When school theatre tackles the big issues

The school theatre is and should be a place where big issues like prejudice, poverty and privilege (to name just a few), are tackled.

There’s been a lot of discussion and debate in our staff room of late and no little angst. To be fair there’s always angst, I think it’s the nature of staff rooms, but this one centred on a particular play to be performed on the school stage.

The content of school theatre

The production (a multi award winning piece both nationally and internationally) about apartheid in South Africa as seen through the eyes of an 11-year-old boy, was given a 16+ age restriction which meant only the senior students could view it. The reason? It involved the male solo actor exposing his genitals as a part of a theatrical device to convey shame and vulnerability as well the foreshadowing of future events.

When it was announced the reaction from some quarters of the common room was as explosive as it was predictable. Granted I don’t really want to see a male organ on display either, but the response to this possibility was as dramatic as anything your likely to see at the Oscars. Forget going to view the play, there was enough entertainment just in witnessing the conversations (polite description) that followed.

The arguments ranged beyond the relative merits of on stage exposure, to allowing swearing for artistic reasons during in-house productions (admittedly something our students take full advantage of). At one point the theatre was referred to as a little corner of Sodom and Gomorrah, as if the rest of our school were some teen version of the Garden of Eden prior to the Fall. In the end sanity prevailed, the offending material was edited out and the play went ahead.

While the situation had its humorous moments it was also serious.

As a Christian community we should be wrestling with these issues but perhaps not in the way we did. Rather, the question and debate should have gravitated around how can we not show a play that deals with structural racism and the destructive veneer of morality that paints over our deepest personal and societal flaws?

The school theatre is and should be a place where big issues like prejudice, poverty and privilege (to name just a few), are tackled. This should be even more so in a church based institution. While I agree that it is maybe not appropriate for nudity to be part of the theatre at school, in terms of significance it pales in comparison against some of the vital themes the play was dealing with, which should rather have been the focus of our staff room conversations.

If we centre the debate on such a superficial morality, our schools run the risk of being the whitewashed tombs Jesus referred to in Matthew 23. Painting on a veneer of moral respectability while being incubators to attitudes, words and behaviours that lead to death and decay.

Why do we so often get hung up on the minors while letting the major issues go unchallenged? We strain the gnats but let the camels through.

Tackling real issues with teens will be messy

 “Are you so still so dull? Jesus asks when quizzed around his disciples not washing their hands, “eating with unwashed hands does not make you unclean”. Jesus understood and taught that true cleanliness was a matter of the heart, not what is on the outside.

Done responsibly, thoughtfully and prayerfully, neither we nor our teenagers are going to suddenly become unclean by grappling with the reality of the world around us.  Yes there are risks in such engagement but the risk of not engaging is surely greater. Otherwise we strain and remove the gnats and wood chips but let through the camels and logs.

Jesus faced a similar confrontation for healing a man on the Sabbath in contravention of the morality of the day. He replied “Which is lawful, to do good or to do evil, to save life or to kill?  Spaces like (but not only) the theatre, are examples of how shared narrative experience can play a significant role in channelling healing conversations.

As teachers, youth workers and parents, let’s not abscond from our duty to heal, do good and save life simply because it is uncomfortable.

It’s easier of course to deal with the more manageable issues that linger on the surface but young people will laugh at us and refuse to take their mentors seriously if we sweat the small stuff but are prepared to let the serious issues go unchallenged. We become like the clanging cymbals of the band that plays on as the Titanic slips under the waves.

Our country is dealing with its own marauding titans of inequality, racism, sexual violence and crime. It is our Christian duty to help learners be aware, confront and overcome these giants, even if it means they are exposed to some uncleanliness along the way.

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Author: Tim Jarvis
Tim is currently the Senior Master: Pastoral Care at Michaelhouse where he has been since Easter 2004. He is the author of the blog, ‘There’s a Hadeda in my Garden’ which considers educational issues, teen wellbeing and life on the campus of a rural boarding school.
Published: 9 April 2018
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