Most school drama departments are not democracies. They are dictatorships.

This used to be the way every school organization functioned: the students unwaveringly followed the command of the teacher, the all-knowing, all-powerful leader of the classroom. Yet, this is not the practice most modern education theory supports, and this is no longer the way most classrooms function. Now, many teachers take a somewhat backseat role in education, considering themselves more “guides” or “facilitators” rather than singular leaders. In their place, students step up to direct their own learning, and learn about leadership and self-actualization by fulfilling a more active role than “the one who receives the knowledge the teacher imparts.”

School theatre is lagging behind in this endeavor.

Though student-directed learning has been shown to improve student engagement and performance and build 21st-century skills, it can be hard to implement effectively. This goes doubly for the performing arts. Having students research and teach each other history or English lessons is a very different beast than having students attempt to put on their own show. How student-centered can a musical or play get before it starts to fall apart?

Believe it or not, I think the answer is “very.”

Why Should Drama Departments be a Democracy?

The answer is simple: because that’s the way our society functions.

We live in a democracy (more or less, anyway, that’s a bit of a complicated subject), where informed decisions on the part of the average person are not only encouraged– it’s our civic duty. Living in a democracy means we have the freedom to identify those practices and policies we dislike and act to eliminate them should the people so desire. These ideas also carry over into our workplaces. Increasingly, the notion of the “ideal worker” in our society is not a silent, unobservant “yes”man– it is someone who can identify practices that do not serve the good of the company or organization and has the vision to create better ones.

Other areas of education accept this fact. Theatre, as previously stated, lags behind because this can seem difficult to implement in the performing arts.

Yet, I think we’ll all find implementation is much easier than we realize.

Ideas for Student-Directed Learning in the Performing Arts: In Four Steps

Note that here, “student-directed learning” is not necessarily referring to students directing their own productions. Rather, it refers to students “directing” their own education as a whole. In this particular setting, the term can be confusing.

Students can direct their own productions, though that need not (and probably should not) be your first stepping-stone into greater student oversight in your department. Instead, consider following these four steps, and pausing where you are comfortable until the students appear capable to push onward.

1: More student choices

This is an obvious first step that many directors are hesitant to take.

If you’ve ever worked with kids, you know: they have ideas. In fact, some kids have so many ideas, it can be hard to get a word in edgewise. Sure, not every idea is a winner, but that’s why you’re there– to guide them to the better ones.

In many theatre circles, this is exactly what the director’s job entails. Yet, in school theatre, the director is often overly controlling. Though admittedly strict, specific control is helpful and even at times necessary for young, untrained, undisciplined actors, not every age group requires the same treatment.

“More student choices” can be as simple as letting students come up with their own blocking or sections of choreography. Students make informed decisions on how to act or sing on their own, with your oversight rather than immediate suggestions. All of these choices will make the students more involved, and they get the chance to be proud of their decisions. Making their own decisions– rather than simply catering to those of their director– will force them to think about the show which will make them better actors and improve the overall performance.

A seemingly controversial aspect of student choice in school drama departments is allowing students to have a say in picking their productions. I am completely in favor of this input. Though drama directors often cite concerns that students will not understand the intricacies of researching and selecting a show based on budget, personnel, and existing resources, I fail to see how an educational experience in these domains won’t benefit young actors. Again, if students make bad decisions for bad reasons, the director is there to educate them on why that decision is poor. Everyone will learn more than if the students had been allowed no choices at all. You could implement this in the form of a show suggestion box, or utilize a hands-on method such as asking the students to research and write a show “pitch” for their idea. Either way, the inclusion of student choice will make students more engaged in the process and provide an opportunity for learning.

2: Students as leaders and production staff

The next step in creating student-centered theatre is to place students into leadership and production positions. This is something that many departments already do, but these student leaders are often misused or not used in any meaningful way at all, which negates any positive impact the positions might have. It’s important that directors reframe the conversation around this topic to show that these roles are a great opportunity for empowered, creative students to show their prowess off the stage. Placing students in these positions meaningfully will require two things from you as a director: that you actually let the students perform these roles, and that you actively demonstrate that these roles are important and respectable ways to engage with theatre. 

