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Lyn Gardner: Inspiring drama teachers are the unsung heroes of British theatre

Inspirational teacher, Donna Soto-Morettini. Photo: Vicky Bufton Adam Penfold: 'I wouldn't be where I am today without my school drama teacher Donna Soto-Morettini' (pictured). Photo: Vicky Bufton
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Several weeks ago, I interviewed Adam Penford, Nottingham Playhouse’s incoming artistic director, for The Stage.

During our conversation, he mentioned how important one of his teachers had been on his development as a director. After arriving at Liverpool Institute of the Performing Arts on the acting course, he discovered it was not for him. He might simply have left LIPA if it was not for Donna Soto-Morettini who – along with others at the school – recognised his talent and nudged him towards directing instead.

School and college drama teachers, as well as those running youth theatres, are some of the great unsung heroes and heroines of British theatre. They are people whose daily work belies the cynical and frankly absurd notion that those who can’t do, teach.

The best teachers teach, do and more importantly they enable the future and support and inspire the young. Many have just as much artistic talent as those who appear on our stages and in movies, although they spend more time covered in paint in the school hall than on the red carpet.

Their role and dedication is more important than ever at a time when opportunities for the rising generations are drying up, social mobility is stagnant and arts education is under siege in schools because of the EBacc.

The numbers of 15 and 16-year-olds in English schools studying arts subjects, including drama and music, has fallen to its lowest level in a decade.

Vocational education is being sidelined. Drama teachers in state schools are increasingly becoming an endangered species, hanging on by the fingertips and feeling far less appreciated than those teaching what are now considered core subjects.

But their influence can be both life-enhancing and life-changing. I know that. I was the bottom-of-the-class grammar school kid, told off constantly for daydreaming. It was through school drama lessons and the chance to be involved in school plays that I found something that gave me value in my own and other people’s eyes. I have a drama teacher to thank for that.

A few years back Eddie Redmayne admitted that he regularly rang up his old drama teacher for advice, even though he is now an acclaimed actor. But it’s not just stars from privileged backgrounds such as Redmayne or directors like Penford, who have their teachers to thank.

The influence of teachers extends to every corner of British theatre. From the teacher who saw a spark in Andrea Dunbar’s school drama project and sent it off to the Royal Court to the sixth form teacher who persuaded a young Robert Holman to get on a train to London and be a writer. Or how about John Mee at Leeds Polytechnic, who told a young Dave Moutrey – now director and chief executive of Home in Manchester – that he didn’t need permission to make theatre, he just needed an idea.

Redmayne is a product of Eton and the arts, particularly drama, are thriving in private education where a properly equipped school theatre is often seen as a necessity. But everyone else I’ve named came from a working class background.

Theatre has a pressing diversity problem, and if the young don’t get the opportunity to engage in the arts at school then it is unlikely that they will ever engage either as audiences or as theatremakers.

Several years ago, when Brian McMaster was undertaking his report into excellence in the arts I sat in one of the sessions to which arts leaders had been invited. When McMaster asked those sitting around the table how they had first got involved in the arts every single person present answered that it was through participation, and mostly through school or youth groups. It was in a youth theatre that Penford first discovered theatre. He was in the same group as Rosalie Craig.

Of course, the point of arts education is not just to produce more artists or people who act or work in the theatre, any more than the point of great theatre for children is to create the audiences of the future.

They may indeed do these things, but what they also do is broaden horizons, create the opportunities for young people to develop empathy and encourage them to think creatively.

The drama teacher who encourages the shy kid hiding on the back row to express themselves is doing as crucial a job as the science teacher who helps their students reach Cambridge to study engineering.

We should celebrate them. Because schools fixated on league tables and EBacc often won’t. The current Tory government, blind to the value of a liberal arts education definitely won’t.

But those of us who are involved in theatre see the daily evidence of the transformative effect of good drama teaching and may – like me – also be the beneficiaries of it ourselves. I wouldn’t do the job I do today if it wasn’t for my drama teacher, Miss Skinner. I silently thank her every day.

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