Theatre from the cracks in the psyche of culture










No. 56 : March 2012

Creative Process In Cultural Salvation
by Joe Woodward

Dorothy Heathcote died last year on 8 October 2011 (obituary here).
If it weren't for John O'Toole and some other wonderful people
from La Boite Theatre in the late 1970s, I may never have come to 
know of this remarkable woman.

Born on 29 August 1926, Dorothy Heathcote began a cultural revolution in the arts and particularly in the way Drama was used as a means of cultural action, liberation and as a change agent. Her work was influential all around the world and the subject of film, pedagogy and art. She developed a way of approaching Drama called "Mantle Of The Expert" in the 1980s. Clearly much of her thinking has been taken up and extended by the depth of study provided by Professor John O'Toole. While extremely successful, it seemed to halt with the move to more formal and reductionist education practices with the development of the UK National Curriculum.

"The UK National Curriculum was first published in 1988, and then followed by the Literacy and numeracy strategies. For a long time Dorothy’s work was overlooked and ignored. In fact, by 2003 the situation seemed so bad that Gavin Bolton wrote, “If mantle of the expert is to become part of curriculum structure, educationalists need to acquire a vested interest in fundamentally revising current conceptions of education. They must be prepared to inspire politicians, advisers, headteachers and their staff of all curriculum subjects – and introduce it into teacher-training. Left to drama teachers alone, Dorothy’s moe will die with her.” (‘Dorothy Heathcote’s Story’, Gavin Bolton, Page 177)."

Twenty four years later, John O'Toole is heading up a process of introducing a National Curriculum for the Arts in Australia. Ultra-conservative, corporate and reductionist thinking has taken Australia to the crises of formalizing learning in the same standardized way that proved divisive in the UK. Can John O'Toole remain true to his core reason for his life's work and withstand the pressures of reductionism and commodification that go with standardized and narrowing curriculums?

Or will he be burnt and used to marginalize the arts, and particularly Drama. The fear and suspicion is that the Arts, including Drama, will be used to placate a "literacy" agenda while integrating Drama as a tool or pedagogy to suit the aims of corporate power; just as 19th Century education was used to support industrialization. This suggestion, within a broader context, is supported by Professor Raewyn Connell from the University of Sydney in her article Ideology Of The Marketplace Underpins School "Reforms" (The Drum 16.03.2012). She suggests that "... a competitive testing regime has become central to Australian education policy." She goes on to say:

"It's also why our policy-makers have turned away from negotiated curricula, community participation, multicultural education, and the other democratic initiatives in education that don't go with competitive testing and managerialism." (Raewyn Connell: The Drum)

She goes on to say:

"Above all, where the testing regime is in force, it means pressure to teach to the test – and that means narrowing the curriculum, reducing the richness of education." (Raewyn Connell: The Drum)

As in the UK and elsewhere this kind of commodification has been applied, we need to be focused on what is essential and not be distracted by the clutter of cackling change agents with ambiguous directions. In a culture which encompasses diversity, imagination and intuition, we must question the ultimate outcomes of such reductionism. Our education system cannot ignore the cultural diversities and value systems which prize community cohesiveness as much as technological and corporate advancement. This is not to suggest technological mastery isn't important. Far from it. But it does suggest difficulties in meshing with reductionist policies and philosophies. And the momentum is towards mechanistic and formalistic outcomes that marginalize artistic and spiritual values.

It is already happening here!

"Urged on by the Business Council of Australia, our Federal Labor Government is on the point of re-introducing that fine 19th century innovation, Payment By Results for teachers." (Raewyn Connell: The Drum)

Does anyone imagine that teachers who are so identified as achieving high results on standardized tests will not go to the highest bidders with their newly glowing CVs in evidence? Just as any ambitious person in the corporate world would go to "better" companies to fulfill their career ambitions? So in the end, who will gain here?

With the language of "Quality Teaching" as originally articulated in the United States and now adopted in Australia, one might imagine that our educational directions are moving in exactly the opposite direction to the commodification and reductionist testing models that are currently being developed and engaged. With concepts of "differentiation", we might imagine that we are encouraged to plunge into the potentials of every individual and group. Yet this is questionable.

In the opening statement on the Australian Government Education website, this seeming contradiction is highlighted:

"Teacher quality and the strength of school leadership are recognized as the greatest school-based determinants of educational success. Quality teaching has a measurable impact on student outcomes."

The Curriculum Leadership Journal (Volume 5 Issue 8: 23 March 2007)  provides a standard and very familiar definition of what Quality teaching might involve:

Quality teaching involves content that is rigorous, integrated and relevant. Content of high intellectual quality helps students develop stronger critical and creative thinking capabilities. Students in classes that are regularly provided with tasks of high intellectual quality show marked improvement on standardized assessment tasks regardless of their previous achievement levels. (Curriculum Leadership Journal: March 2007)

In both these statements there is a direct explicit agenda of relating good teaching with results on standardized tests. Effective teacher equals high results on standardized tests. "If you can't measure it; it doesn't exist!"

