• Ned Manning

Review Fails to Measure up

The review of the national arts curriculum by John Vallance, Kevin Wilshire and Kevin Donnelly completely misses the point of arts education in schools. It is breathtakingly ignorant of how subjects like drama, dance and music are taught. It is insulting to the thousands of students who have undertaken rigorous study in these disciplines let alone the teachers who year in year out nearly kill themselves teaching them. To suggest that these courses have been “cobbled together to placate lobby groups” is patently absurd.

Rather than trying to argue with the ridiculous notion that students would gain more from studying great works of art than they would from creating their own pieces let’s have look at what a subject like drama asks of it candidates.

In the Individual Performance in NSW students are asked to prepare a 6-8 minute piece drawn from any of the great works in the theatrical canon. Anyone who has done a 2-3 minute audition will tell you how demanding this is. That’s 6-8 minutes on your own. There are very few 6-8 minute monologues so the students have to combine a number of speeches and find a through line that makes dramatic sense. There is nothing “vague” about this. Far from being “unfocused” it requires an enormous amount of discipline. The students have to find a play (often a great work) edit it, adapt it and perform it. These are performance pieces. They aren’t monologues. They require students to create a piece of theatre with costume, props and a minimal set. It requires discipline and imagination.

In Victoria Theatre Studies and the Solo Performance a similarly rigorous. In the former students are given a piece of anything from Chekhov to Joanna Murray Smith to perform. In the latter they are given stimulus material in the shape of anything from a John Brack painting to Fritz Lang’s Metropolis to create a piece of non naturalistic theatre. In both courses the students are asked to fulfill an extremely rigorous set of criteria including use of the space, actor/audience relationship, conflict, tension and so on. Anyone who thinks this is a walk in the park has rocks in their head.

One girl I taught created a piece based on George Bernard Shaw’s women. She selected a number of speeches from a wide variety of Shaw’s plays, cut them down and put them together to make a coherent piece of theatre. She placed a ring of different shoes around the space and became a different character as she stepped into each different pair of shoes. This was a work of extraordinary vision and imagination and it took an enormous amount of disciplined work to create it. I suspect she got more out of this than she would have reading one of Shaw’s plays in class or, worse, listening to a recording of it.

How on earth anyone could come up with the suggestion that the national arts curriculum demonstrates “a disturbing ignorance about indigenous culture” is beyond belief. Clearly the “expert” panel haven’t looked at the curriculum. Students have been studying any one 7 Stages of Grieving, Stolen, No Sugar or Dreamers since the inception of drama as an HSC subject nearly twenty years ago. This has been part of the written exam in NSW that requires students to study four plays in detail and write two 45 minute essays comparing their form, style and content. How could Dr Vallance call this an “elimination of vigour”? Unless he hasn’t bothered to read past examination papers.

Not only are students asked to study different dramatic forms in great detail, in both NSW and Victoria they are asked to devise group pieces that run from 8-12 minutes. They have to do this on their own. Rehearse out of school time, write and devise the piece as an ensemble without a director or writer. It is extraordinarily challenging and requires incredible dedication and disciplne.

Overseeing all this are thousands of dedicated drama teachers who shepherd their students through what is an incredibly demanding and equally rewarding course.

Ask any of the hundreds of thousands of ex students who have performed HSC and VCA Drama pieces and they will tell you not only how hard it was but also how much they loved the challenge. Not only that but for most of them these performances were the highlight of their final years at school.

Do we really want to deny our students this opportunity?

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