Monday, May 07, 2012

The Pedagogy of Playwriting

That’s a rather grand title for what is essentially a blog post where I want to set down some of the arguments for the benefits of using playwriting techniques in secondary education. As a writer who has worked a lot in education, I have plenty of direct experience of seeing the effects on young people of engaging with the process of play construction close up. But usually, I am far too busy delivering the project to be able sit back and articulate what is actually taking place in front of me.

But recently, I have been asked to.

Regular readers will recall that last year I ran a pilot playwrights-in-schools training scheme, where I teamed up my longtime collaborators Mulberry School with Tamasha theatre company, where I am Associate Artist. The result was a term-long project bringing eight playwrights into Mulberry to work with students on developing a new short play each. These were presented at Soho Theatre in a scratch night last June.

Since then, moves have been afoot to raise a significant amount of funding to allow Tamasha and Mulberry to continue the collaboration, and to roll the scheme out more widely. In a nutshell, the idea is to use the term at Mulberry as a training phase for the writers, after which they will then fan out to schools across London to set up their own residencies from scratch in term two (though with continued management and support from Tamasha). At the end of the school year we would then bring all the writers, students and plays together in a public festival of new plays written – in varying degrees - with, for and about London’s young people.

As you can imagine, this is a not inconsiderable undertaking, and will cost some serious money. (On the pilot, we were all paid hardly anything, which isn’t sustainable.) But I’m pleased to report that Tamasha have really put their money where their mouth is, and committed some money to doing a version of this scheme next year. However, to do it on the scale I would ideally like will cost more than they can afford on their own. But Tamasha have again come up trumps by putting their own dedicated professional fundraiser on the case, and applications to trusts and foundations have been flying thick and fast. I’m also thrilled to have the support of the co-founders of and the Adopt-A-Playwright Award Sofie Mason and Diana Jervis-Read, who are making this scheme their main fundraising focus for 2012, among the various private patrons they are so skilled at marshalling and inspiring.

What all this means, of course, is that I have been roped in to helping explain why such a scheme is necessary and, specifically, what the benefits are to the young people involved. Luckily, I am not currently working on a young people’s project at the moment so I have some time and headspace to dedicate to this. It’s been an interesting process.

My first instinct was to go to the academics. ‘Pedagogy’ is a term you come across in education sometimes, and when you’re a bit of an outsider to it all, like me, you mostly spend your time sort of pretending that you know what it means when it comes up (and how to pronounce it). It’s just a posh way of saying teaching, right? Particularly useful to drop in when you’re talking to the Headmistress.

Well ... sort of. It actually comes from the Greek paidagogeo, literally ‘to lead the child’. So it is about a journey and a relationship as much as the process of transferring skills and knowledge from one brain to another. (More on that here if you’re interested.)

One of my first stops was Professor Helen Nicholson’s impressive 2009 study Theatre, Education and Performance. In it, she draws on examples of theatre education practice from across the UK, including examples of how it has helped young people understand personal and societal change, from puberty to the 7/7 bombings. She concludes by suggesting that 21st century young people:

are all implicated in societies that place performance at the centre of social relationships, and in which consumer cultures have theatricalized consumption and are finding new ways to capture young people’s imaginations and encourage them to part with their money … Theatre education provides a structure for thinking about the different spheres of moral concern and offers young people a transitional space in which to shape, disrupt and interpret narratives.
This is interesting, and undoubtedly true, but I’m not sure the average funder would be swayed to part with their (or their trust’s) hard-earned cash on the basis that it will be buying some inner city youngsters a ‘transitional space in which to disrupt a narrative’.

So I turned to another volume I own, Caroline Jester and Claire Stoneman’s Playwriting Across The Curriculum, published only this year. It is the first practical attempt to link playwriting practice to specific schemes of work within the National Curriculum, for a readership of teaching professionals. In particular they identify for the first time the specific Personal, Learning and Thinking skills within the National Curriculum which playwriting can assist with. These are: independent enquiry, creative thinking, reflective learning, teamwork, self management and effective participation. (They also quote extensively from all four of my plays for Mulberry School, which might help.) They even go so far as to create their own schemes of work and lesson plans for whole units on playwriting, for teachers to lift and use verbatim.

This sort of instrumental argument about specific learning and curriculum outcomes might work for an educationally-focussed trust (I’ll let you know). It’s certainly true that during the four years I was a salaried writer-in-residence at Mulberry School the Drama department saw its A to C GCSE and A-level pass rate rise (though I myself was but one part of a whole programme of extra-curricular arts activities that contributed to this.) But as any artist-in-residence worth their fee knows, academic outcomes are only one aspect. Just as important, but infuriatingly hard to measure, are the so-called ‘soft outcomes’ such as increased self-confidence, articulacy, assertiveness and stage presence. We can all see those changes taking place before our very eyes, but how do you measure them, let alone prove their value?

But dealing with private donors is different. They are actually quite open to these more anecdotal arguments about changes in young people that this work can engender. In fact, it’s these very personal stories that most interest and move them. Sofie Mason offers interesting insights into why wealthy people want to contribute to schemes like this. What they definitely don’t want to do is step in to replace existing state provision that has been withdrawn. Neither do academic outcomes especially motivate them. No, they want to be part of something new and innovative, and to bring something into existence which wasn’t there before (an obvious urge really, who wouldn’t?) Just as they have in business, they want to feel once again that they are at the cutting edge.

