Theatre in Education: A Play on Hierarchy

Theatre not only allows students to engage uniquely with literature, but also to participate in their own education, creating an equitable and democratic space of learning

Recently, I met my young students outside the teaching machine. We were at a wedding and they had all barged in; some invited, some not. It was a joy to see them so vibrant outside the classroom, where I had otherwise seen them as vagrant, uninterested students (rarely attending classes). They welcomed guests, helped serve food and drove numerous relatives of the groom back to their homes. No one instructed them. 

Formal classrooms are restrictive, hierarchical and competitive spaces. With the emphasis on explicating content and ensuring universal comprehension, imaginative engagement with texts becomes almost impossible. As teachers, we take it upon ourselves to explicate texts for the students. Those who refuse these easy morsels that we have in our infinite kindness displayed for them, we label as disobedient, thankless and cast them aside. We talk in full volume, but they cannot raise their voices. If they speak out of turn, it would be disruptive to the class routine; the narrative we pursue so relentlessly might be broken when a lone voice bursts out into light. Thus, a space where communication and innovation are supposed to be prime concerns is lost. 

Learning in this manner is merely internalising the content, when its objective should have been to transform the students’ thought process. In most educational programmes across the world, divergent thinking, and consequently creativity, is discouraged. A very obvious reason for this may be that such thinking does not support a homogenised understanding of textual content, nor the uniform marking system that evaluates learners. However education experts like Dwight Conquergood and Sir Ken Robinson trace it back to the needs of the modern, industrialised capitalist society.  According to them, with the advent of modern institutionalised education, dialogic interactive mode of knowledge dissemination was seldom practised. Instead, teacher-centred, exam-oriented, text-based knowledge became the norm in education. Another significant observation by scholars like Jean-François Lyotard is that in the industrialised world, knowledge which is not supported by technology is often marginalised. Gayatri Spivak, speaks of the goals of higher education being reduced to income production and access to computers. For her ‘slow cooking of the souls’ and the ‘ training of imagination’ rarely happens in formal education spaces. The factory model of churning out assembly line products that are assessed by quantity has become the norm. The restructuring and reforms that are brought in every year are means to strengthen this quantitative evaluation of knowledge. Many have observed that the present social and political regime is preserved by the very fact that all actors in the educational field – pupils, teachers, administrators, policy makers, text book publishers – are driven by the will to work continuously on their selves in order to consolidate and optimise their own position. Therefore, even those who know they are not empowered or even enlightened by all the years of institutionalised learning, endorse the system. A young mind imprisoned by prescribed texts and guarded by an education system that evaluates according to the dictates of a capitalist system cannot soar high. 

These young minds, which teachers must ignite, are often categorised for easy evaluation: the studious and the stupid, the pass and the fail. Do our ways of understanding students always have to work in binaries? In Western knowledge systems Aristotle’s tree of knowledge has been the model for every structure that our society prides on. Our perception of the world has often been hierarchical. We are beginning to realise, however, that the tree metaphor cannot accommodate the complexities of human thought systems. The efficacy of interconnected systems has only been recently explored. 

 Gur Ze’ev in his book, ‘Beyond the Modern-Postmodern Struggle in Education’ (2007), questions hegemonic pedagogical frameworks which claim universal validity and exhorts the teacher to let in alternative points of view so that education becomes a practice that nurtures itself on the moral imperative to acknowledge alterity and pluriformity. 

The author with students at Ninasam. Photo: MA Rahman 

During my visit to Ninasam, the theatre school in the Shimoga district of Karnataka, I discovered a transformed space where teachers and students engaged in discussions over texts and explored their performative aspects. They were sitting around in a circle and reading parts, it was a collaborative classroom with no monopoly on knowledge. It was so remarkably dissimilar from the usual affair that I asked the young pupils if they were losing out on education by not being in regular classrooms. They said, “We are currently doing a Greek play based in ancient Greece. We are researching on Greek history, life-style, art and music. We make most of the stage properties and learn to sensually apprehend the structures, furniture, costumes, weapons, jewellery, utensils and everything else they used in their everyday life. We cannot compete because the play is built on collaboration. Our learning is experiential and organic. How many of your students can confidently claim this?”  

I was being educated. 

Augusto Boal in the preface to his book Theatre of the Oppressed (1985) says: “When we study Shakespeare we must be conscious that we are not studying the history of the theatre, but learning about the history of humanity. We are discovering ourselves. Above all we are discovering that we can change ourselves, change the world.”   

Our primitive epistemological exercises have essentially been imaginative and creative. That way we understood ourselves from within. The knowledge that we gained has always emerged from our inherent need to know ourselves and the world. Critical pedagogy was put forward as an alternative system which encouraged students to think critically about their education context; this way of thinking allows them to “recognise connections between their individual problems and experiences and the social contexts in which they are embedded,” as posited by Paulo Freire, the renowned critical educator. In critical pedagogy, the text is a cultural space, which is placed within a pedagogical space, to facilitate rethinking of issues. Education for the dialogic, problem-posing educator is, according to Freire, an interactive process in which the student-teacher discovers the need and goal of the learning process. The decision about the content and the programme of education ceases to be the prerogative of the teacher or the education policy maker. 

The potential of theatre to incorporate aspects of critical pedagogy has been reiterated by many theatre educationists like Boal, Gavin Bolton and Dorothy Heathcote. These alternative forms of education promote dialogues, collaboration and creativity to counter the appropriation of knowledge by commodity culture in educational institutions.   

Students at Ninasam sitting in a circle and reading parts. Photo: MA Rahman 

 The typical organisational top-down structure has to be dismantled to make way for a more just and all-inclusive perception of the world. The age-old method of looking at social structures from a hierarchal point of view is no longer tenable. Educational spaces have to be purged of power structures. When theatre is used in academic spaces, it is animism and mimesis that are explored, unlike in commercial theatre spaces where narcissism or exhibitionism might be found.  

 A space where meaning is performed through reading, research, discussions and improvisations would prove engaging. Different approaches to learning have to be practised. The teaching of content in the early years of schooling has to give way to the teaching of how to learn: the process instead of the product. The risk of the ideology of the institution being justified can be resisted if the stakeholders in education are given a free reign and allowed to explore different perspectives and traverse diverse forms of research. 

In one of my interactions with a student of theatre at the University of Madras, I was told that on days when they have theatre, the students need to arrive an hour earlier than usual, and while they are always admonished for late appearances to regular class, on theatre days they are never late. The student told me, “Make your students like the lessons they are taking, get them involved and you will see a lot of self-disciplining.” She also told me how, for examinations, the students are often tense and mechanically pouring over books, while on the eve of theatre production, they interact, collaborate, and think of ways to innovate. This engagement with learning is what theatre can bring to academics.  

Texts, exams and discipline are not the only paths to knowledge. In fact, they are debilitating in various ways. They strengthen unjust means of exploitation and enslavement. Instead of explicating the text for its various meanings, if ways of unravelling meanings were taught, with the text as a medium not as a source, a truly pluralistic and organic learning experience might be made possible, as in theatre spaces. 

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