As we reach my February half-term blog post, I feel strongly drawn to revisit the issue of performing arts, given that The Space is now a firmly established resource of the school, and in its own right as a standalone venue. We are so lucky to have such an amazing facility right here, and have benefited from it in more ways than we ever thought possible, but it’s the quality of drama here that is really impressing me.
Having been completely blown away by the recent Senior School production of The Secret Garden, it struck me just how many skill sets and talents were actually on show, not just on the stage but behind the scenes too. The imagination and creativity behind the whole production was monumental. Watching the performance, it was hard to believe that you weren’t in the West End at some glitzy theatre watching a stellar cast of well-known actors, it really was that professional.
We have a great team including our own dedicated theatre technician who did a fantastic job of transforming the stage into a magical secret garden complete with trees, plants and even a garden swing. But it’s the girls themselves that endlessly astound me, they really do. Some of them may slip quietly, industriously, maybe even shyly through school life, but put them on the stage and they truly shine. It is this that makes me really happy because seeing these girls so confident and so talented proves to me, to them, to everybody, that with confidence they can apply themselves to anything.
Drama lessons have taken something of a knock in the past few months with reports of pupils spending fewer hours learning the subject, and teachers spending more time teaching more ‘academic’ subjects. I would argue however, that there is much more to drama lessons nowadays than dressing up and pretending to be somebody else. Comedian, Lenny Henry, is with me on this one. Launching a scathing attack in a guardian article last year, he claimed: “I’m learning there have been massive cuts in teaching the arts in schools and it is cutting off your nose to spite your face. If you are not teaching children how to be creative and curious, what are you preparing them for? You are not preparing them for the outside world.” This is exactly my point. Intelligence, intellect and knowledge are little without curiosity, confidence and poise. The well-balanced, multi-talented school girl will be the successful woman with a bright future ahead of her.
Another point I would like to raise, and it’s one which really resonates with us as an all-girls school, is the issue of gendered acting roles. Of course we have heard people question our decision to remain true to an all-female cast in our music and drama productions, but contrary to the belief that this would spoil a production, I really do believe it actually adds something, not only for the audience but for the performers themselves. Acting takes skill and commitment, and needs astute observation to achieve a convincing performance and take on a persona. So, for a girl to take on a male role she must work especially hard, and I believe we have successfully mastered this in our recent productions. The performance of Grease which launched our performing arts centre was truly amazing, and every character was an individual triumph. Singing, dancing, acting straight and comic parts was no match for our cast. And while one may expect a certain degree of giggling about a romance between characters played by the same sex, there really has been none of it. Tony Little, author of An Intelligent Person’s Guide to Education felt the same way after seeing boys playing roles in a single-sex education establishment. He said: “It struck me that there is a quality and depth of cultural experience that would be unlikely in front of an audience of their co-educational peers,” adding of the audience that “they saw the relationship and drama in its own terms, not a wolf-whistle or whispered leer to be heard.” A convincing performance is all about the talent of those who execute it, whoever they may be. Our own subsequent productions have gone from strength to strength, demonstrating that girls will be girls AND boys, and they do it really well.
In a nutshell, Drama is as important as any other subject we offer on the curriculum. The Junior School girls are straight in there with nativity performances at Reception level, and they love it. No questions asked about being Mary or Joseph, angels or wise men – they’re all in it together and they can play any role going, because they have to. Armed with this notion that they can be anybody, they move onwards up the school. In an all-girls school, the acceptance and expectation of playing male roles in musical and drama productions takes root right from the start, so by the time girls reach the Senior School and Sixth Form, the drama world is their oyster. They have perfected their acting abilities, built their confidence and learned how to project themselves; they believe that they can achieve anything and be whoever they want to be, and this can only be a good thing.
So, I hope you all have a lovely February half-term break, including of course those girls and staff on the Drama trip to New York. And I hope to see lots of you at the end of March when our musical production of Joseph takes to the stage; come and see exactly what this blog post is all about.