How do we measure generosity of spirit? Love? Cohesive actions? Heroism? Supportiveness? Hate? The ability to accept difference? Empathy? Anxiety levels? The ability to overcome obstacles? Insight into social and cultural situations? And the ability to produce sounds that transcend the ordinary (ie. musical composition)? What NAPLAN test is going to examine any of these qualities and so rate a school's performance accordingly? Let alone a teacher's competency!

With schools' funding depending on the extent to which they are compliant with Government initiatives and community anxieties about their children's education, are not schools being forced to apply "quality teaching" for success in the tests? Something I remember from my attendance at a Catholic School in 1958 and the fear exhibited by the Nuns when the Government Inspector was arriving to check on our achievements in spelling and tables!

The cynic might suggest that the contradictory language of Quality Teaching and NAPLAN et al would seem to suggest that the language of "Quality Teaching" is designed as a means for compliance. Should it be challenged from within schools, such challenge would be regarded as a threat to the viability of the school and so ultimately all opposition to the changing structuring within education will be silenced. Edward de Bono calls this Fascism!

In this context, it is interesting to view the likely issues faced by the Chair of the Arts National Curriculum committee in Australia.

John O'Toole's later work suggesting the engagement of Drama tools, as a means of designing a more effective pedagogy, is of more significance than the exploration of Drama as an art form in its own right.

In his co-authored article Learning in Dramatic and Virtual Worlds: What Do Students Say About Complementary and Future Directions?", Journal of Aesthetic Education, Vol. 42, No. 4, Winter 2008 he has clearly moved away from the areas of Drama as a collective living art form and opted for a design approach to pedagogy. While this is a most useful contribution to the integration of drama processes into education, it could make those engaged with the Arts a little nervous
and revive those old arguments about "drama or theatre".

O'Toole has always been interested in the integration of Drama into all areas of the curriculum. His Pretending to Learn (O'Toole & Dunn, 2002), prescribes a pedagogical approach that can be used in all subjects. Might then, the National Arts Curriculum, mandate Drama as an add-on as part of suggested methodology for core-curriculum studies with some acknowledgement of its "theatre and performing arts" original art form status? Might it even provide opportunities for the ideological advancement of contributions by Heathcote and Bolton et al?

The problem now is that Visual Arts and Music have clearly defined areas identified within their bodies of knowledge. Drama does not! And within an educational setting, it is unfortunate that the outstanding contributions of Heathcote, Bolton and O'Toole have possibly confused the understanding of the field or domain of study. I have rarely heard a Drama teacher, let alone anyone else, adequately define precisely what is the field of Drama. Can you in one sentence?????????????????

The 1970s and 1980s debates about process drama, traditional drama and theatre allowed a welcomed break from previous understandings of theatre within education (as a branch of English); however, they diluted the boundaries and made the field of study idiosyncratic and with vague connections to art form definition. While Bolton's excellent identification of "inner form" might be applied across the curriculum, it is most valuable when applied within the field of theatre or performance study.

But when separated from art form boundaries, it risks becoming a kind of therapy; in the hands of naive or untrained persons, it is possibly dangerous and unethical. And how many times have we seen teachers in various subjects suggest in-role enactments as a means to make their subjects and units really LIVE?

Bolton was clearly aware of this problem.

One of the most formative experiences I had as an educator within a Drama / Theatre context was a phenomenological /Drama /workshop / seminar conducted by Gavin Bolton and organized by John O'Toole in 1979. Bolton made it perfectly clear to all his student participants what the boundaries were. They were able to step in and out of role at will. There were clearly defined times for reflection, clarification and refining. While the "inner form" of their experience was paramount, the external manifestation of it also became very clear to the workshop observer.

From a purely theatre perspective, it was an example of Stanislavski's finding of the inner truth, the "what if" of the situation and the exploration of the "given circumstances". But it was done in a way that very few theatre directors would ever try. And now it was being offered for teachers. Once everyone was aware of the boundaries, it gave them freedom to explore and take on roles well outside themselves and outside their limited experience of the world.

The problems for inner-form working arise when the boundaries of the art-form are not exposed and not explicit. Drama as an In-Role activity has been demonstrated as a most effective way of tapping people's responses and opening doors for exploration into reality. However, when it is not linked in an explicit way to an art form, problems will arise. And so I suggest that any attempt to set up in-role explorations without an explicit artistic context with the built-in "distancing" that is essential in creating art, without this, such attempts are open to extremes of unethical and dangerous activity.

A most extreme example of where a lack of boundaries and distancing occurred can be identified in the notorious Stanford experiment of 1971. The use of in-role and exploring the "experiential" modes within set-up circumstances led to horrifying results. Similar, and possibly just as damaging results, can occur in schools when the working in role is not strictly and explicitly defined within art form boundaries.

While Drama tools and methods might be useful in Psychology, Social Sciences, Language studies and other fields of study, there are problems that must be addressed when used outside of the boundaries of the art form or field of study. While Psycho Drama is a standard tool in some areas of Psychology, it requires a medical relationship between therapist and participant. Drama is not about such a relationship.

