I often find myself in international settings, like airports and hostels, and there’s a common refrain I hear from people, no matter where they’re from, whenever we talk about our educational experiences: there’s something wrong with the way we’re running our schools. Some shared about how their school would impose its standards on them, like prioritizing subjects such as maths and sciences, even when their interests were clearly something else (and making them feel inferior for being different). Some would share how their school turned a blind eye on the bullying that was going on among the students. Some had a similar story to mine: being measured through grades destroyed all the fun of learning.
I always had a complicated relationship with school. I was a good student and loved to learn, but I despised being graded. I would have studied just as hard and would have, in fact, probably taken more creative risks if I weren’t being numerically measured. Education and creativity expert Sir Ken Robinson, in one of his TED talks, says, “we have a system of education that is modeled on the interests of industrialism and in the image of it…Schools are still pretty much organized on factory lines; ringing bells, separate facilities, specialized into separate subjects” (2010). While this isn’t the case in some countries, i.e., Finland, and school systems, i.e., Montessori, in countries like the United States, Japan, and the Philippines, this industrial structure of education is something I have observed in traditional schools.
When I taught freshman courses for Ateneo de Manila’s English Department, I saw it as an opportunity to learn how school can be done differently. With only Google as my guide, I read about student-centered learning and contract grading, particularly that of writing teacher Peter Elbow’s. My colleagues expressed their skepticism; they warned me that students took advantage of kindness. I decided it was worth the risk.
I shared with my classes my own experience as a student and what I hoped to try with them. My words resonated somehow and we embarked on a learning journey all together. We explored literature through different means: digital technology, visual art, home economics (we made eccentric sandwiches to explore taste-centered writing), and, of course, theatre. We did theatre games, immersed ourselves in fiction for our mock trials, and made original pieces of theatre. Sometimes things went smoothly. Many times our activities didn’t go as planned. But because we’ve collectively agreed on how assessment was to happen, we were able to set the concern of grades aside and just focus on deeply connecting with one another.
Feedback from a previous student in Ateneo de Manila University:
“Miss Cabochan is a very effective teacher. She is very interesting to listen to and it is definitely a guarantee that you’d learn a lot from her. She also tries her best in introducing different methods of teaching to make the class fun. She played a big role in making the class build a close relationship with each other.”
Before I get into how educational theatre enters the picture, I want to highlight my most important take-away from my first few years of teaching: faith. Brazilian educator and philosopher Paulo Freire (1970) believes that “faith is an a priori requirement for dialogue; the “dialogical man” believes in others before he even meets them face to face…Without this faith in people, dialogue is a farce which inevitably degenerates into paternalistic manipulation” (p. 91). Young people tend to be the most common targets of ageism, when one discriminates based on age. I wasn’t without my own fears at the beginning, but if I wanted to push back against the current educational system, if I wanted to “dare greatly,” in Brene Brown’s words, I needed to allow myself to be vulnerable; “[my] willingness to own and engage with [my] vulnerability determines the depth of [my] courage and the clarity of [my] purpose” (2012, p. 2).
I began to read more in earnest about educational theatre when I was teaching English as a New Language in Japanese elementary schools in 2014. I was already using dramatic activities, like role play, to make classes more engaging and student-centered, but when I facilitated a process drama for the first time about mischievous elves who loved to paint, the experience moved not only the teacher in me, but also the theatre-maker. Designing a fiction and immersing in that fiction with young people enchanted me.
I engaged more deeply with process drama when I moved to New York City. In the City University of New York (CUNY) – School of Professional Studies’ MA in Applied Theatre program, I learned about dramatic conventions, the building blocks of process drama, from practitioners Chris Vine and Tony Goode. In addition, my two-year apprenticeship under the mentorship of Helen Wheelock, director of the CUNY Creative Arts Team’s (CUNY CAT) Early Learning Program, gave me a strong foundation in interactive storytelling, which is CUNY-CAT’s term for a physical and verbal call-and-repeat improvisational style of storytelling with young people. I combined all this for my thesis project, The Bunny Rocket, a five-day process drama for English as New Language pre-kindergarteners.
In New York University, particularly through the study abroad trip to the United Kingdom, my engagement with process drama continued. Classes with David Montgomery and William Barlow as well as workshops with Geoffrey Readman and Cecily O’Neill refined my appreciation and understanding of the form. Last winter, in Daito Bunka University in Tokyo, Japan, I facilitated a process drama with college seniors. Unlike my previous process drama work which were heavily structured (because I was working with younger participants), I started with a pre-text and chose dramatic conventions that corresponded to the input the participants gave me as we went along.
As I’ve mentioned earlier, process drama appeals to the theatre-maker in me. I enjoy making different forms of theatre, but I am most interested in learning more about making interactive theatre for young audiences. For me, there is only a very thin line between process drama and interactive theatre for young audiences and that is that process drama may serve particular academic goals (but so can theatre for young audiences, actually). But aside from that, they both aspire to engage young people in collective, meaningful experiences in all kinds of spaces, from inside a classroom to a museum.
Learning more about interactivity is the reason I took a Games and Education course with June Ahn in Steinhardt’s MA in Educational Communication and Technology program. Apart from the dialogical ways of interaction present in dramatic conventions, I wanted to learn how else one can engage participants in an interactive experience. For the entire spring semester, I developed an educational alternative reality game called The Haze with peers that mixed eco-consciousness, digital technology, and embodied, theatrical interactions. I not only learned about game mechanics, but also learned the importance of having numerous playtests.
In addition, my experiences in the United Kingdom also made a deep impression on me. The theatre for young audience shows I watched, both interactive and not, namely We’re Going on a Bear Hunt at the Lyric Theatre, A Monster Calls at the Old Vic, and For King and Country at the Colab Factory, inspired me to create. The workshops I attended in Rose Bruford College under the guidance of Jeremy White as well as the artist exchange hosted by Coney HQ, a group of interactive theatre-makers based in London whose work I admire, that I participated in introduced me to ways of interactive theatre-making that I had not encountered before.
Learning how to make interactive theatrical experiences for young audiences is a life-long journey because of its endless possibilities. I am curious to see what kind of interactive theatre for young audiences can be created when informed by creative placemaking. While there are countless workshops I want to attend and internships I want to do, the best way to learn theatre-making, truly, is through actually making it. This late spring, I will be working with a group of artists in developing a theatre for young audience piece about mythical creatures from all over the world. I’ve also been commissioned to create an interactive theatrical experience for the Children’s Festival of the Philippine National Museum for Children (Museo Pambata) in Manila during the summer of 2020.
To be complete transparent, I do not wax poetic about the youth being the future; after all, I myself want to participate in the making of that future. What I do strongly believe is that the youth is one of the most marginalized groups in any community, along with the elderly. They are part of our present and deserve to be recognized and given an active part in all spaces. In his book The Great Good Place, sociologist Ray Oldenburg (1989) asserts that places that recognize the young and the elderly “will be nice for everybody”. I agree.