A school play. What could be more ordinary?
Like all the student productions I get to enjoy as head of the non-profit Educational Theatre Association, this one-act, titled Madhouse — a bit like One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest as reimagined by a teenaged novice in playwriting — had a lot of enthusiasm. The young actors were fully committed to their characters, having worked tirelessly to pull off the show while preparing for exams. The audience laughed, gasped and applauded. Backstage after the performance, I saw the natural high that comes from a creative job well done, the feeling of accomplishment and bonding within a cast and crew. It was pure joy.
But it wasn't typical — not in China, where school theatre as we know it scarcely exists. This Madhouse was the product of a one-year-old drama club at the Hangzhou No. 14 High School, an elite academy in Zhejiang Province, about an hour's train ride from Shanghai. On a recent visit there, part of a four-day, four-city tour of China's most innovative schools, I met teachers who are transforming the education system. Their latest strategy for making the nation's brightest kids even tougher competitors in the global economy? Adding theatre to the curriculum.
Last fall I was approached by a Chinese company, Dipont Education Management, seeking a partnership with EdTA to launch U.S.-style drama in Chinese schools. Education, needless to say, is a very high priority in China. After three decades of government-enforced family planning, parents are deeply invested in their single child's success. For the affluent, the race to the top begins with selective kindergartens. Chinese children go to school for much longer hours than ours do, for more months of the year, and are expected to show a much stronger work ethic. Dipont caters to high-achieving students with supplemental programs to enrich their education. I traveled with Dipont through China in May to better understand the school landscape and their vision for what drama could do for their students. I was joined by EdTA board member Matt Conover, vice president of Creative Entertainment at The Walt Disney Company. We started our journey by visiting the Nanjing Foreign Language School, one of the most prestigious high schools in China. It is a public school but highly selective, with 4,000 applicants for 300 spots — and those applicants are from a pool that has already been screened at the elementary and middle-school levels. In the lobby, a prominent, etched-glass plaque announces where their 2013 graduates are attending college: Harvard, Columbia, Northwestern, Duke, and so on.
The Nanjing school philosophy states, in part: "In this school, we believe we must dream, as well as act, to accomplish great things." I met with their principal ("school head"), and learned that she wants to encourage student participation in drama to build self-confidence. Later I watched a demonstration class of about 25 students who had signed up to experience drama for the first time. The American teacher, Elise Lammers, asked them all to come up on stage and form a circle, and began a series of physical and vocal warm-ups that any American acting student would recognize. When asked to deliver the line, "I said a boom-chicka-boom!" as a janitor, an astronaut, and with an upper-class British accent, the Chinese students responded with wide eyes, giggles and increasing boldness. They gradually became focused and specific in their pantomime exercise at the end of the class. Soon all hands went up — everyone wanted a turn.
Matt Conover and I talked to the class about theatre education in the United States and showed a video of our international Thespian Festival. Set to happen again in Lincoln, Nebraska, at the end of June, the annual Festival gathers more than three thousand high school theatre students and their teachers for a week of exceptional shows, workshops, and opportunities to audition for college theatre programs. After that, the Chinese students were full of questions, all on a similar theme: "Will we get drama at our school?," "Can you tell the government and the rest of China that we need drama?," and the all-important, "How can I convince my parents I need to sign up for drama?"
I pointed to the growing body of research that shows how participation in the arts in general, and theatre in particular, builds life skills and correlates to stronger academic performance. When I cited the College Board's finding that students who take four years of arts classes score 104 points higher on their SATs than students who don't, the reaction in the room was audible: These students have been raised on the importance of doing well on tests, especially the SAT, as their ticket to the best U.S. colleges.
A day later, at the RDFZ school in Beijing, I spoke with an administrator who reported that colleges now wanted more than high test scores from Chinese applicants. Admissions officers are looking for 21st-century skills: collaboration, communication, critical thinking and creativity, qualities a chemistry teacher from the U.K. tried to instill while directing the school's first real theatre production, A Christmas Carol.
Promising as these initial successes are, they do not constitute a field of theatre education. How can China create an arts ecosystem where one does not exist? Dipont's idea is to start by hiring the teachers. Begin at a few top schools where administrators see the value of drama, hosting demo classes so students can experience it for themselves. Create a demand, and other schools will follow.
The headlines in the Shanghai Daily, handed to me as I boarded the airplane home, touted new government policies encouraging more trade, reducing red tape, "deepening reform and opening up more." Even major Chinese manufacturers are recognizing they have a long way to go on innovation and creativity. "Auto industry leaders must make their employees secure enough to think out of the box and get out of their comfort zone. I believe this will increase innovation," Rachel Xiao, an executive at Volvo China, was quoted in one article. Of course, theatre people got that memo a long time ago: Those goofy warm-ups and a lot of the other things we do in acting classes are all about creating a safe environment for risk-taking. Could theatre education in China become a worldwide movement — perhaps even circling back to shore up programs here? It's ironic: Our own school reformers are preoccupied with STEM because of Asia, and now the very top schools in Asia want to adopt American-style theatre education to make their students well-rounded. Aren't we both right? Shouldn't we all be looking for ways to give our kids more rigorous, cutting-edge instruction in science and theatre, technology and music, engineering and dance, math and art?
I hope EdTA and our programs like the Thespian Festival can support this new drive to give young people in China something I'm afraid our own students (and school boards) take too much for granted: "the chance to dream," as the Nanjing School motto has it, "as well as act" — the opportunity, through theatre, to grow as future leaders in the world.
Julie Woffington is the executive director of the Educational Theatre Association (EdTA).