Sunday, October 1, 2017

Drama Australia Symposium

Creative CapitalDrama Australia National Symposium 2017.  Canberra Theatre Centre, September 29-30, 2017.

Hosted by ACT Drama Association

Commentary by Frank McKone

Many years gone by, I was once president of an amateur drama group.  Chairing business meetings was literally like herding cats. 

Drama Australia is certainly not amateur, but there’s the same rambunctious talk and bursts of laughter when some one mentions, say, neuronal cognition, or keynote speaker Dr so-and-so seems only to have one memory from 12 years of schooling – when his teacher had set up a wardrobe in the classroom, and had everyone step into the wardrobe and on the other side step out in to the new world called “School”.

Not Narnia?  So another showed the video of the making of a full-size 2-person puppet of Aslan the Lion, from The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe, and how valuable this activity has been for social development of a bunch of children.

Cats come to mind because, like drama teachers, there are common elements in the way they behave, distinct from servile dogs, say; but each has a highly individual personality which some people find irksome while others find eternally fascinating.

The thought takes me on to the origin (in USA) of the denomination ‘cool cats’.  These were (maybe still are) those great improvisers of modern jazz.  Improvisation is the universal characteristic behaviour of drama educators, in a constant state of excitability. 

This year they were seriously getting STEAMed up.

It's the deficiencies in STEM Education which worry governments so much (that’s Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) that school systems are pouring (or at least thinking of pouring) money, teachers and resources in that direction, which blind decision makers from seeing the need for STEAM.

The essential argument running through all papers presented is that research evidence shows that children and teenagers benefit enormously from Arts Education, because there they learn to become explorers and questioners, more confident in their own abilities, more socially engaged – and therefore improve their learning in STEM.

The neuronal cognition studies explain why.  A now traditional Drama technique explains how.  It was the famous Drama educator Dorothy Heathcote from the industrial north of England who invented the Mantle of the Expert, where the teacher makes the children into ‘experts’, who have to research and argue out with each other the best way to do – something, anything, like, say solve a science problem, or a mathematics problem, or a matter of history, or a political or social issue. 

Brain studies show how, with the teacher taking a helping role rather than an instructing role, this kind of Drama – now commonly called Process Drama, builds new and complex neural connections.  And what’s more, the evidence is that when children have that kind of experience, they apply it when they are not ‘doing Drama’.  In other words, the Arts underpins better capacity for learning in other subjects.  Experience also shows, as you might expect, that teachers across subjects in primary and secondary schools need to be trained in process drama techniques.

But our problem is that we have a culture which believes in numbers, and judges the value of the arts essentially in dollar terms.  That point to me was highly ironic.  We have a culture mired in numbers, but the teaching of STEM is failing.  To fix it, policy makers pump money out of the Arts, but those questioning researchers show that that is the last thing we should do.

The Symposium heard 23 individual speakers in keynote, 20 minute and 6 minute formats over a day and a half – far too much material for me to go into details here.  I thought, though, the essence of the argument became very clear in the paper presented by Dana Holden, What Does the ‘A’ Mean?

Drama Queensland has worked with Kedron State High School to put a new subject into the curriculum (I think at this stage in Year 7 as the ‘taster’ program to help students make their more specialist choices later in high school).  This subject is called STEAM (da da!), and uses process drama not only for doing Drama but for teaching Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics.

The diaries and evaluation responses of the students show clearly how learning this way was much more interesting – for boys and girls – than standard classroom teaching method, and how much more motivated and confident they felt. 

This is a project which, it seems to me, should go far.  Indeed, other papers talked of using drama process for teaching other arts disciplines like music, or even going as far as Michael Anderson from University of Sydney in a paper titled Capitalising on Creativity to Re-Imagine Schooling: Beyond STEM and STEAM.

For ACTDA, hosting this symposium was a seminal coup, following the re-launch of the Association only in March this year after some ten years in abeyance.  Of the 91 participants from all over Australia, 30 were from Canberra; 16 from Queensland; 10 from Victoria; 27 from New South Wales; 2 from the remote Northern Territory; and 3 from South Australia.

I’m pleased, but have to admit my bias since I, along with another member of our Critics’ Circle, Alanna Maclean, helped set up the original ACT Association for Drama in Education in 1974/5.  We were certainly experienced teachers at that time, but improvised like mad to write the first Drama courses with equal time per week as the traditional Arts courses in Visual Art and Music, or even the ‘mainstream’ subjects like English, Maths, Science and Social Science,  for our high schools and the new Senior Colleges from 1976.

I look back from this weekend’s Drama Australia Symposium where extensive peered research work has been reported and realise how amateur we were 40 years ago, how far Australian theatre has grown, diversified and strengthened in quality, and how professional are the cool cats teaching in schools around the country today.  It’s been a pleasure to be on your show.
Footnote: I plan to publish this report with a much more detailed commentary and follow-up with new ideas on my personal site at and certainly invite discussion there.