First of all, students should only be asked to fulfill a role such as stage manager or sound technician by request. We must end the practice of dumping unwilling students into these roles because they didn’t make the cast list. This encourages the idea that such roles are only for lesser-talented, lesser-abled performers. Students who could find these roles fulfilling and engaging will be alienated until the department treats them as fulfilling and engaging positions.

Once students occupy these positions, the director must master the arts of delegation and facilitation. For directors who previously wore most of these hats themselves, this may be a radical adjustment! However, these won’t be meaningful positions for students to occupy unless they involve an appropriate level of input, oversight, and leadership. Help the student become the master of the role they have entered. Allow them to make choices and take charge rather than only fulfilling your requests. Set high expectations and allow the students to independently (with supervision) surpass them.

This can also increase the size of your cast and give students more opportunities to engage with theatre besides being in the show. Adding positions such as light and sound technicians, scenic painters or carpenters, props and costume masters, stage managers and assistants, or student choreographers can dramatically expand your program to diverse groups of students who otherwise may perceive no entryway into the department.

3: Student directors

Building off of the previous point of students in important non-actor positions, the next step involves allowing students to take charge of the entire production. Letting students experiment with directing can be extremely beneficial for their theatrical education and can come in a variety of formats. For instance, if allowing students to direct a full musical seems entirely out of grasp, you could instead allow them to head an open mic night or cabaret, direct a night of one-acts, or take on a small-scale play.

This is likely most attainable for older students, though students of all ages may surprise you. As the educator, you would need to exercise careful consideration for selecting appropriate directing candidates. Having the students create and submit acting resumes and letters of interest can add another level of professional education to the process, and assist you in selecting student directors!

Some educators take this to the extreme of having students fulfill every leadership position in the show, such that the educator has a very limited role in the production at all beyond supervision. This is an exciting possibility that would require a robust theatre program to pull off.

4: Student writing

Performing shows written by the students themselves is about as student-directed as you can get. This allows students the rare opportunity to present their opinions, attitudes, and ideas to the student body, school administration, and community at large. A work written by students, produced by students, and performed by students is an incredible undertaking!

Much like the previous point, this step could be enacted in many ways. For instance, students could write scenes or one-act plays for cabarets or one-act festivals if the creation of a full play or musical is far out of reach.

Despite being one of the more advanced suggestions, this is the one suggestion on this list that may work best with elementary school kids. Their creativity will always yield an interesting result and they’ll love being able to perform a story they’ve written– an excellent writing lesson as well as a fun performance! 

So What?

Consider what students would learn in the following scenario: A work written by students, produced by students, and performed by students.

The writer would get to refine their creative writing skills, mastering the arts of character and plot development. They could then get to oversee the staging of this show and get the opportunity to engage with the director and cast to bring their story fully to life. They, as well as all of the student production staff, would gain invaluable interpersonal and collaborative skills in a unique creative environment. Everyone involved would have to learn to problem-solve in the moment, to tackle issues related to scheduling, budgetary demands, and resource management. All students involved would gain a greater sense of accountability to their production and become intimately familiar with the ideas of personal responsibility and both independent and team-based work in diverse areas. Students would learn theatrical skills, while also developing real-world and trade skills. Theatre department students would no longer simply be passive actors following orders from their director– they would be active creators and collaborators.

If that’s not an exciting notion to educators, I’m not sure what is.

Of course, all of this would require tremendous effort on the part of the educator. For some departments this would be simply unattainable without further education, administrative buy-in, and student interest. Nonetheless, there are small steps every department can take towards this vision. These steps will yield more engaged students, and by extension better productions. You owe it to your students to release your dictatorial grip and offer some chance at democracy!

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