Tuesday, November 08, 2016

Heartfelt Educating! Review Article: Drama at Heart by Nell Symth, Floris Books 2016


I should first declare an interest: although divided by the Irish Sea & some distance by land, I regard author of Drama at Heart as a very good colleague & friend. I have observed Nell Symth teaching during my visits to Steiner Waldorf schools in County Clare, & have had the privilege of some of rich, far-ranging conversations with Nell & her life-partner, Cliff, along with enjoying a convivial meal. I remain grateful for those conversations. For me those occasions are examples of clear, living thinking, stemming from spiritual scientific enquiry, taking account of current culture & scholarship, as, I believe Rudolf Steiner intended: anthroposophy in action!

Having placed this review in context let me add that, irrespective of knowing the author, I believe that anyone interested in drama, Waldorf education or anthroposophy in general will find this is a book full of interest & practical insights.  Non-specialist readers too could find much useful for their personal voyage of discovery. Thus the book's sub-title, "Teaching drama in Steiner-Waldorf schools", is misleading if it suggests exclusivity of audience. This volume transcends any narrow focus, although it arises from a life's work in Waldorf teaching, I believe it intimates a direction for the development of Anthroposophy in general, but it contains much a person with little previous interest in Steiner's work might appreciate. The author has absorbed, applied & transformed ideas from educators & thinkers such as Dorothy Heathcote, Michael Chekov, Cecily Berry, Moshe Feldenkrais, Ilse Middendorf. Their discoveries inform & inspire Nell Symth's teaching: she engages with their work in depth, tests it out through a process of in action research & active reflection. The book not only describes this process, but also exemplifies it, so anyone concerned with questions about developing positive communication & more imaginative living will find Nell an insightful & enlivening guide. The most experienced Waldorf teachers will find content to renew their inspiration & those starting out will find this book an indispensible resources, a text that repays the reading & re-reading.

If, as Albert Camus said, "Fiction is the lie through which we tell the truth", then drama is surely the enacting of fiction in such a way that we can "suspend our disbelief[1]" & enter fabricated worlds in which we encounter some near hidden truths about ourselves, truths both within & (apparently) above the mundane presentation of realities in which we embed ourselves. Because drama involves enlarging what in the workaday often works below our habitual attention, the techniques & ideas in Drama at Heart provide a dynamic account of rich human communication in action. Moreover, Nell Symth conducts an ongoing dialogue throughout the book, modelling her message through her narrative & the style of writing. Key to that message are the words included in her conclusion, which  emphasise the "human need to learn to navigate the world, to feel empowered in our skills, & to work with others".

Albert Mehrabian, in his book, Silent Messages, came up with, a much misused & often miss-quoted, quantification for how much day-to-day communication is non-verbal. While the figure of 93%, said to be the contribution of body language & tone of voice to communication, turns out to be both meaningless & mistaken, it is clear that, where feelings & underlying attitudes are concerned, voice & gesture are highly significant (consider what you experience when listening to certain politicians). Drama is the art that, above all, makes use those qualities. But Drama at Heart is, of course, not about instruction in methods by which to deceive[2], it has a moral core directed toward bringing about positive humane learning & the best possible outcomes for young people. If that sounds puritanical, is certainly is not, for this is literally a "play-book", full of joy & light-hearted exploration. But that lightness leads to a place of personal & interpersonal freedom, the corner-stone of our humanity. For students of Rudolf Steiner's work, this might put us in mind of how much importance he attached to both the arts & social renewal. If the Philosophy of Freedom could be introduced to children, this is a book that reveals an artistic methodology by which that can be done.

Movement & speech underpin our capacity to learn & to acquire the capacity for genuine thinking. Drama at the Heart has much to say about the use of the human body as a dynamic, integrated whole. And this is accomplished through imagination, imagination as a practical capability. Anyone who has ever related a personal experience, or reported on an event, will know, even if largely unaware of it, the everyday, social, importance of narrative arc, speech rhythm, dramatic development, gesture & pacing. We are story-tellers & story-sharers, even if the compass of our stories are no larger than the space we fill. There is also plenty of advice for doers of plays, from preparation to choosing or writing, then developing plays. Exercises set out here demonstrate how we all might better sensitise ourselves to other people & to the world at large; these are lively enablers for the social & sociable arts. We might bear in mind that Steiner suggested the teachers of the first Waldorf School should seek to become "dancers", or as he put it, referring to Nietzche, "dancers in the realm of concepts & thoughts". Similarly, I am reminded that Ita Wegman was known to have instructed those who attended her readings of the lessons of the First Class of Spiritual Science to go dancing afterwards. Dance & drama, are of course, disciplines that are very closely aligned & Drama at Heart explores much of that common ground in the most practical of ways.                          

