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Director Ruth Mary Johnson: Theatre nurtures children – we need to fight to keep it in schools

A scene from The Winter's Tale at Stratford Circus Arts Centre. Photo: Ellie Kurttz A scene from The Winter's Tale at Stratford Circus Arts Centre. Photo: Ellie Kurttz
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Making work with, and for, young people, is the true magic of theatre for me. Over the past two weeks, about 4,000 young people have seen our production of The Winter’s Tale for free at Stratford Circus Arts Centre as part of Newham Council’s Every Child a Theatre Goer scheme.

They have engaged with this notoriously tricky and complex play with insight, intelligence and open hearts. After our first show, one little boy said: “I know that the baby isn’t real but I still felt sad for it.” We have been blown away by the quality of questions that have been asked and the thoughts offered by the audience to our team in the post-show discussions. One of my favourite questions has been: “Is there a sequel to this?”

Young people have a sophisticated understanding of how stories work and the intelligence to cope with, tackle and say big things. Young audiences keep you on your toes and your ego in check. I will never forget being on stage in a Christmas show – overindulging in what I thought was a serene moment of dancing in the snow and letting the snowflakes land on my tongue – when a loud, urgent voice came from the audience: “Don’t eat snow, dogs wee in it!”

Yet their arts education is under threat. The Fabian report Primary Colours, published in January 2019, paints a bleak picture of arts education in primary schools with 56% of teachers in England feeling that they do not have access to the resources and support to deliver a high-quality arts education. Two thirds say there is less arts education now than in 2010.

Two thirds of primary school teachers have experienced decline in arts subjects – report

Exploring theatre is about nurturing young people. It isn’t just about two hours of entertainment. It helps them work as a team, problem-solve, communicate, think critically and articulate big ideas concisely. All qualities that appear high on employers’ wish lists.

It also offers powerful experiences; togetherness with a community, understanding your own and other’s points of view and opening minds to new ways of thinking. But it is a power that is hard to measure or calculate in charts and tables and therefore can easily be seen as an add-on or a privilege.

Around the nation, teachers are fighting back and creating environments where young people have the chance to explore arts and creativity despite limited resources and time. But we, as an industry, need to continue fighting if we want theatre and the wider arts to be an intrinsic part of a full and rich education and not for the privileged few.

Approximately 5,000 more young people will see The Winters Tale as it plays in the Dorfman and then goes on the road taking the show into primary schools across Greater London. It’s critical that many more children after them are given the same opportunity.

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