Student theatre is much more than a cocurricula frill. More schools and community / youth theatres are developing quality and challenging theatre productions that go far beyond the simple notion of giving “expression” to participation in the art form. Such activity is also recognized as part of a wider educational agenda as seen in the growth of “creative industries” linking philosophy, arts, technology in a more intensive and  academically inclusive way.

 But while the education of students can certainly be enhanced by a greater and more explicit focus on creativity and philosophical frameworks, so too can the wider society benefit from an embedding of challenging and disciplined artistic presentation from partnerships of students, teachers and professional industry practitioners.

If we pose a few questions, we are forced to consider the contradictions in our thinking regarding the arts.

Do we take our creative investments and our arts seriously? Or are they seen as side show frills; devices to keep the kids off the streets and our population numbed into silence? This is a loaded and rhetorical question with answers that are counter intuitive. When we hear answers such as “oh the arts are so important; where would we be without a sense of fun!” or “the arts provide us with a balance to core academic subjects” or “the arts are good for the economy” or “the arts are an outlet for expression” we must ask “Are we serious?”

A work of art can simply be a product of self-expression; a kind of narcissistic exploration of self and cultural identity in a way that has little relationship to any objective consideration of reality and connection to the world. Seen in this way, questions of art, creativity and connotations of “serious” consideration are simply an annoyance. Theatre (or for that matter any art) can only be relevant in so far as it gives a kind of sensuous gratification. Does it simply touch the emotions and make us laugh or cry or fulfill some personal or group affirmation? In this light, exhibitionism is mistaken as talent; art is confused with therapy; thought is replaced with diversion or distraction. And it is no wonder that the arts are under attack from some political and cultural forces and constantly being marginalized within education!

When viewed from a “distraction” or “narcissism” position, schools and community groups so often choose to present rehashed versions of American musicals awash with sentimentality and immediate connection with egoistic and “me me me” or “cliche” values. They fulfill emotional and basic skills requirements of participants and tend to pander to a societal wish for simplicity and escape from reality.  This said, such productions may also be used to extend student skills and approaches while providing a kind of focus for community. After all, beneath even the fluffiest musical lies a serious intent that drove the composers, writers and original producers. It is probably unfair to the originators of these works that so little dramaturgical effort goes into their reconstruction. It is as if the stars in the eyes of those choosing to present these works blind them to any real connection the musical may have to their contemporary audience and production company. Consideration of how and where connection exists may provide valid reasons for selection. Similar considerations come into play when choosing to present a classic play text from Shakespeare or other significant writers from the canon.

For instance, to approach Shakespeare’s “The Taming Of The Shrew” simply from a Narcissistic perspective would affirm the kinds of sexism and even misogyny still prevalent within our cultural surroundings. In 2014 Daramalan Theatre Company (a theatre group from within a Canberra High School / College) chose to present the play. To base it simply within the limited perspectives of young students struggling with their own sense of identity and belonging would leave it open to cliché or simply a less critical framework. In deciding to adopt a dramaturgical approach, DTC has applied serious approaches to art and cultural studies.

“The Taming Of The Shrew” was approached with an analysis of historical and contemporary Western meanings contained in the text. It could not be assumed that the viewpoints and world views contained within the work of 400 years ago were simply historical phenomena. In today’s world there is a growing tolerance of those same sorts of attitudes and cultural understandings. Beneath the comic exterior of the show lies some of these darker aspects that we have attempted to reveal. By heightening awareness of the serious side of theatre, the company was confronted by choices in presentation that are just as pressing as any choices facing us in the shaping of a national curriculum.

In the “The Taming Of The Shrew” there is a suggestion that males have a duty to instruct and nurture females to bring them to a heightened awareness or level of maturity and acceptance within the confined social structure. It is a bit like the necessity of “falcons” to train their young by depriving them of food and offering harsh discipline to get them to comply. Women are thus perceived as lower on the species scale than men. Such views still persist in some religious and social contexts. To simply play out the comedy and affirm such views would simply affirm the validity of such views. Yet most contemporary productions of “The Taming Of The Shrew” do just that.

There is a sense of irony that is played out in most productions. But in viewing the explanations offered by a number of women who played the role of Kate, it is evident that the conflict between the genders is simply the natural order of things and something of a game. It assumes that women secretly are looking for the man who will tame and protect them; placing them in a “dolls’ house” as illustrated by Ibsen in his famous work. Theatre that perpetrates this myth betrays everything that women have fought for in terms of equality and significance over the past two hundred years. It makes forced marriage, FGM and glass ceilings in employment acceptable and even part of the natural order of things.

. . . and for some, even raising these points is an annoyance!

In approaching the play, it is then necessary to consider every sentence and every scene as if it were new; as if it had never been presented before. What do WE now consider to be options for Kate and how do we see her as a protagonist over-coming the obstacles that confront her? In the text, she is not so unruly or shrewish as it may seem. She is angry. She is frustrated. She is determined. Are such traits in need of restraining? Or are they to see resolution and resolve in some way?

Rather than simply approaching the work in a narcissistic way where we extol the skills, beauty and cleverness of our presentation, we need to find a suitable dramaturgy on which to base our artistic choices. I suggest this is not done enough in theatre. Yet it is in student theatre that theatrical exploration has most opportunity to advance intellectual paradigms through which society and the human condition can best be undertaken. The final scene in “The Taming Of The Shrew” can turn taming into victory while challenging the absurdity of the male domination of women. But it can’t emerge from nowhere.

This is where the real value of student theatre can be found. The propensity for it to work in tandem with teachers, industry professionals and students to explore and negotiate meaning through theatre is something that should be treasured. It only needs the confidence to step beyond Narcissus and the binds of blinkered and tunnel-visioned notions of “expression” in order to provide a huge ripple effect in all the communities through which it thrives.

Have a look here at the final speech from “The Taming Of The Shrew” presented by the student theatre group, DTC in 2014.