So far there are only a few of you that I know of who have delved into our largely unexplored history. Ultimately that history is what this site is all about. I love that people are reading my posts and I love the comments and the feedback. It feels like a community is building. But I’m greedy and I want more. I want others to join me in the research! Those of us who are advocates for more quality instruction in the arts for every student, every day, at every age NEED this history. Advocacy can take us only so far. We need to step back and take the long look, back to the ancients, when education began with the arts.

Just to clarify: theatre incorporates all of the arts. When Shakespeare was in school, during the heyday of the humanist education designed by Erasmus, theatre was not considered an arts discipline distinct from its components: artful language, dramatic acting, dance, music, and visual spectacle. Theatre then was like film is today. It embraced all of the arts. Just look at today’s categories for the Oscars: best score, best song, best costumes, best special effects, best script, and dance numbers highlighting everything. Only a small minority of the awards are for acting or directing. Theatre, historically was the same. When we are looking at the history of theatre education, we are looking at the history of all of arts education.

This is still a new site with a small but growing number of followers, and so far it hasn’t gained much traction in its main purpose, but I am ever hopeful. The field so far is barren, especially for dance and theatre. Music in education has

Drama Class

ancient roots, all the way back to the Quadrivium, where it shared equal status with arithmetic, geometry, and astronomy. As for visual arts: there are entire Arts History Departments in every university that document the history of conservatory training. Dance was usually taught in partnership with music. But nothing like that exists for the long history of theatre in education. Unless I am mistaken (and I’ve searched and searched) this rich story remains largely undocumented.

My upcoming book, Good Behavior and Audacity: Humanist Education, Playacting, and a Generation of Genius, is a small step taken to help fill the void. It looks at one moment at the turn of the 17th century where there is substantial evidence of a lively presence in schools of music and dance, physical rhetoric or “actio” applied to memorization of the classics, boys’ theatre companies at court, school performances to entertain villagers, and the use of dramatic colloquies in the teaching of conversational Latin. It is obviously a part of a profound tradition, but perhaps because it was always taken for granted and not part of the formal curriculum, historians haven’t woven together the threads.

Right now I’m focusing my own exploration on the 20th century and will be posting soon about arts education in Settlement Houses and the Federal Theatre Project. Some other areas I’m hoping to pursue myself or welcome others to explore:

The Greeks: Epicurus (the Garden), Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Demosthenes

The Romans: Lucretius, Cicero, Quintilian

The Humanists: Dante, Vittorino da Fletre (La Giocosa – “The Pleasure House”), Guarino da Verona, Aeneas Sylvius, Sturmius, Bembo, Erasmus, Guido Camillo (Theatre/Memory), Ascham, Vives, Mulcaster, Elyot, Montaigne, Comenius

19th Century: Sloyd, the Kindergarten (“child garden”) Movement, Horace Mann

20th Century: John Dewey  (note guest post by Dain Olsen), Settlement Houses, Federal Theatre Project

If you have any information about any of the above or have other topics to explore, pitch in! This is the place!

6 replies
    • Marisa Miller
      Marisa Miller says:

      I am enjoying your blogs and looking forward to your book. You are an inspiration that learning is a life long journey. Glad to be on this journey with you.

  1. Abraham Tetenbaum
    Abraham Tetenbaum says:

    Robin, these remarks were made by Aretha Sills at Enrichment Works’ recent 20th anniversary celebration, honoring Hector Elizondo:

    “Viola Spolin wrote: ‘Everyone can act. Everyone can improvise. Anyone who wishes to can play in the theater and learn to become stage-worthy.’ Viola was the creator of theater games. Her work revolutionized how acting is taught and launched the improvisational theater movement in the U.S., through her son Paul Sills, founder the Second City and Story Theater. Viola was also my grandmother, and Paul was my dad and teacher.

    At the beginning of every workshop, Paul would tell us how his mother had created theater games because she’d found a great teacher, Neva Boyd, who taught social work at Hull House in Chicago. Ms. Boyd believed education and creativity were human rights, and that children learn many things through play, including “social values,” — meaning the ability to work together as part of a group, a community, a democracy. Viola developed her theater games in the 1930s while teaching acting to and directing kids and recent immigrants in Chicago, and later, here in Los Angeles.

    Thanks to Enrichment Works, we’ve brought an interactive, all-improvised show of Viola Spolin’s theater games to Los Angeles school children, bringing my grandmother’s work full circle. The kids participate in every aspect of the show, experiencing the creative problem solving power of play first hand. They are the most engaged, eager audiences in the world. We call it, what else, “Everyone Can Improvise” because as Viola said, “play is democratic!”

    I’m Aretha Sills, and I’m proud to carry on my family’s improv legacy at Enrichment Works.”

    If you wish to speak with Aretha, I suggest you call Donna Wood-Babcock at our office: 818-780-1400. Clearly, Neva Boyd at Hull House in the 30s was a major influence on the use of improvisation in arts education. Good luck!

    • Robin
      Robin says:

      This is wonderful Abe. I have a monograph by Nick Rabkin about the arts in the Settlement Houses and your contribution is perfect. Its on my list of things to write about. How fantastic that Spolin can trace her work back to Hull House and Neva Boyd!

  2. Leah L Bass-Baylis
    Leah L Bass-Baylis says:

    We embarked on this quest to bring arts education every single child in LAUSD so many years ago. I have fond memories of our work and the battles we seemed to be fighting every single day. So many days we were the last to leave LAUSD central offices at 450 Grand Ave. because we were busy creating workshops to introduce teachers and administrators to the power of the arts, and planning events and activities designed to build the capacity of our arts teachers to deliver high quality, meaningful, arts based. So many days, early mornings, and late nights we shared our arts experiences, always arriving at the same conclusion. EVERYONE SHOULD HAVE THESE EXPERIENCES! I know in my gut that the arts are essential and as a principal I fought to make sure my children had access to dance, music, theatre, and visual arts. I am once again inspired to continue fighting the fight to make sure every single child has access to quality arts education. It is clear that advocacy is going to require research…much more research complete with facts and figures and information that the naysayers can’t ignore! Count me in my friend!!!!!

    I have always been impressed by your knowledge of Shakespeare. You always managed to “translate” the more obscure plays and help me understand the characters in a very different way.

    • Robin
      Robin says:

      Yes, my partner in crime. Those were wonderful, hopeful days (and late nights at our office at 450 N. Grand surrounded by piles of school applications and standards!). And you went on to become a dream principal!


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