The School Wide Effects of a Theatre Program

Fiona MacDonald - Associate Artistic Director (Education & Youth) - Qld Theatre, on the benefits of drama and how to make it happen in schools.
Mar 13, 2024
Fi MacDonald

Putting a theatrical performance on, seeing it bring the audience and cast together and pulling off a minor miracle with all the moving parts functioning in unison can be a validating, formative experience for everyone involved.

However, internationally there is a decrease in participation in drama in schools. This has been compounded by education budgets tightening to prevent students from being able to go on excursions. In Australia, and particularly Queensland, there have been major funding cuts to the TYA (Theatre for Young Audiences) sector and touring within the arts which has seen less theatre performances being made for young audiences (especially primary schools) and less touring subsidy to assist companies get to the regions for both in-theatre and incursion experiences.

Fiona MacDonald, the newly appointed Associate Artistic Director (Education & Youth) - Qld Theatre, believes we would be doing ourselves a great disservice if theatre in schools is allowed to wane.

“There are the benefits of being a participant of theatre-making and the benefits of spectating and consuming theatre.

“Participation in drama or theatre offers us the chance to learn through physical embodiment, it allows space for alternative ways of learning and understanding and multiple literacies. Theatre making stimulates creativity, it gives opportunities for problem solving and teamwork, it encourages listening, play, and critical thinking. The tangible benefits for young people are often better listening skills, greater confidence, the ability to remain calm under pressure, encouraging creative strategies.

“Being a consumer of theatre and performance offers a collective viewing allowing for reflection, conversation and community building. It builds empathy - neuroscience backs this up, particularly in the early years, in the same way reading books builds empathy -  because seeing stories gives us perspective. Seeing live performance stimulates the imagination and creativity, allows for wonder and provokes conversation, ultimately building our critical thinking and communication skills. It also often helps with our mood and well-being.

“The soft skills we need as humans are to be able to listen, empathise, communicate, trouble shoot, think outside the box - these are the soft skills drama gives young people, in addition the hard assessable skills of course, along with a sense of self.”

MacDonald is working on the introduction of innovative, contemporary practice and models to engage young people and their families.

She says, “I believe that arts and culture, especially for children and young people, needs to be reflective of the communities it serves and engages. By reflecting on childhood and teenagerdom and by harnessing our creativity as artists we find a contemporary practice that enriches artistry and offers work that sits within the culture of children and young people, ultimately engaging our children and young people on a more meaningful level. I am interested in play-based practice for early years, in the creation of theatre works that allow young children to engage in theatre through their in-built learning mechanism of play.

“I am interested in immersive theatre experiences that allow children and young people to be completely swallowed by a narrative and a world to stimulate their creativity and enhance learning. I have been inspired by the work I did with my friends at Punchdrunk Enrichment and have witnessed first-hand the magic of transforming school environments.

“I want to work across our programs at Queensland Theatre to thread the stories of our young people into performances that are shared with other young people statewide. I am looking forward to examining creative pathways for young people and finding ways to support stepping stones into our creative sector. I am looking forward to working with my artistic colleagues Lee Lewis, Daniel Evans and Isaac Drandic to embed superb artistry and interweave and respect First Nations culture and stories throughout a truly remarkable program, starting with babies all the way up to young adults, that I hand with care to my colleagues to continue to nurture.”

Part of MacDonald’s remit is to enable Queensland Theatre’s goal to share the love of theatre with everyone, no matter their age. Her background with Imaginary Theatre specialised in theatre-making and arts experiences for 0-12 year olds.

“I intend to harness my expertise here by creating some regular offerings for babies, toddlers and their carers to play alongside some of Queensland’s best artists. I imagine this will involve early learning centres and kindergartens as well as families. I would also love to build a program that can engage primary school children in creativity and theatre that can be delivered state-wide.

“In terms of secondary schools, we are deep in planning and delivery of our incredible state-wide programs: The Scene Project will go out to over 130 secondary schools across Queensland  in Term 3 with a beautiful newly commissioned play script by Wendy Mocke and a small army of exquisite teaching artists; we’re gearing up for our Student Pathways Program; we have workshops and engagement underpinning our next two productions of 37 and Medea; and we offer Teaching Artists expertise to schools year round to support drama curriculum in the classroom. We also just completed a week intensive of professional development for educators and teaching artists with our Teaching Artist Training Program.”

Her practice has been wider than just drama, it has been more broadly based in ‘creativity’ with performative outcomes.

“The programs I’ve been involved with have often engaged a whole year level or whole school in an artist-in-residence type model.

“One of the things I love about these kinds of term-long regular engagements is the level of collaboration and exchange that happens on multiple levels.

“Having an artist work with educators and share their knowledge, having artists share knowledge and skills with young people, and having young people share culture, perspective and knowledge back to the artists, it is quite a remarkable exchange.  I have loved watching reluctant educators be inspired by drama-infused programs and start to grasp how they can apply creativity and drama principles into their every day, non-arts teaching. I also enjoy the shared humanity of long-term regular programs that allow people to get to know one another and band together to build something. It builds more than just skills, it improves well-being and leaves a legacy that ultimately benefits more people than those involved in the immediate project.”

In a school that perhaps doesn't have dedicated drama teacher support for incursions from artists has to be nurtured.

“There has to be buy in from the school to have an artist go there, there has to be a champion. Sometimes that’s a principal or HOD, sometimes in the one or two teacher schools that person is all of the above and understanding that context is really important. Understanding the reason for the program and the culture of a place is critical to then ensure the right artists are engaged, the right approach is employed and the young people participating are engaged authentically. There’s one thing a young person can smell a mile off and that’s a fake! Not having context could be damaging for everyone involved, particularly if there are young people from First Nations communities or culturally diverse participants.”

In a school with no arts or humanities program it’s a matter of finding an entry point that fits within the community (e.g. is it confidence building, is it mental health, is it drama curriculum?). From there, MacDonald says schools should start off with very light-touch, simple games to get an understanding of who is in the space, what their interest level is, what their access and recall to their natural creativity is like. Every step from there would need to be crafted to suit the young people and the objective.

Funding is always an issue for theatre and the trick is to sell drama’s wide benefits, “When you take that whole picture, plus maybe a fun outcome, then I say look broadly to funders - ask your local small businesses for cash or in kind, ask the local councillor for support, go to allied health for support, find a business owner who exudes those qualities and ask them to be your patron and invest in the programs. The arts is about relationships, so sometimes the funding can be based on those same qualities,” MacDonald says.