Many Primary teachers, & Waldorf Class Teachers in particular, find themselves expected to "do plays". Unfortunately, "doing a play" can become an end in itself, as if the task resembled that of an ambitious sports coach, aiming to get the best possible performance on the day. Drama specialists too sometimes fall prey to focusing on the end rather than the means of their subject. But every subject taught according to Waldorf principles gains its place through what it can do to foster the development of the young growing person & its contribution to removing obstacles to that development. Thus Nell Symth's first question in her "toolkit" for "Developing your play" is "Who are these children?" The great variety of practical exercises, scenarios & games are all prefaced by that question & together set out the nature of a voyage for the child's self-discovery & potential for fulfilment.        

Nell Symth's epigraph for the fourth chapter well evokes the essential spirit of her text. This is a quotation from the great Irish poet, Seamus Heaney:
Within our individual selves we can reconcile two orders of knowledge which we might call the practical & the poetic...Each form redresses the other & the frontier is there for the crossing
For Waldorf teachers this might be a description of one of the fundamentals of the education. Any attempt to set out the principles within the advice Rudolf Steiner offered to the first teachers, those inherent in the curriculum, must ensure to reflect the importance he placed on relating teaching to the real world, to real life. Baldly stated, that might be taken as an injunction for a Gradgrindian assault on childhood with nothing but flat, monotone facts, facts, facts[3]. However, facts alone are abstractions & as such are as lifeless & unreal as they can be harsh & inflexible. Life also involves imagination, or to use Heaney's word, poetry stand must with & alongside the practical. In Drama at the Heart the ongoing metaphor of "the voyage" provides such "a frontier for the crossing", helping to integrate the different elements, much as drama itself is shown in this book to offer the means to integrate varied aspects of students' educational experience. The classroom comes to life!

That there has to be a battle within education & culture generally to create & protect space for the arts is one of the saddest symptoms of our age. It is a battle in which the odds are stacked against both humanity & what the arts offer. Although there are plenty of knowledgeable people trying to speak up about that situation - for example, Michael Morpurgo, Philip Pulman, Sir Ken Robinson - & although organisations such as the Paul Hamlyn Foundation produce powerful reports[4], where public policy is concerned, the art education remains marginalised or footnoted in most State curriculums. What Drama at the Heart demonstrates is that the artistic is no added extra in education (or life in general), but the essence of what makes us human. Life without some sort of art is life depleted, shredded & desiccated of deeper meaning. This is book is an antidote to that: it deserves to be widely read &, better still, en-acted.     

Kevin Avison 03/10/2016            



[1]This is the modern form of an observation first made by poet &  philosopher, Samuel Taylor Coleridge: .. It was agreed, that my endeavours should be directed to persons and characters supernatural, or at least romantic, yet so as to transfer from our inward nature a human interest and a semblance of truth sufficient to procure for these shadows of imagination that willing suspension of disbelief for the moment, which constitutes poetic faith. Mr. Wordsworth on the other hand was to propose to himself as his object, to give the charm of novelty to things of every day, and to excite a feeling analogous to the supernatural, by awakening the mind's attention from the lethargy of custom, and directing it to the loveliness and the wonders of the world before us...
[2] Implied in the old actor's joke, "Sincerity, dear boy. is everything. Once you can fake sincerity, you can fake anything!" 

[3] Dickens, C, Hard Times,...Now, what I want is Facts. Teach these boys and girls nothing but Facts. Facts alone are wanted in life. Plant nothing else, and root out everything else. You can only form the minds of reasoning animals upon Facts; nothing else will ever be of any service to them...


[4] e.g.  From http://www.phf.org.uk/our-work-in-the-uk/education-learning-arts/ Education & Learning Through the Arts (Report fot eh Paul Hamlyn Foundation): The arts play an important role in enriching young people’s learning and educational experiences. Learning through the arts can engage and inspire young people, support key educational outcomes and develop skills that prepare young people for life beyond school. For many young people, particularly those experiencing the most disadvantage, the only opportunity to gain access to arts education is at school.


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