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Why do we do Drama? This week we should have seen live productions from the Senior and Prep Schools. The current crisis has meant that we have re-shaped them and the show will go on albeit virtually and via video. We didn’t do Drama at my school when I was growing up, I think they do it now, but I am pretty sure that my departure was not the motive force in changing the minds of Heads and Governors that the time was ripe to introduce it. I might be wrong but… I did perform in a play when I was at Prep. I was third guardsman from the left, just towards the back near the wings and obscured by the curtain. Proof if it be needed that there is a place for everyone. I jest, but only slightly.

In conversation this week with a young man who has applied to come to Embley, the talk turned to what he was passionate about and what he liked to do. He was a keen actor and to be honest, that fascinates me. What is the attraction? I asked, is it the dressing up, pretending to be someone else or the adulation of the audience. None of the above it seemed, he liked playing the parts. I did ask him if acting was just socially acceptable and legalised cheating. This caused some dispute, but to look at it this way: you articulate lines not your own in a character you are embellishing which may or may not reflect someone in the world, so it’s all a tall tale, if not told by an idiot then by an obfuscator.

I was met with a thoughtful and robust challenge which is always the best portion of a good conversation with applicants. One of the justifications for Drama is the case that acting develops confidence and yes this is true, but is it in itself enough? I don’t think it sufficiently argues the significance of Drama. One might even argue that the degree to which it develops confidence is undermined by the number and array of actors who routinely experience stage fright and are themselves more shy and retiring individuals? Aristotle’s Poetics gives insight to the effects of Tragedy, a cathartic experience where the audience are in a collective therapy session out of which they issue forth blinking into the neon light of high street reality purged of whatever emotional ailment afflicted them on entry.

Not sure it is all that simple. An indirect consequence of Drama and tragedy in particular may be the venting of emotion and the vanquishing of aliments otherwise festering in the psyche, but isn’t there more?

I did ask my interlocutor if in fact he thought that telling of tall tales was always wrong? Could ‘acting’ as an acceptable and legalised fabrication be not only purposeful but virtuous? It seems that the immediate fabrication is justified by virtue of the Truth the lie gives birth to. In the deceit, if indeed it be that, you find the revelation of the complexity of relationship; the intricacy of the parts within us all that lay hid and well covered are now opened and revealed. We realise that there we go, just as all men are, not so much a tattered rag on a broken stick as Yeats put it but human all too human.

Why do we do Drama? The conversations in rehearsal, the discussion of motive and character, the understanding of the playwright and what is communicated opens up children to the minds and thoughts of what it is to be human. Becketts “sure we are all going the same way” is as much a comment about the journey to the shops as it is the odyssey thorough life. There are few truths that escape the playwright’s hand, the exquisite positioning of cultures clashing and identity twisting and reshaping among race and language, the greatest badge of identity, are played out in most but for me especially in Friel’s ‘Translations’. In much the same way the cock-crowing oratory of Rooster in Butterworth’s Jerusalem echoes an archaic Mark Antony, but the voice crying out for ears to hear it echoes a Britannic Arthurian idyll that never was and challenges what we think we are.

Why do we do Drama? it is flippant to respond with ‘why not?’. It develops confidence, it extends articulation and polishes speech, but it goes far beyond the virtues of these ends. It connects us with something far more deeply interfused, beyond race or creed to the essence of what the world is and what we are within it. We do Drama? because all the world’s a stage…

Cliff Canning, Headmaster, Embley (@EmbleyHead


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