The Archive: Theatre in education marks its legacy at 50

Asian Youth Theatre in Somewhere to Belong at the Belgrade Theatre, Coventry. Photo: Nicola Young Asian Youth Theatre in Somewhere to Belong at the Belgrade Theatre, Coventry. Photo: Nicola Young
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In 1965, Belgrade Theatre, Coventry launched an idealistically cutting-edge theatre in education project. And it was, it seems, the birth of a movement. “I’m pretty certain it was the start of TiE generally,” says Gordon Vallins, 81. He was one of the original four teacher-actors who went out to schools with the very first tour, The Balloonman and the Runaway Balloons, 50 years ago this month. “We knew of no one anywhere doing anything remotely similar, but before long people who’d worked with us were setting up similar schemes elsewhere and the movement grew rapidly,” he adds.

Vallins was appointed assistant to the director of the Belgrade, Anthony Richardson, in 1964, having been a teacher. “I looked after things like PR and theatre tours,” he recalls. And it was clearly a varied role because in the mix was also responsibility for education.

“Anthony was an astonishingly charming, lovable man who wanted to involve the whole city in the theatre. He saw himself as a social servant and believed that, as an agent for social change, theatre could be used to benefit everyone and everything from banks and shops to community groups,” Vallins says.

Theatre in education in the 1960s. Photos: Tony Baker
Theatre in education in the 1960s. Photos: Tony Baker

“He wanted to get work with schools going and asked me if I’d like to have a go at running it because I’d been a teacher. We started with a youth theatre on the back of our existing theatregoers’ Young Stagers club. Then we advertised for actor-teachers and started taking work out to schools. Brian Way was a mentor.”

Coventry City Council gave them £15,000, an enormous amount of money by 1965 standards. “It was the era of child-centred learning and Coventry, with its new cathedral and the country’s first traffic-free zone, was a good place to innovate at the time,” says Vallins.

The point of TiE (note the word ‘in’ with its integral implications as opposed to ‘and’, which suggests it’s an added option – Vallins takes credit for this) is that children are involved and encouraged to improvise and create. It was never just a matter of passively watching a performance. And at its best TiE can be used to teach and explore subjects and issues as well as for its own sake.

By 1977, long after Vallins had moved on to a varied career which included teaching at LAMDA and for the Inner London Education Authority, there were around 90 TiE companies operating nationwide. And the Belgrade, with £12,000 per year ring-fenced funding from the city council, had begun to engage explicitly with contemporary political, social and economic dilemmas such as a response to the Bedworth miners’ strikes in 1975 and a project for five to seven-year-olds and their parents which explored issues of race and migration in Coventry.

Then came the Education Reform Act 1988, the national curriculum and a change of culture. TiE began to fall out of favour. Funding cuts meant that the Belgrade TiE company disbanded in 1996 after 36 years of financial and creative autonomy.

But the work didn’t stop completely, although the emphasis shifted to community and education. Today it includes, for instance, an over-50s group. Acting Out, another example, is a targeted ongoing youth theatre programme aimed at young people who are in danger of exclusion from the mainstream. “It’s ethnically very diverse,” says Justine Themen, associate director at Belgrade since 2003. There is, for example, a black group and an Asian group among the eight that are available.

“We’re sometimes criticised for segregation but there are joint activities as well, and anyone is free to join any group,” Themen explains. Acting Out is free for the participants aged 11-16, thanks to Arts Council England funding. Young people can then continue into the 16-25 group if they wish. During the last 12 months, 9,242 children, young people and adults over the age of 50 have participated in 1,027 workshops at the Belgrade Theatre.

Another TiE legacy is – or was – an annual Big School project, started in 2000, to help primary school children make a smooth transition into secondary school. It operated in nearly half of Coventry’s primary schools last year.

“Sadly, we haven’t been able to run it this year because the funding has been cut,” explains Themen. “So it’s a rather strange anniversary because for the first time in 50 years there is, at the moment, no TiE at the Belgrade. We are hoping that we might, somehow, be able to get it going again in 2016.”

Themen, who talks carefully of “difficult times”, hopes the anniversary celebrations will help to raise the profile of the Belgrade’s commitment, expertise and achievements.

She is cheerful about the celebratory anniversary festival that was held in July and the forthcoming Festival of Theatre for Children and Young People curated by Tony Graham next month, along with a conference, Inspiring Curiosity: the Relationship Between Drama, Theatre and Education.

Nonetheless, she is ruefully angry that the schools projects have stopped. “There are plenty of people who believe in and understand this work, of course, but it’s disappointing that after 50 years there are still those in, or connected with, schools who demand evidence of benefits that should, by now, be self-evident to everyone,” she says.

If you’d like to read more stories from the history of entertainment, The Stage Archive offers access to all back issues of the paper from 1880 to 2007 and is available from £15