The Stanford Experiment: an extreme example of where Drama techniques were employed outside the context of artistic creation with the boundaries of the art form.

The more likely result in schools though, is that diluting the concentration of art form boundaries and definition through integration with non-art from fields will result in more immediately superficial outcomes. This will also mean diluting the quality of teaching as less emphasis is placed on teachers skilled in the relevant fields of study. Arguments that suggest the viability and desirability of Drama across disciplines need to be very cognizant of such considerations.

In October last year, I had a wonderful pre-service teacher working with me. She took my classes and was very articulate and unusually skilled in the methods of Brecht, Stanislavski and others. The students loved her and wanted to work with her. As it happened, she had worked in theatre for many years and had lived in Gaza, Palestine, New York and a number of other cities with diverse populations. I tried to explain what I did and where I was coming from in my techniques. In passing I mentioned Dorothy Heathcote. I was horrified to learn this amazing woman had never heard of Heathcote or the types of methods she used.

I didn't know it then, but my discussion took place in the week that Dorothy Heathcote died. It was after this discussion that I realized that everything I had done in the last thirty years was  heavily influenced by the ideas and the inculcation of approaches that were inspired by Heathcote, codified by Gavin Bolton and imparted to me through John O'Toole.

It was then distressing to hear that some advice being given by the University Of Canberra to my pre-service teacher was to "keep the young kids in year seven happy; don't attempt anything too serious". This smelt to me like a dumbing down attitude to keep the kids electing to do the subject. It also smelt like the rotting carcass of a body of knowledge that needed resurrecting. It smacked of Drama viewed as a "frill" and not as something essential.

Essentially, Drama must be a creative process. Most people would agree with that. But it must also involve some physical shape inherent within its framing: that is, space, time and observable connection. Heathcote, Viola Spolin and others established the need for "play" (like children's playful activity) as another essential ingredient. Others have gone into detail about what constitutes the elements of drama. If we acknowledge that each attempt at definition is going to be flawed, we can at least become cognizant in the way we approach the field.

Peter Brook says it all when he suggests all theatre needs is an empty space, a spectator and a person entering the space! When the participant steps into the acting space, he/she leaves behind the cultural/social reality of one's real life experience. A new reality is constructed; a reality that can be challenging and/or confirmed. The educational value of this is derived from the physical, emotional and intellectual engagement and the emotional intelligence required for investigating when in this space. But it is also essential that one be able to step outside the space; step across the line back into one's own personal dramaturgy of everyday life. Assess what has been explored. Spiral it down to a sussinct expression. When this space is not clearly defined, there is not the freedom to truly construct different universes and realities. The in-roles may still be a confusion of personal realities with constructed realities. Thus limiting the freedom to move beyond one's cultural tunnel vision. And this was the essential problem with the Stanford Experiment. There was no time to step out of space and examine it before stepping back inside. There was no director providing the external eyes to feed back to the participants. There was no group or personal reflection. There was not an atmosphere of trust. There was no explicit FORM through which to relate and gauge the effect of the role play.

The final phase of existential decision making and repetition to allow the resultant shape to be recreated and performed was never part of the experiment. Pardoxically, it is the moving towards externalization of in-form discovery that safe-guards the participants and the process. Artistic distance is the safeguard.

Talk of separating Drama from the demands of an expressive artform misses this essential point. Subjectivity and personal explorations need to be recognized. However, without the discipline of working towards objectivity and the assistance or dialogue with an audience, the process may well be hijacked and creativity lost. While Gavin Bolton, Dorothy Heathcote and John O'Toole have largely been concerned with working through an Inner Form that cannot be repeated as performance, the paradox is that such work will enhance the quality of performance. And if such work never results in performance, the fact of it gravitating towards some kind of external outcome will actually increase the power of the work for the participants.

Such Drama is a powerful educational tool and agent for change and cultural evaluation. It derives from a very different place from the traditional theatre background developed in the UK and Europe. It requires an even higher level of art form expertise than the typical director of theatre might possess. If we apply the thinking of these Drama pioneers to education, theatre and art generally, then we enrich our ability to penetrate cultural tunnel vision and so open ourselves out to a more responsive vision of the world and its possilibities.

One can only hope that the intensity of commitment to art, education and cultural enrichment held by teachers and practitioners of Drama and theatre can influence and inform the shape and scope of any National Curriculum formation and implementation. One can only hope that the spirit and platform laid by Dorothy Heathcote and others will remain like steel within the foundations of Drama as a creative and regenerative process in cultural renewal and salvation.

Joe Woodward
March 2012

Joe Woodward as Puff in School For Clowns, La Boite Theatre 1978
directed by Sean Mee

Trinculo's Shadow

Receive our Trinculo's Shadow newsletter directly by subscribing to us. Read information about issues and events from local, national and international groups who:

  • use theatre to explore the human condition

  • venture into the very psyche of cultural and personal expression, and

  • are interested in exploring the mysteries of life and social/cultural interaction.

To receive your copy and read provocative theatre articles and receive information about scripts, workshops and performances from Shadow House PITS, please sign up here as a subscriber.

To subscribe, click here and complete the simple form.