What Is Theatre for?

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Sometimes all it takes is a glance – you can change an opinion, an attitude, or a life. How else better for projecting that glance to thousands than through theatre?

I have struggled to answer this question, now, for nearly two months: What is theatre for? Only recently did I realise that the reason for this struggle was a lack of understanding; theatre does not have one specific function. It is undoubtedly the most versatile of art forms, and over years and miles we, as a race, have seen it employed in all kinds of occupations. It preserves – and creates – tradition. It addresses - and offers solutions for – problems. It critiques and praises culture and society. Theatre is a tool that may be utilised by anyone for just about anything, making it almost impossible to pinpoint a situation in which theatre would be inapplicable. It can be used for communication, exploration of themes and taboos, education, self-expression and healing – these are the main uses I will be addressing within this essay.

Theatre is for education – both learning and teaching.

‘Theatre[‘s] […] impact may be […] that the pupils will remember key scenes, characters they empathised with, and the experience will be talked about afterwards. However, TIE […] is set apart by the education element which is its crucial feature. […] In research they [young people] identified the following factors as being important to them:

• having their opinions valued;
• being entertained;
• being able to identify with the characters;’
Perhaps the most important thing theatre has the ability to do is educate. I refer not to the teaching of performance – though the transferable skills gained from learning such a thing are invaluable, in and out of the workplace – but to the way in which theatre can open doors for people. Through theatre’s many creative outputs, one may teach a child a nursery rhyme – perhaps asking them to act it out, or choreograph a dance based on it – and an adult how to deliver a speech or argument in a manner that truly fulfills its purpose, using vocal exercises and exploring the effects of various body language.

One reason theatre is such an effective tool for education may be that it can be applied to all three styles of learning – kinesthetic, auditory, and visual. For example, a kinesthetic learner may utilise physical theatre or dance; an auditory learner may partake in a radio drama, or musical workshop, and a visual learner may be involved in design or direction. This being the case means that theatre is available and useful for all kinds of people, of all learning abilities and styles.

Through theatre we can learn about many things, not least through watching plays. Many plays endeavour to teach morality and wisdom, but I believe Chekov’s The Cherry Orchard goes further than this. In order to truly understand this play, one must know of and understand the historical politics of Russia: The emancipation of the serfs, for example, in 1861, and the way in which it altered and affected society, class and the individual. Chekov’s symbolism creates parallels – analogies that can help to explain and represent these things. Ranevskaya and Gaev’s reluctance to let go of the cherry orchard – to be made into holiday homes, ultimately for the benefit of the new ‘middle’ class – could be paralleled with old Russia’s rejection of political and social changes and reluctance to accept the emancipation of the serfs – due to which so many estates like that of The Cherry Orchard2 suffered and essentially fell. On the other hand, Lopkhin and Trofimov’s debates could represent the new social developments in Russia: The powers and principles that the new society stood for.

Theatre and education sit hand in hand. As cited in the Drugscope pamphlet; ‘Live performance has a unique capacity to stimulate and engage the minds, feelings and imaginations of […] people.’ Learning is most effective in a hands-on environment,...
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