The essential A in STEAM – arts in education

My creative week has encompassed meetings with a playwright exploring 6 new projects which are each in commercial development, an inspiring concert with 4 cabaret bands and over 40 performers offering their celebration of contemporary music, a showcase of a cabaret artist on her way to Edinburgh and a reading of a new piece of community musical theatre which could be scheduled to have 20+ productions across the UK next year. I have read a couple of new plays in development, done a selection of skype and email surgeries, and on my return from Calais I will see the showcase of a new one person touring theatre piece. In all these cases I am seeking to support the creation of new SMEs – small and medium enterprises and sole traders who will go forward to inspire, excite, inform, educate, entertain and enrich society.

For some the work will (just!) give people who work in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) industries a good time. Make them smile away from their spreadsheets and grommets. For some it may offer a participatory experience which might make someone invent something useful (presuming of course that the arts is not useful). And for some of those all that will happen is that they become a better citizen, a more confident speaker, better at job interviews, a better team player, or a more thoughtful person about love, life and the world we live in.  Yes the A in STEAM can do all that and more.   Sadly our government seems to have decided that the curriculum for young people does not need Arts – shame when it can cause inspiration, invention, good citizenship, joy, good health, and so many other things.

On Thursday our MA creative producers from Mountview were welcomed to the Lyric Hammersmith by the Schools Producer (John Glancy, in his last week before moving to weave his magic with the Imperial War Museum). He explored with us, with immense passion, the importance that funded theatres in the heart of a community had to play in three areas of work. The job titles and the positioning of the roles may have changed since the old TIE (theatre in education) days of the 70s and 80s, but the core power of the work has not changed. For the Lyric, they concentrate on three strands: “Wraparound” – work which enriches a visit to a show at the theatre with workshops, talks, study guides for example. As he reminded us, a group of children coming to see a Shakespeare are effectively coming to see an unfamiliar play in a foreign language – but when they are connected to the magic or power of the storytelling, the context in which it may be set, and the relevance to their relationships or those of the world today – then they know what to look out for and may feel much more connected. The second is Cross-Curriculum Learning – using the theatre and drama and the arts to help young people in their overall learning goals. Dance to help sport, plays to explore cyber-bullying, role play to explore history, and exercises to improve employability. A job interview is really just another drama exercise isn’t it. And the third strand is wider curriculum – giving young people the skills and experiences of creative arts at a time when that is less and less available in most schools.

And this afternoon I sat with senior managers of the Arts Council, publishers, regional theatres, universities, youth organisations and London houses, at the Park Theatre to see the first showing if Dougal Irvine’s new piece for an all female cast exploring the suffragettes. The musical theatre piece is about finding passion in learning, finding relevance in history, and celebrating the fights of the past which give us the rights we have now (until they are taken away by governments). What made this sharing special for me was that it was performed by Mountview Foundation year students – young people who aspire to take the stage in the future, but are themselves stretching their wings as they prepare for the ultimate “job interview” at this stage of their lives – Drama School auditions. They gave a phenomenal level of professionalism in a clean fully staged skeletal production of this new piece.

This is not a show destined for the West End, but it has a much more interesting aspiration. Dougal and producers Zoe Simpson and Sarah Homer want youth companies and regional young companies across the UK to take the show and create their own fully staged productions in 2018. This will be the 100th anniversary of Universal Suffrage and the 90th anniversary of the Representation of the People’s Act. At a time when voting by young people in this country is a worryingly low percentage (43% for the 2015 election), this will inform, engage, inspire, and make more determined all of those across the UK who take part. There will be wrap-around which will offer so much cross-curricula opportunity, and performance and creative opportunities. It will hit all three of those Creative Learning/TIE goals.

There is so much to do to bring the world to life for those young people struggling to get through their STEM “essential” GCSEs or A levels, or new T levels we heard about this week. In the 70s and 80s and even 90s the Arts played a crucial part in helping them become viscerally engaged with the studies which had been pure paper and test based in the 50s. [A vast generalization I know]. But now we seem to be going back there as music, drama, even art are being stripped from the general study of young people. Rich parents will still be able to send little Johnny to extra curricular activities to give them life experience, and otherwise it is up to charities, theatres and arts organisations with their Creative Learning wings, and the occasional parent or grandparent that remembers what is essential for a rich fulfilled life.

I worry, but we keep making theatre with our producers and all the young (and not so young) creatives with whom I work. We make connections between arts and science, theatre and the mind, drama tools and communication skills, and musical theatre and history. A pleasure to be witnessing so much growing despite central governments seeming best endeavours to make it difficult.

And now I am on the train to Calais to have a couple of days supporting my daughter as she manages part of the Refugee Community Kitchen work to feed the under-reported migrants around the north of France. Hope I don’t get teargassed, which I understand is an occupational hazard for the volunteers since the Mayor of Calais decreed food must not be given out to young people. Her conviction must be strong in her belief that withholding food from traumatised young people will somehow stop the flow of others from the war and famine torn countries that the West continues to arm and plunder.

I will report back

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