Many years ago when I was a student in secondary school, there was the feeling around the school grounds and in the academic classrooms that drama was, wait for it, a bludge. Even amongst the powers-that-be there was the sense that drama didn’t matter much. It was the class parents ‘let’ you do to lighten your work load. After all, you got to sit around and play games the whole time, right? Drama was often the elective chosen as a last resort, or by those after an easy A. (Boy, did those kids get a shock). But not me. I was a drama dork lining up from day one of high school.
Then I had to heavily justify wanting to study drama in VCE. Going through high school in the early 90s, my generation were the victims of the “girls can do maths and science too!” fad. That’s wonderful. For the maths and science girls. And I see the very clear need for that push, even if I didn’t understand it then. “But,” I remember thinking so vehemently, “I just don’t want to DO maths and science.” I wanted to do drama. And more drama.
Recently, I was asked to give a keynote speech for Drama Week at a prominent girls school in Melbourne. In the speech I share what those secondary school drama classes gave me.
Here is an excerpt of the original speech:
The writer Virginia Woolf once said “All women together ought to let flowers fall upon the tomb of Aphra Behn, for it was she who earned them the right to speak their minds.” Aphra Behn was a 17th century female poet who was the first published female playwright in the English language. Inspiring indeed and well worthy of us placing flowers on her grave – but what if we don’t know how to speak our minds?
When I was 14, I hated myself. I don’t say that flippantly or to shock, but rather with the carefully analysed and detailed level of self-awareness that has come to me in the years since that time. A skinny, white, straight girl in an outer suburban school, it was pretty easy for me to disappear and hide. I became quite good at it. My grades had dropped which helped as I was careful to not stand out in any way. And yet, I had a desperate longing to matter. I wanted to have a voice. I wanted, as Virginia Woolf says of Aphra Behn, to have that right to speak my mind. But how was this young insecure, unhappy girl to do this? How would she find a way?
And then, amidst this unhappiness and yearning for a voice – my year 9 drama classes began. And I could barely contain my excitement. Each session I was in the door, shoes off, shorts on under my school dress and sitting on the floor in a circle, breath held – awaiting the portal that would be opened to transport me into another world. A world built on all the things I loved: trust, play, acceptance, risk taking. A space to truly belong and exist without the constraints of outside forces such as peer pressure or family roles and responsibilities. A space where I began to explore the total empathy of a character who could be as real as any of us.
Whilst attempting to fully immerse myself in the experience of this other person – for that brief moment, it felt as if I had access to the whole of humanity. And somewhere, emerging slowly from the day-to-day grind of secondary school and self-loathing, something came along, teeny at first, cautiously yet steadily – it was the artist within. My own humanity was emerging, slowly, and whole.
The thrilling thing for me now looking back is that, at the time, I didn’t know that was my inner artist emerging. But by the time I was 17 and directing the school production in year 12 I knew 3 things that were so profound to me, that my life had been changed forever. I had grown up, I was a theatre director, and I loved myself. My own sense of humanity was now intact.
The drama room provides us a space, where we can explore, play, create, break things, rebuild and see ourselves in a new light. It is a safe space where we can visualise, imagine and manifest what we want to be, not what someone else wants us to be. It is a place to build bridges to new identities, and a place to catch us when we falter, and a hearth for sensitive hearts keen to explore, share and bring to life the many wondrous stories of the human race.
After that time throughout the years of my life and career, through the difficult times of not working and the excitement and deep satisfaction of when I was, of the times when my work was either good or bad, I held within me with deep conviction a sense of self-worth. A self-worth who’s seed was sown all those years earlier while I sat cross legged on the floor of my drama room…
It turned out those drama classes were of incalculable value in nurturing the early seeds of my career as a theatre director and acting coach. But they also provided so much more than that. They paved the way for healthy self-esteem and inner strength-of-character.
That is what drama gave me, and that is what drama can give others. Could give to almost everyone. (Yes, I would love to see a curriculum where drama classes are compulsory for teens).
Now, when I teach drama workshops at our studio and around the country, I witness this same metamorphosis that I lived through occurring again and again. I observe teenagers emerge from their chrysalis as expressive and interested individuals, in the process of finding their own voice and learning to speak their own minds.
So, yes. Drama classes do matter. If we as people matter.
I’d love to hear what your drama classes have meant to you. Leave me a comment below!
Briony Dunn is director and acting coach and runs the full time and part time classical acting programs at AP Studio as their Head of Course. A graduate of the NIDA Directing course, Briony has a Master of Arts in Theatre from UNSW. During her twenty-year career she has worked as director, tutor, script assessor or filmmaker with NIDA, NIDA Open, ATYP, Griffin Theatre Company, Company B Belvoir, Belvoir Downstairs, Big hArt, Ashfield Youth Theatre, PACT Youth Theatre, Carriageworks, Playworks and Playwriting Australia among others.