher.

The thing about Drama is its value is not easy to quantify. And because of that, of all the Performing Arts, it is perhaps the most insecure. I think it’s easier, for instance, to identify progression in Music – there is definable technique which you have either mastered, or you haven’t. There are formally recognised grades that attest to this. Likewise Dance. But, whatever LAMDA might have you believe, beyond the basics of vocal projection and physical accuracy, the Drama roadmap is a little less clear. You could spend thousands of pounds on Drama training with zero success in auditions, while just down the road, a complete unknown, without any training at all, is snapped up for a lead role in the latest Hollywood blockbuster.

But as I’ve grown older, I’ve started to make better sense of the world around me. And twenty-odd years into my teaching career, I no longer feel the need to lie.

For me, the appeal of Drama is inextricably linked to the complexities of the human condition. We are nothing if not complicated. However comforting it might be to think so, we are not governed by logic. If we were, we would drink more water. We wouldn’t drink alcohol, or snog that boy or girl we know is bad news. We would ditch pizza in favour of a nice salad. But that’s not how it works. We are not governed by logic. We have needs and desires that are not satisfied with the purely rational.

The 19th Century Russian novelist, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, author of ‘Crime and Punishment’, understood this well and it forms a central theme that runs throughout his work. It can basically be summarised like this: the very thing that makes us human, the thing that separates us from other mammals, perhaps from all other living things, is our ability to choose to do things that we know are not good for us. We actively choose to do things that we know are not good for us.

We are complicated.

And there’s a further complication.

Despite having been around for thousands of years, despite having created a multitude of complex social structures, human beings are not very good at emoting. We are far better at burying our emotions beneath a layer of awkwardness and confusion. But over time those emotions build and become uncomfortable. Left unchecked, they become unbearable.

The bizarre thing is, these behaviours are learnt. We are a product of our environment. In his book on improvisation, renowned teacher and theatre-maker Keith Johnstone says the following:

“Many teachers think of children as immature adults. It might lead to better and more ‘respectful’ teaching, if we thought of adults as atrophied children. Many ‘well adjusted’ adults are bitter, uncreative, frightened, unimaginative, and rather hostile people. Instead of assuming they were born that way, or that that’s what being an adult entails, we might consider them as people damaged by their education and upbringing.”

But this is nothing new.”