Theatre in schools: earning top marks in drama

As the Bush Theatre launches its Schools season, Matt Trueman examines why the classroom is an ideal setting for drama
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

Schoolchildren are running amok on our stages. Last year ended with a glimpse of a rancorous boarding school in E V Crowe's Kin and a more rapturous view from the RSC's musical adaptation of Matilda.

This week, the flurry continues with the Bush Theatre's Schools season, a double bill of plays about the education system. Next week, the Bush Theatre opens its Schools season, a double bill of plays about the education system. John Donnelly's The Knowledge throws a newly qualified teacher into a troublesome citizenship class, while Little Platoons by Steve Waters imagines the imminent possibility of free schools established according to parental demand.

Along with country-house drawing rooms, magical forests and theatres themselves, schools are a mainstay among theatrical settings. From the jolly hockey sticks of Daisy Pulls It Off to the hammers and sickles of Another Country, schools onstage can prove enduringly popular. Two of the last decade's instant classics found drama in the classroom. Alan Bennett's History Boys is still touring the country and Simon Stephens's Punk Rock, which imagined a Columbine-style shooting in a Stockport grammar school, earned several best play nominations.

But what makes schools so conducive to good drama? For starters, schools consist of different tribes and where there are tribes, there is conflict. And, as every GCSE English student will attest, conflict equals drama. Teachers, pupils and parents, each with incompatible needs and desires, make a volatile mix. That also comes with the benefits of any institution. "There's something very useful about a codified society," explains Donnelly, "It's the same thing that makes Restoration comedy and period drama work: strict social regulations, like knowing that you have to curtsy when someone enters a room. A similar thing happens with schools and as soon as you have those rules, there's an inherent tension in their potential to be broken or toyed with."

Familiarity with that system also proves handy. After all, almost everyone has experienced it first-hand, sparing the playwright from exegesis. "Everybody's got an investment in schools," says Waters. "On the one hand, because it's so universal, it could be really dull. On the other hand, it's a fantastic opportunity to work off a shared experience."

Not only is that experience communal, it has profound effects for individuals. Our teenage years are vastly formative. They invariably involve, not only change, but lasting, meaningful change. "We go to school," says Simon Stephens, "at the same time as we're testing and exploring our own identity. We learn about sex and death and politics and injustice as much as we do about quadratic equations and iambic pentameter."

However, one of the most extraordinary properties of schools is their uncanny ability to reflect the state of the nation. The randomness of the student body, especially in state schools, allows a reflection of the wider population. The ruling principles of headmasters and individual teachers enables an expression of political governance. Waters is adamant: "You get an amazing hit of your society from the classroom."

More than that, though, schools are themselves a product of society. "It's a kind of engine for society, the school, so as soon as you write about a school, you're writing about the society which has created that school," says Waters. His exploration of free schools can easily be extended into an examination of the Big Society at large.

Donnelly believes that's particularly acute these days: "Education has become a repository for successive governments to try and address the ills of society." In showing a proposed solution, schools onstage have a knack of illuminating the initial problem.

More importantly, they inevitably look forward. The education system is an ongoing process, shaped by one generation and shaping the next. Set a play in a school and you get a glimpse of the future; the state of the nation to come.

Schools season, Bush Theatre, London W12 (020 8743 5050) to 19 February