Prof. Jonathan Neelands on Theatre, Education and a Democratic Future
Professor Jonathan Neelands, of The University of Warwick, visited The University of York Department of Education this month as part of the 50 years of Education at York Public Lecture Series that has consisted of 50 talks from a wide range of professionals in honour of this event.
Professor Neelands gave a lecture titled “Shakespeare, Theatre and Democracy: Towards A Playful Future.” This paper considered direct comparisons between the role theatre and a democratic system and the historic roots of this consistently interweaving relationship, highlighting reflections of democratic ability that may be fostered through interaction with theatre, claiming theatre to be virtually an essential feature of democratic development and education.
Neelands considered the classical roots of both theatre and democracy, citing theatre as the earliest example of democratic practice. He dated this back to Ancient Greece, relating the popularity and purpose of theatre at this time to the potential for education and engagement both between the issue and theme presented, either through politics or performance, and the audience. Moving forward from ancient Greece to Shakespeare’s own lifetime, a large proportion of the general public, claimed to be roughly a third, would visit the theatre monthly as an opportunity for social engagement and discussion. This was a social opportunity for discussion and commentary on a wider social level.
Essentially, theatre as a wider concept enables reflection and interaction for audiences to engage with, relate to and understand themselves through. This may be through acting, watching or reading. A copy of The Complete Works of William Shakespeare, was treasured by prisoners in Robben Island prison, South Africa, following the ban on non-religious reading. Where this book was shared and passed around the prisoners, the relevance of Shakespeare beyond its theatrical purpose is clearly exemplified; it offered opportunity for creative thinking, developed conversation and meaningful discussion on the theatrical platform. This was not exclusive to Robben Island or the time, where there are examples throughout history where theatre enables a development of humanity, understanding and compassion.
John Dewey’s claims regarding education and the “midwife” of democracy which must be reborn “in every generation” were considered, using the example of his own children and their neighbourhood friends to illustrate this understanding. A group of children of different ages from the same school lived on the same street. During school holidays they group and play together in a field behind their houses in a virtually self sufficient manner, where children aged six years old and thirteen year old children alike could engage in playing games and functioning as though they were a miniature society. This highlighted children’s ability through play to develop through their own imaginative creations democratic systems. Children in this situation regardless of their age or social status in the larger school environment adopted a position of equality and understanding virtually forgetting the extraneous factors for the purpose of their participation. Theatre offers this opportunity also, according to Neelands, on a potentially wider scale.
The children in this story returned to school following this experience and proceeded to act as though they did not know each other, in a silent acceptance that the bonds formed for the previously activities were fit for a wider necessity that was no longer the case. Theatre offers this safety blanket, where in the space of theatrical engagement these same skills of understanding, empathy, morality and adhering to a particular set of rules or behaviours are fostered without fear of repercussion on a wider scale. Children are very good at adopting such systems, virtually without question, and play allows them to foster this ability and develop it naturally. It is an ability that theatre provides and enables such development to occur within.
These children and the prisoners of Robben Island, amongst others, are used to highlight the mistake that is movement towards reducing arts education funding, banning Shakespeare’s texts as they did with the complete works in Robben Island historically and The Tempest in Arizona more recently, and essentially missing the educational role that theatre may offer for a future democratically enabled society. Essentially the argument is that the ability of theatre to enable and develop these specific skills cannot be overlooked, nor should it in preparing and equipping children for their participation in a truly democratic future. Overall Professor Neelands offered a thought provoking argument for the potential impact of play on this external platform of theatre to enable mirroring of existing societal practice on higher levels, powerfully reasoning that theatre should be promoted not downgraded in the wider scheme of education to create a well rounded, empathetically educated society through which a truly democratic future may be better understood.
– Laura Louise Nicklin