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Bury St Edmunds headteacher Andrew Hammond likes a bit of drama in the classroom

Our Theatre Royal is a fabulous place. Not only is it the sole surviving Regency playhouse in the country, so characterful and ornate, it is also filled with some top people.

I can say this with some authority because pupils at my school have been working with the theatre’s outreach staff for much of this term.

As neighbours, we are lucky enough to be able to walk to the theatre in two minutes and we have had the good fortune of being part of their Theatre Takeover project again this year – an outreach project in which pupils get to see a real production at the theatre, then begin rehearsing their own version in workshops delivered by theatre staff, before performing it back at the theatre again a few weeks later.

The Theatre Royal Bury St Edmunds
The Theatre Royal Bury St Edmunds

Last week, our Year 5 and 6 pupils performed an abridged version of Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing to a live audience on the theatre’s historic stage.

The language was entirely authentic and the children performed their ambitious lines faultlessly. Thanks to the inspirational directing of Annie and Mia, the young performers acted, sang and danced like professionals. Thanks to the theatre’s own technical staff, the staging, lighting and sound effects were of a very high standard too.

Our thanks to Hayley for putting the whole project together.

Performing live Shakespeare, in a famous theatre, in front of a live audience? Not a bad achievement for children aged 10 and 11. They will remember this experience for the rest of their lives, I am certain. And who knows, some may return to the same theatre as professional actors in years to come.

Sitting in the audience, brimming with pride, I reflected on what children are capable of when they have self-belief and confidence. Our job, as teachers and workshop leaders, is to help children come to see what we can already see – that they have amazing, untapped potential just waiting to be realised.

Andrew Hammond
Andrew Hammond

I trained as an English and Drama teacher, so granted I may be biased, but I think there are very few other activities that can build character and teamwork like a drama production does.

Seeing the children pulling together, relying on each other and working as a team to put on a show is heartening indeed. There is something magical that happens when the curtains open and the lights go up. Children suspend their disbelief, enter a role and suddenly they are bigger, bolder and braver than before.

Drama allows children to reimagine the world differently. But it is more than escapism, it is learning about the human spirit, exploring emotions and conflict within the safety of an imagined realm. Climbing into a drama scenario and exploring it from within is so insightful, so liberating.

Dorothy Heathcote, legendary drama teacher and pioneer of educational drama, whom I have admired since I was a student, said: “Drama is such a normal thing. It has been made into an abnormal thing by all the fussy leotards, hairdos, and stagecraft that is associated with it. All it demands is that children shall think from within a dilemma instead of talking about the dilemma. That’s all it is; you bring them to a point where they think from within the framework of choices instead of talking coolly about the framework of choices. You can train people to do this in two minutes, once they are prepared to accept it.”

Being prepared to suspend your disbelief and ‘jump in’ can be daunting at first, not only for children but for us adults too, but when you do, it can be the most exciting and empowering form of learning. That is why we should always try and fight for drama to remain in the curriculum, not as a fringe activity for the few, but as a cornerstone of learning. I have often wondered why the ‘role-play corner’ so frequently seen in Early Years classrooms, is not given pride of place in every classroom, whether you are five or 15. Nowhere else can you safely explore how it feels to be someone else, in a different place in a different time, and then in so doing learn more about yourself.

I hope that many other children have the same opportunities that were given to our pupils this term. If you haven’t visited the theatre for a while, it is well worth another visit!

-- Andrew Hammond is headteacher at Guildhall Feoffees Primary School, in Bury St Edmunds

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