Thursday 1 July 2010

On College Productions, and the Purpose of Education

Last week, I went to see a college production featuring a seventeen year-old I worked with a few years ago. He's clever but not academic, working-class, personable, and from a roughish area of North London. He's currently doing a B. Tech. at a local FE college; this was his end-of-year production.

It was - let's not mess around here - bloody awful, a series of poorly-staged, semi-audible scenes, performed by self-conscious teenagers in regulation black t-shirts and jeans to an audience of unengaged mums and chums. Nominally based on a nineteenth century novel - which I'm willing to bet no one involved had actually read - it had no relation to the students' own lives, and their only possible approach was parody or camp anachronism. For a school production, it would have been shoddy - for something produced by students supposedly studying drama, it was shameful.

There were two moments of worthwhile theatricality - a bit of body-popping, clearly there to showcase a cast member's skill, and, at the end, a tango, danced by the whole cast. Out of period, dramatically irrelevant, and unsuited to the age group, it nonetheless stood at as the only time in the show where you got a sense of performers trying to master something outside their own immediate experience.

At the curtain call, the group's tutor came on to student cheers and congratulated the group on the quality of their work. They departed, with exaggerated luvvie-ish bows.

In the pub afterwards, my companion and I tried out to work out what the students, and our friend in particular, were getting from the experience. Neither expressing their own situation, not (tango apart) dealing with anything beyond it, they seemed to be working for nothing more than a few laughs, and an entirely unrealistic idea of what it's like to be a performer.

Until comparatively recently, the philosophy of schooling was fairly simple; the rich were taught to expand their minds, the poor to learn a trade - it's sometimes defined as the difference between education and training. The Butler Education Act changed all that - thank god - but now we seem to be caught in a mix of Blairite and Thatcherite ideas - the belief that everyone should get a further education, even those unsuited to it, but also that it should be defined entirely in terms of the jobs it leads to. The whole thing is summed up in the name of the department where I saw the show - 'Creative Industries'.

No one can wish for a return for the days when people like my friend would have gone straight into an apprenticeship, or his father's trade, and no one believes more than me in the value of schooling as a good in itself - I've occasionally told first-year students that, approached properly, a university education should leave them less employable, not more (confuses the hell out of them). But I have to worry about those B. Tech. students - if education neither expands the mind nor focuses it, what is it good for?


  1. I couldn't have put it better myself - perfect, and tragically true.

  2. Ooh, another topic far too big to answer here but immediate thoughts:

    1) It was presumably directed by a teacher, not a director. A good director can create a great show with pretty much any cast but while a good teacher might also be a good director, they might just be a good teacher.

    2) Entrance to BTEC courses is based on GCSEs, not acting auditions, so the students' only qualification to be on stage was their desire to do so, not their acting ability.

    3) While I agree that encouraging unrealistic dreams of being famous in a celebrity culture is unhelpful, anything which gives non-academic students the chance to get a qualification and make a start in a qualification-inflated job market is a good thing.

    4) It wasn't intended for you. It sounds like they worked hard to create something they were proud of and they enjoyed doing it, which is about as good a definition of how to spend your life as I can think of.

  3. Sorry, that reply sounds rather snotty. I tried to delete it but there doesn't seem to be a delete option so feel free to remove it yourself.

  4. No problem, Andrew; you make some good points. I'd just like to take issue with your last one, that 'it's not for you'.

    First off, I'm not sure that the students I saw had either 'worked hard' or created 'something they were proud of' - my friend who was in the show complained about the group's laziness, and certainly didn't seem too proud at the end. There were cheers and bows for the tutor, but these seemed obligatory, like the standing ovation after a Broadway show.

    Secondly, and this is maybe more important, I'm a bit bothered by the idea that any piece of theatre can be justified without reference to its audience. This was a public show, performed to a paying audience, most of whom spent the show either bored or mocking. That's why the tango section stood out - it was almost the only time when the performers seemed to be trying to connect with us.

    As a theatregoer, I've frequently seen shows where I've known that I wasn't part of the intended audience, whether for reasons of age, gender, ethnicity or sexual orientation. In these contexts, I've often had a great time. However, when a performance seems to be entirely for the benefit of those in it (and more so when that benefit seems fairly limited), I have to wonder what the point is.