“Search, turn around!” Those were the words I heard when I first appeared in a school play. They were proclaimed by the director (English master) of the Christmas play Alice Through the Looking Glass in 1954. I was eight years old and was playing one of the oysters, with a stiff cardboard shell that covered my back from head to toe. We were told to come on stage with our seashells facing the audience, but I knew my mom and dad were watching and I wanted to see them, so I came face-forward on the stage and exposed my navy blue school sweater. 67 years later, the memory is as vivid as if it were yesterday.
When I moved to my next school, Wellington School in Somerset, I volunteered to appear in several plays. When I was seventeen I was cast as Macbeth and this resulted in my director (another English master) introducing me to audition for the National Youth Theater. This was the beginning of my desire to become a professional actor.
My academic performance was poor at both schools, but it turned out that I was good at sports and theater. There was no theater association in my schools, but we always read the plays we were studying for the exams aloud in the classroom. There was also a prize for poetry and prose reading (loud again). The little acting I was doing got me out of me, however, and as I looked for and tried to become a different character, I felt liberated and confident. If I hadn’t had the chance to act in school plays, I would never have become an actor.
Theater is very different in most schools today. There are theater associations and / or clubs and many, if not most, young people benefit tremendously from being part of a group – exercising their imaginations and role-playing games. This can improve communication and even debating skills and do wonders for their confidence. It is a tragedy that so many of these options have been missed because of the pandemic.
When we return to normal, we should take the opportunity to think about the right place for theater in the classroom. Sometimes I am asked if I think it should be a compulsory subject in schools and would be a cautious yes despite my apparent enthusiasm. Careful because I am very aware that many young people, perhaps naturally shy or introverted, feel inhibited and intimidated. However, I believe that every student should be encouraged to try their hand at role-playing games and feel like they are part of a storytelling team.
Role play is part of growing up, after all, and all children participate in it. In my day it was cowboys and Indians! What a horror! PC certainly not! Today, even the mildest children can happily be Batman or Wonder Woman. My granddaughter enjoys dressing up and becoming a unicorn!
All of this brings me to my favorite subject – the importance of the arts and the performing arts not just as part of our recreation and enjoyment, but because I believe it’s part of our DNA. Humans are commonly referred to as being made up of mind, body and soul. I call them three “legs” like those of a stool. In order for the stool to be firm and strong, all three legs must be exactly the same. A short or weak leg would result in a crooked, rather useless chair. People need to keep our minds, bodies and souls strong.
Our mind is developed and made strong through the educational system, our body is developed and made strong through sport and exercise. But what about our soul? How are they developed and made strong? Well there is the spiritual dimension and also the arts. Creativity is a must. The ability to draw and paint, play musical instruments, write novels, dance, perform and act is unique to our species and we desperately need it. When our soul “leg” is weak, we are crooked and unable to reach our full human potential.
I therefore appeal to our schools not only to make theater and all the arts compulsory, but to give them just as much importance as sport and other intellectual activities.
Covid is wreaking havoc on the arts and especially the performing arts. Cinemas will take a long time to recover. Therefore, we will emerge from the Covid lockdown as people with a weak leg. As an actor, I am very happy that the theaters are reopening and I hope that the audience will soon have the confidence to go out, sit in a theater and “fill themselves up” with drama