Roustabout makes plays for family and school audiences. One of the key ingredients of their work is education, but how does education interact with theatre? Toby Hulse, their writer and director, reflects on the potentially difficult relationship between the two.
The link between education and theatre goes way back. In Ancient Greece it was a legal requirement for Athenian citizens to attend the theatre, the plays providing a shared context to discuss the pressing political problems of the day. The roots of popular English drama lie in the Mystery plays, re-enactments of the Old and New Testament that ensured that those who could not read or understand Latin were familiar with the central stories of Christianity. And it is a common observation that one of the first actions of any new dictator is to close the theatres, as a way of controlling information and debate among the people. Such is the perceived power of drama to educate, inform, and stimulate questioning.
There is, however, a central problem with this relationship, one that our company, Roustabout, is always aware of. When an actor walks on to the stage and announces that they are Hamlet, they are not actually Hamlet, nor are they behaving like Hamlet (because Hamlet is a fictional character). Rather they are a metaphor, and we, the audience, collude in the fiction. This is what Coleridge calls the ‘willing suspension of disbelief’. He might have added the willing and knowing suspension of disbelief – at no point do we forget that we are in a theatre, and that it is an actor that we are watching. The result of this is that theatre is exceptionally bad at delivering messages. I remember as a child awful Theatre-in-Education projects, in which actors playing police officers would warn us of the various dangers awaiting us outside the safety of the school gates. Even then it struck me that I had no more reason to believe the warnings than I did to believe that they were actually a police officers. The project had essentially failed in delivering the message.
Why then the continuing link between education and theatre? Because theatre is exceptionally good at raising and asking questions. A play creates a glorious pretend world, within which anything is possible through the power of our imaginations. It presents multiple viewpoints through its characters, and, because the principle motor of drama is conflict, pits each viewpoint against the others in a debate that is also called the plot. These viewpoints each have their own strength and validity, because we have empathy for the characters that represent them. And yet, because there is a shared secret between the audience and the actors – the knowledge that all of this is fictional and metaphorical – any play floats on a sea of irony. This dramatic irony ensures that both the audience and the actor keep a critical distance from the viewpoints being presented, and question them continually through the performance and beyond.
This may all sound like theoretical meandering, but it has a direct impact on the way that Roustabout makes theatre for young audiences. Our current project is an online production of Michael Foreman’s classic environmental picture book, Dinosaurs and All That Rubbish. Rather than attempting to deliver a stark message about ecological balance, the production raises questions about the tension between our quite legitimate dreams and desires and our responsibilities towards this planet. The main character, ‘the man’, has a very human passion to explore the stars, one with which children will empathise. However, pursuing this passion also results unwittingly in the destruction of the environment. The man is not a ‘baddy’. He is a human, just like us, who achieves an extraordinary goal. Our young audience is left with the question, ‘What is the right balance between fulfilling our dreams and protecting our planet?’ Similarly, the eco-warriors of the piece are dinosaurs, who have been woken from their slumber by the heat of smouldering waste. Even the youngest child will know that this is a fiction, leaving them with the question, ‘If the dinosaurs can’t save this planet, then who can?’ The production deliberately does not provide answers to these questions, it merely asks them. The play is educational because it puts children in the position of active problem solvers – they have to debate and answer the questions, and then decide how this will then impact on their behaviour in the future. This, for us, is the true purpose of education, to teach us to ask the question ‘Why is the world like this?’ and then to provoke us into finding an answer. It is something that theatre does very well indeed.