Why Freshwater Matters to Me

04 Apr 2023

Lesley Jones, head of our Bookings Team, has written what we think is a wonderful piece about the lessons we can learn from theatre and the importance of Drama in Education. We hope you enjoy reading it:

Why Freshwater Matters to Me 

“My name is Mary Porter” – so starts another Key Stage One drama workshop on the Great Fire of London. Mary (or John, according to the facilitator’s preference) lives in Pudding Lane, in 1666, and the classful of children, gathered in their own school hall, are about to go back in time and become part of these historical events. They will become fellow residents and imagine the sights, sounds, and smells of the bustling city; they will employ mime and movement to express how the fire spread through the city, and use other drama techniques to learn and engage with this topic. This is part of their History curriculum – events beyond living memory that are significant national and globally – and sits within the broader aim that pupils should develop an awareness of the past, starting to develop some vocabulary and skills which will enable them to learn as historians (1).

This isn’t a new approach: the company I work with and know best, Freshwater Theatre Company, has been in business for 25 years. We have, however, a new and heightened sense of the value of these workshops and a belief that they are providing something essential and therapeutic, especially this year.

During the Pandemic, it became increasingly difficult to undertake school trips out, to theatres, museums and other places which offer opportunities for enhanced learning: risk assessments were vastly more onerous, the extra staffing levels needed (often dependent upon volunteers) were more difficult to achieve and many venues were simply unable to operate as normal or offer their educational programmes. Most of all the teaching staff, who shouldered the burden of arranging and leading such activities, were on their knees with exhaustion from the huge workload which fell upon them, simply to do their core job – to teach a class of children. Even bringing that class together into one location was fraught with difficulties and, at times, was prohibited; the class identity, the pragmatic grouping and social cohesion within which each individual child learns and is taught, was dispersed when classrooms were closed to children in 2020 and again in spring 2021. Yet the pressure on the teacher to uphold standards and demonstrate that each child is still making sufficient ‘progress’ remained.

Within this complex context, our workshops presented themselves as low-risk and achievable options to support and enrich classroom learning. Certainly, we have been busier than expected and teachers’ feedback has been full of gratitude and appreciation. But we also believe that the workshops have never been more valuable. They bring two key elements, which are fundamental to the nature of drama, to the children: the sense of collective connection and the deeply humane perspective it presents.

Anyone who has been able to go to a live event since March 2020 will speak of the inimitable impact of being physically present. These were reunions of performers and audience restored to their rightful proximity in a shared space. Performance is not a one-way dynamic, but a two-way traffic of energy. In the theatre or concert hall, an audience starts the evening as disparate individuals and gains a collective identity through the performance. The school class starts with an advantage – they are already a social entity – but this has been unavoidably weakened and damaged by the pandemic.  The autumn term 2021 was marked by teachers telling us how the children were ‘young for their age’ in terms of their ability to interact, even – with the youngest classes – to speak, listen, line up and take turns. These are the prime areas of development within the Early Years Foundation Stage of children’s education: communication and language; physical development; personal, social and emotional development (2).

They are necessary building blocks for children to thrive in their school education. So there is enhanced benefit for the children in working collectively, co-operatively and imaginatively, exercising both hearts and minds. It forges and strengthens the social bonds which they can – unlike an audience – retain and take back with them into the classroom. Drama isn’t the only opportunity for this, of course, but it offers a singularly engaging, enjoyable and above all safe and non-critical space within which to work.

Furthermore, drama makes us listen to the reality of someone else’s point of view and the ‘viewpoint’ is presented, by an actor, in human form. An imaginary figure becomes physically present; they are given words and a human voice with which to utter them. Nicholas Hytner spoke recently (3) about how drama, amongst other art forms, expands our sympathies. Drama works especially well expressing and exploring tension and plurality. It causes us to question and consider opposing viewpoints, including our own. In good drama, he said, ‘‘you kind of get it” even when presented with characters who are fundamentally different from us. These are powerful tools for learning: they are not merely optional strategies, but essential ways to strengthen our open-mindedness and the capacity to reason. Drama can embody and express debate and not necessarily resolve. This is a significant comfort at a time when we can easily feel bewildered and uncertain. Simply to express ourselves and explore something, in a safe shared space, with no authoritarian forced and possibly false conclusion, can be of tremendous help at present.

The experience of drama is always dynamic – it happens here and now, with this audience, this group of children, who make the experience different and distinctive and their own. Within a workshop the children are even more clearly active participants, whose involvement and engagement are essential and unique. They are, as it were, both actors and audience at the same time, central and capable agents in their own education.

At the deepest level, drama has always been integral to children’s learning in the form of imaginative play. Again, to quote Nicholas Hytner, “theatre insists on an imaginative conspiracy with the audience” and it is, I think, identical to that which we see in the pre-school nursery: one person, albeit a young one, declares their own, or another’s identity and the make-believe starts. “Let’s play house and I am mummy”. We collectively try out pretend identities to discover things about ourselves, about others and crucially about how people intersect and how we might interact. It’s an instinctive skill we should never grow out of: acknowledging and embracing the fiction, to approach and learn facts in a different way and to become creatures of empathy and understanding.

“I am Mary Porter. It is 1616 and here we are in Pudding Lane”.