I am a white middle class man. I have never experienced any form of bigotry that has prevented me from living a successful and happy life. I have never been a victim of any form of social or historical prejudice. I did used to get teased a bit for being tubby but luckily I grew (stretched) and anyway, now I’m in my mid-thirties, most of peers are also paunchy so the jibes don’t exactly come thick and fast. In short, I am lucky. I will never quite understand what it is like to be diminished and reduced to a single ill-informed ideological concept fuelled by hate. Hurrah!
I am also in education. This means that I have a duty to try and make the world a fair and equal place for the children who, over the years, have been under my duty of care. Since I have become a Head I do find that I care more about equality. I don’t mean that as a teacher I didn’t care but I feel different about it now. As a teacher I tried to make my classroom a ‘perfect’ society microcosm, where everyone was equal and we all got on and treated each other with an automatic respect. As a Head I find myself trying to actively seek out the inequalities and exposing them. I no longer think it is good enough to promote fairness or establish rules that, if followed across the world, would establish long term peace and harmony. I also do not think it is effective enough to learn about the impact of prejudice solely through a historical lens. I think we have to show our children what their world is like now and I think we should make them as dissatisfied with the status-quo as they are optimistic about the future.
This feeling has grown stronger as I have gotten older. And, in recent times, my own awareness of ‘what it is like’ for others has developed through perhaps the most middle-class medium there is: theatre.
Over the summer I saw several shows at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival that were as educational as they were brilliant. They tackled issues such as mental illness, disability and sexism and if I were an education minister, I’d put them all on the national curriculum.
First up, the wonderful @themeganford wrote and performed her one-woman show ‘Feminasty’. In a series of crystal clear and brutally funny monologues she presented the world of misogyny that is all around us. Several of her sketches involved teenage girls not just succumbing to but accepting the low-expectations and superficial high-pressures that girls, all over the world, are subjected to. She presented the every-day sexism that permeates our society and as the show continued I thought about all the girls in my school and I got really cross. I got cross because not only does it, quite frankly, suck, that our modern world is still so archaic in its expectations and representation of women in society, but also because many of the older girls in my school are already conforming to and accepting these standards. I agree with @themeganford that it’s time to step it up a gear. Children can spot inequality from a mile off so we need to start being more explicit with them about the impact sexism has on society. Girls and boys need to start getting angry so they no longer accept the inequalities that are waiting for them as they become teenagers and adults. We need our children to get feminasty.
Then there was ‘Backstage in Biscuitland’ performed by @touretteshero which explored the life story and experiences of Jessica Thom who was diagnosed with Tourettes in her twenties having had tics since she was child. It was quite frankly the most heart-warming and, at times, hilarious hour I think I had at the Fringe. Jessica explained, clearly and beautifully, what it was like to have verbal tics (she described it like being a fish getting involuntarily yanked whilst caught on a fishing line) and shared some painful experiences of having Tourettes in public. The show was also, and more importantly, a joyous celebration of Jessica’s life with Tourettes (with her tics, at times, taking centre stage) and of the friends and family that help her. In terms of knocking down prejudices I don’t think any show could achieve more. Again, I thought about how valuable this show would be for children as it explores acceptance (of yourself and others) and educates everyone, in the most natural way, about tolerance. An incredible show that, although different in approach to Feminsasty – it diminishes prejudice through clarity of understanding rather than through outrage and satire – is equally as enlightening.
Even more personal was ‘Fake it til you make it’ a show by performance artist Bryony Kimmings and her partner Tim Grayburn about clinical depression. This explored the pain and stigma of depression, particularly how it affects men, ‘real men’ and their relationships. Tim is not a professional performer but was an account manager at a top advertising firm who spent his adult life hiding his depression from the world. Six months into their relationship Bryony discovered that her new boyfriend suffers from severe clinical depression and this performance piece charts their story. What is remarkable is not just that this is a ‘true story’ but that Tim performs and shares his personal experiences again and again. It was tender and powerful, exploring a subject that is rarely talked about. Once again, as an educator, I reflected on my own school community. How many boys in my school feel the same as Tim? How many Dads? How many families are at breaking point because of a mental illness that they feel unable to open up about? As educators we have a duty to bring these issues to the surface without of shame or stigma. I am not a massive ‘performance art’ chap but this show achieved that feat in one hour and more effectively than any circle time.
Schools will always hold some responsibility for supporting children through life that goes far beyond academia. In recent times it seems there is more to tackle in terms of what’s going on outside the classroom than there is within it. Schools cannot fix everything that is broken. But we can do our best to instil, in our pupils, the right attitudes forged through a greater understanding. To do that we have to use the full gamut of weapons in our arsenal. I propose that theatre and performance is something we use too sparsely. Sometimes nothing explores an issue more effectively than a few people talking about it on a stage in front of you. Even when it’s in the news (Noma Dumezweni playing Hermione, for example) theatre can cause great debate. While we’re talking about Noma Dumezweni, her performance in Penelope Skinner’s ‘Linda‘ – a play that also expertly explored our perceptions of women in society – was exceptional, so don’t worry Potter racists. When it’s performed in front of you however, theatre can result in so much more: it can change your viewpoint. It can provide you with an insight that gives you pause for thought and can change your own perception or attitudes in a way that is more long-lasting than an argument, public debate or PSHE lesson. It seeks out to show you what you may be unware of but what is definitely out there. It can inform your ignorance, needle your conscience and test your resolve. Theatre allows you to change your mind.