The play’s the thing

As the school nativity play season draws near, Hilary Moriarty reminds us why we shouldn’t underestimate the value of drama in schools

’Tis the season to be merry and revel in the exploits of students (and sometimes staff) on stage. If it’s not the prep school nativity play, it’s the senior school production and maybe even the staff panto. Slogging through the long autumn term is definitely worth it with these treats in store.

Given today’s gruelling emphasis on academic achievement, the grinding insistence on excellence in every subject, never mind what you think you are good at or even cherish a passion for, and therefore never mind how much extra effort you may have to put in to get all the high grades, it’s quite surprising that school plays survive at all.

Such frippery! Such fol de rol! Such a different world from those other stalwarts of a school’s extra-curricular provision, music and sport. Music has a long and distinguished heritage. Most schools will have been offering it as a subject at A level since forever, whereas theatre studies is something of a young upstart in the range of subjects on offer, and still sometimes viewed with suspicion – not quite rigorous? Not quite academic? Does Oxbridge welcome it? Hmm … Eng lit gives you lots of plays, doesn’t it? A much better bet, my young friend.

Sport may be newly sprung to academic credibility in sixth forms, but it’s a popular choice apparently offering avenues to a lively array of careers – sports journalism, TV punditry, the glamour, the gleam of muscles flexing with lottery money to give you a first career on the pitch or the podium and a second in the TV studio. But even before that, schools have always placed high value on their best sportsmen’s talents – annual grudge matches with old rivals, or with the Old Boys, regional competitions and even nationals all have well established places in the hearts and minds of schools and most of their staff – apart from the odd grump when, say, the orchestra’s first violinist breaks his arm playing rugby on concert day. Cause for blood on the staffroom floor as well as the pitch.

But treading the boards? Spending hours learning the lines and hours and weeks in rehearsal for two or three performances – blink and you might miss it in the school calendar – is not the effort out of proportion to the outcome?

Maybe, particularly if you have few lines to begin with, then fluff them. Or, like a student friend of mine, you have a major entrance to intrude upon half a dozen characters in the middle of a row in the middle of the stage, and you arrive late, by which time the poor cast is staggering wild-eyed to the end of their collective capacity to ad-lib and so overcome with relief when you do arrive that they forget their response lines in their anxiety to weep with relief or thump you for abandoning them to their script-less fate. (If you’re interested, it’s an entry through the French windows – of course – in the middle of ‘Hay Fever’. Nothing can wreck the delicate balance of Noel Coward’s dialogue like an actor dozily taking a fag break too long. Those were the days.)

But when a plan really does come together, when you do know the lines and you are on stage to say them, when the dramatic power of the play lifts off the page, and today’s blooming nuisance in the classroom turns into a nascent Judi Dench or Ian McKellen – those are moments to cherish. The ovation for a boy of 16 who can convince you that he is Hamlet, as well as doing A levels and UCAS forms, is like no other. It’s a celebration of a school life which is more than the sum of its grades, never to be forgotten even when the grades have paled to insignificance. “Yeah, I got A*s – didn’t everyone? But did you ever play Hamlet or Cleopatra or Willy Loman or John Proctor or Joan of Arc?”

No wonder then that so many independent schools have turned their attention to the physical presence of drama in their schools. Enough with the sports halls and swimming pools, and in with the theatres. One prep school head once told me that when newly appointed and with a small pot of money to play with, he chose to build a theatre and told the governors the sports hall could wait.

“In a theatre,” he said, “you come together to applaud and celebrate. You share the experience of seeing children do well in something they really enjoy – and if you choose the right play you can have a huge cast, and everyone gets involved, maybe doing make up or costumes if they really don’t want to act, and you have photos to remind people for months, and it just brings a school together in the happiest way. In sports halls you try to beat each other, in theatres you learn to be part of a team.”

The huge cast reminds you that schools are about inclusivity as well as excellence, each child valued for their own special contribution, be they third footman or Macbeth.

Or, of course, Joseph, innkeeper or sheep. Even in today’s multi-cultural schools, the nativity play is almost certainly a regular feature of the calendar – indeed, parents have been known to complain when an avant garde young infants’ teacher decides something less overtly religious would ruffle fewer feathers. Whether your child rises to the dizzy heights of playing a speaking part, with all its attendant risks, or merely squats on the sidelines, clad in a sheepskin rescued from a 1970s wardrobe disaster, there will be few dry eyes in the house and – these days – a thousand phone shots for posterity and the best man’s speech in thirty years’ time.

A more private pleasure is the staff panto, usually played only to the school, no parents invited, a really rare treat for pupils, happily ready to laugh on cue and indulge these unlikely thespians, often with their scripts attached to the scenery for quick reference, and firing out lines of dubious humour about well-known targets of school concern. Never were lines so funny, appreciation so warm, as the whole school shared the in-jokes and marvelled at the deputy headmistress’s amazingly good legs – who would have thought?

I confess to having loved writing a staff panto – my one chance as a hard-pressed marking-till-midnight English teacher to have my revenge on mathematicians: my lead character was a down-trodden Markerella, encouraged through the drudgery by her friend Ticker (well, what else could you call a mathematician, “Right answer – tick!” merchant?) Poor Markerella was rescued by a Prince Charming with the power to make her a head, so she never needed to mark another essay. OK, there would be other problems, even in the days before staff appraisal, but no more marking.

If you are fortunate enough to be in the audience for a school production this Christmas season, savour every moment. Behold in awe how much can be accomplished in the spaces of a busy school day, and do not hold back: give ’em a standing ovation. 

Hilary Moriarty is the founding partner of Greenings Education, recruiting for senior positions in schools W:

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