The Abbey’s school project: ‘Only one of these students had even been to the theatre’

The Abbey’s Theatre-Making and Citizenship course has been piloted in an inner-city Dublin school, and the positive effects on students have been manifold

 

The corridors of Larkin Community College are emptying out for the day, but in one classroom a dozen students remain, standing in a circle, avoiding each other’s gaze. These are some of the pupils participating in the Theatre-Making and Citizenship programme, a pilot course being developed in conjunction with the Abbey Theatre’s community and education department.

They have just finished a read-through of the play they have written for their final project, and are being brought back to attention with traditional theatre games by civic, political and social education (CPSE) teacher Marie O’Higgins and education consultant to the Abbey Sarah Fitzgibbon. There is less than a month until they have to perform the play on the Abbey’s main stage in front of 400 invited guests, including staff from the Simon Community, who they met in the course of their research. “Nerves are high today,” says O’Higgins. “And self-esteem is especially low.”

However, when the students in the inner-city Dublin school break for sandwiches, O’Higgins stresses the transformation in the students’ confidence over the 18 months that the course has been running. “There is no other word for it but profound,” she says. “These were students best described as reluctant, to say the least. None of them wanted to do the course; one child even got a letter from her mother to get out of it. But Sarah and I could see the potential impact a course like this could have, and we knew that if it worked with these guys, it could work all over the country and, really, the impact on the group has been phenomenal.”

The pivotal moment, says Fitzgibbon, came when the students went to the theatre for the first time. “We are about a five-minutes walk from the Abbey, but none of the students had ever been inside,” she says. “Only one of them had even been to the theatre.” As part of the course, they have now seen five professional performances – two of them brought to the school by the Abbey – and a student took part in one of the visiting productions. It was when they realised “there were real people doing jobs” behind all the the stage trickery, says Fitzgibbon, that their interest was really piqued.

The Theatre-Making and Citizenship programme was conceived to enhance student engagement with the CPSE and English curriculum at junior cycle. As O’Higgins says, “we cover what the CPSE curriculum requires, in terms of key principles. So last year the focus was on rights and structures, and the students had two projects. They had to give a speech about theatre as a right to self-expression, and they had to rewrite the prologue from Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet from the perspective of the citizens. Now, to do that they had to learn what their rights were, and what the impact of a denial of rights would be. They had to look at the UN charter, research the structures a citizen can engage with if those rights are taken away, really examine what it means to be part of a community.”

The productions that the students saw dovetailed neatly with these themes, from the historic perspective of The Risen People, based on Jim Larkin’s involvement in the 1914 Dublin lockout, to the contemporary scenario of Shaun Dunne’s The Waste Ground Party, which is set not far from the school in the present day and concerns a group of friends only a little older than the students.

 

Oral literacy skills

Apart from the core curricular achievements, the projects had a significant impact on the students’ oral literacy skills, which could be felt across their other subjects too, where teachers reported increased ability and willingness to read aloud. As a result, Fitzgibbon has begun to develop a draft continuing professional development (CPD) course focusing on oral literacy and providing an introduction to theatre-making and theatre criticism with four of Larkin Community College’s English teachers.

O’Higgins and Fitzgibbon have been heartened by how the students’ engagement with the CPSE curriculum through theatre-making has effected their general motivation and regard for each other. “It forced them to be citizens, to work together, take care of each other, and that has an impact in the classroom that cannot be measured in the same way [that curricular objectives can],” says O’Higgins. “We are a Deis school, and this group would struggle with choosing to go to third level. I think that will change because of programmes like this. It is embodying [education] from the inside out.”

Throughout the 90-minute session, the students are quick to praise and encourage each other, and to call each other out when people are not pulling their weight or are causing distractions. They agreed on the subject matter of homelessness for their play democratically, 14-year-old Luke Kinsella tells me, through research and discussion, before writing independent monologues from the perspective of a homeless person.

One student who had not spoken in class produced a piece that gave the play its name, and Fitzgibbon wove the monologues together to create a fuller picture of homelessness from the perspective of homeless people, their families and those who work with them.

 

Criticism of theatre

Rebecca Scurry (15) is bursting with enthusiasm for the course. “I love all of it,” she says. “Looking at homelessness and giving speeches and doing a show and going to the Abbey. All of it.” Her main criticism applies not to the course but to theatre itself: “They should let you eat and drink at the theatre, especially drink, because it’s really hot and you get parched.”

Scurry says the course has helped her a lot with her other classes. “This all counts for our action project [which is worth 60 per cent of the CPSE Junior Cert exam], so we will basically be going in with a pass.” It has helped with English too.“We already read Romeo and Juliet and made our own monologue out of it, so we will fly it.” She is proud that she and her peers are “the first class in the whole country to ever do it, so in years ahead we can tell [future students] what we did and thought of it.”

From the educationalist’s perspective, says O’Higgins, the drawback is that “you can’t have high numbers for this type of course to work well. One teacher for every 10 students would be ideal.”

Although the theatre-making and citizenship course has been developed independently of the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment, it complements the objectives of the new junior cycle curriculum, which provides for short courses to be taught alongside traditional subjects. O’Higgins says the theatre-making course fits the bill, but for this type of course to work, “the Department of Education needs to invest in both teacher training and in reducing student-teacher ratios”.

Partnerships with organisations such as the Abbey can play a vital role in helping to deliver postprimary education, because their expertise, she says, “is a vital resource, and they facilitate work that otherwise just could not happen”, but ultimately, “a teacher is a teacher, and it is up to us to give the students what they need”.

The Abbey Theatre education programmes for early secondary cycle and CPD will be available in September. The Abbey welcomes expressions of interest from schools by May 8th, for the 2015-2016 academic year. Interested schools should email phil.kingston@abbeytheatre.ie, putting ‘expression of interest’ in the subject line

 

 

PRIMING THE CANON: A JUNIOR INTRODUCTION

The Abbey Theatre has been developing ways to engage with primary-school students through a strand called Priming the Canon, which is designed to “introduce the classics of the Irish canon to primary-school students”, says Phil Kingston, community and education manager at the Abbey.

The programme offers a unique theatrical experience, based around a specially commissioned monologue, written from the perspective of a child character from the original play. The series began with Me, Mollser (starring Mary-Lou McCarthy, above right), which told the story of Seán O’Casey’s 1916 drama from the viewpoint of the tubercular 10-year-old girl. The programme continues this spring, currently touring schools with Me, Michael, where the silent child character from Brian Friel’s play Dancing at Lughnasa gives his version of events. The idea, says Kingston, is “to give access to quality theatre to the youngest audience possible, so that young people will be inspired to seek out theatre elsewhere”. From the teachers’ perspective, the plays add context to other work from the curriculum, particularly history and English. With this in mind, the touring productions are designed for the classroom rather than theatre venues, as the long-term goal for Kingston and his team is to bring drama back in a more formal way to the primary and secondary curriculums.

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