The social context is important too. Sofie’s work takes place on a much more conversational, informal level – in theatre foyers, at functions, dinners and even round at donor's houses. Don’t forget that these people are busy. Their heart is in the right place because they want to support the arts/education/inner city kids/making a difference, but they don’t really have the time or background to get to grips with the nuts and bolts of curriculum-based outcomes. Those arguments are also a bit dull over a glass of bubbly. No, the pitch to these guys needs to be much shorter and more to the point – business-like, in fact. Which isn’t to say the whole argument has to be reduced to economic outcomes. Just that the benefits have to be clear, no-nonsense, yet interesting and innovative - and simple to understand over a drink, with other chatter and distractions going on in the background. Mentioning the word ‘pedagogy’ at all would probably put them off, assuming you can even pronounce it through a mouthful of canapés.

Anyway, it’s likely I’m going to be wheeled out at some point to do the honours in this respect. So here is my first attempt to nail some of these benefits in advance. Forgive me for practising on you, but I hope these might be of some use to you as well if you ever find yourself in such a situation. But for the moment, the tables are turned and you’re going to have to imagine you are a millionaire, talking to me over a crisp Sancerre and a delightful selection of smoked salmon blinis.

Here goes. Playwriting with secondary school age students helps them to:

Develop empathy and appreciate other points of view
Students have to get inside the heads of each character and understand them, even when their views are in conflict.

Understand dialectic
Playwriting contains an inherent dialectic between two or more characters. Students have to see all sides of the argument or debate, and write each of them convincingly. This improves articulacy and their capacity for deductive reasoning.

Cause and effect
Dramatic structure relies on one thing happening because something else happened first. This helps students see how effects are always linked to causes, and helps them understand the likely effects of any given action (including their own in real life). It is particularly relevant to interpersonal situations, which few academic subjects really touch on. It also gives them a bird's eye view of how linked things are in the real world, and why certain things turn out as they do.

Structured thinking
In working out a dramatic storyline from beginning to end, students have to take responsibility for all its twists, turns and surprises, yet with an internal logic to it that will make sense to an audience. Creating such a long chain of events in one's mind mirrors a type of thinking that can be found in many other areas of life and work (science, sociology, journalism, literature, debating...)

Emotional intelligence
Characters cannot be one-dimensional, they have to be fully-rounded human beings, and the writer has to get to know them inside out to write them convincingly. The driver for almost all stories is what a character wants at any given moment. Getting to grips with a character's motivation and subtextual reasons for their behaviour can only aid a young person's understanding of these forces in the real world.

Validation of one's own world
Working with a playwright directly on developing a play about one's own world, culture, language and circumstances gives students confidence that it is of value and has interest to the outside world.

A window onto other worlds
Similarly, looking at modern exemplar texts with students offers all sorts of insights into worlds beyond their own, and characters unlike them.

The act of creation and control
Creating people and worlds from nothing is not often asked of students in a sustained way. They take real pride in being 'god' of this world, and being responsible for all its people and events. Creating something out of nothing that is then enjoyed by a live audience is immensely rewarding.

Conveying meaning
This is at the core of all Drama GCSE and A-level assessment criteria. It is about understanding the way theatre-makers communicate meaning to an audience through all the elements of drama: images, sound, text, subtext, lighting, set, costume. It is often about thinking laterally and looking at what is not stated out loud, and how multitudes of signs combine on stage to affect the overall meaning. It draws on metaphor, instinct, juxtaposition, emotional response, the subconscious and subtextual, among other things. Knowing how these elements come together to convey a moral or political message is quite a sophisticated way of thinking that has all sorts of other applications. At the very least, it sharpens a student's perception of how they and others can come across, by increasing their understanding of the meanings they are themselves conveying through their own language, behaviour and demenaour. (Ever read any Erving Goffman? No? Never mind.)
Performance benefits
All of the above is about playwriting. Once you get students up on stage then there is a whole raft of other skills you begin to develop, such as confidence, stage presence, articulacy, timing, teamwork, body language, understanding movement and space....

Ooh, your glass is looking a bit empty, can I get you a top-up?

That’s all I can muster for now. Have I forgotten anything? Please help. I’m a bit terrified about this.


KarenR said...

Perhaps something about working collaboratively? I know little about theatre/playwriting, but assume you are not in reality so much god in the world you are creating but rather one of a pantheon of gods and will learn to recognise and value the contributions of others as well as learning that your own contribution is valued by them. Brill posting - no reason to be terrified. Pass the bottle...
By the way - I found your blog via your mum's fb page as she is a friend of mine.

Fin Kennedy said...

Hi Karen

Collaboration is a good one - thanks. It's true that they may well have to collaborate with other students, me, another writer etc on the ideas that are emerging, especially if i get them working in groups. But that perhaps applies rather more to the act of staging the play with a team of other student-actors, a director, designer etc. Ultimately one of the selling points of getting them writing individually is indeed allowing them realise their vision, in their voice - though along the way we have this thing called 'dramaturgy' which is quite collaborative - and involves being able to take criticism and input on board... but that's another post entirely!

Thanks for stopping by. I hope mother is behaving herself.


lancewrite said...

A great read. I'd add embracing complexity? Plays put ideas into play. They (hopefully) avoid simple, reductive solutions.

Fin Kennedy said...

That's a really excellent one! Thanks Lance.