Children of the Chapel, singing in a royal procession

Between the children’s companies and the grammar school scholars, the first thirty years of the “Golden Age” of Elizabethan theatre was entirely dominated by boy actors.

 

 

“Harken, I do hear sweet music: I never heard the like” and “we shall hear [in the choir of Saint Paul’s] the fairest voices of all the cathedrals in England … and to tell the truth, I never heard better singing.”

— Claude Desainliens, a French visitor to London in 1573

“Mom, I was just in Westminster Abbey, and there was music falling from the ceiling—the most beautiful singing I’ve ever heard. I thought it was angels, but then the choir door opened and out walked a whole lot of little boys!”

—My 18-year-old daughter, calling from a phone booth on her first day in London, 1995, having just heard the Westminster Boys Choir in rehearsal

* * *

A Bit of Little-Known History From My Book:

“In England, the training of boys’ voices for royal entertainment goes far back in history, deep into the Middle Ages. Sometime in the 12th century, probably earlier, an ecclesiastical body of musicians and singers was organized to meet the spiritual needs of the England’s reigning sovereign. It still exists. Called the Chapel Royal, it is today considered the oldest continuous musical organization in the world. Traditionally it has been comprised of from twenty-four to thirty-eight men and from eight to twelve boys. Besides the Chapel Royal and the Westminster Boys’ Choir there are dozens of boys’ choirs throughout Britain, the Chapel Royal only being the oldest.

“No one knows when boy singers were added to the Chapel Royal or other church choirs, but they were probably present from the very beginning, their treble voices being thought to be the closest to the voices of angels. There was a religious pursuit of this purity of tone. Churches, abbeys and cathedrals were designed acoustically to capture it: massive sound boxes that amplified these “fairest voices.” Choir schools, attached to churches and training children for church choirs, played a role in the pre-reformation history of British education. They offered free education to able students. Their purpose was to assure a sufficient number of well-trained voices to supply the needs of the church. As we shall see, Erasmus himself attended a song school in Utrecht, perhaps because it was an opportunity for a free education. The earliest choirmasters were usually almoners, the men who distributed alms to the needy.

“In England, the best of the young voices trained in these schools were pressed into service for the crown, and the Chapel Royal consistently had a small number of singers to complement the adult musicians. Their voices were, and are to this day, a thing of transcendent beauty. Boys’ voices broke later five hundred years ago than they do today, evidently because there was less protein in the diet. A boy who began his service in the Chapel at the age of seven or eight could continue to sing sweetly until the age of sixteen or seventeen, during which time he received an education overseen by the choirmaster.

“The issue of impressment, which was essentially enforced servitude, must be seen in the context of the time. It was an accepted custom of the state, and frequently welcomed as an honor. The crown gave writs authorizing impressment in all trades in which it had need, and grown men who were expert silversmiths, ironmongers, weavers, wigmakers or printers could be impressed along with singing children.

“That said, it must be admitted that it was poor children who filled the ranks of the Chapel choir, not the sons of the gentlemen. Parents whose children were impressed into the Chapel Royal may have mourned the loss of daily interaction with their small child, but they may have also welcomed the benefits. There was usually a financial arrangement made with the family, and along with a free grammar school education, capable students were often sent to university after their voices broke, so a seven-year stint in the Chapel Royal was a means of advancement in the world. In addition, of course, while they served, their housing, nutrition, and clothing were all provided. One could say that they literally sang for their supper.

 “This strange form of servitude did not survive much past the 16th century. The impressment of children eventually led to abuses and charges of kidnapping. The writs were automatically renewed each year and not closely scrutinized, and, curiously, it was the abuse of entrepreneurs who used their royal writs to impress boys as actors rather than singers that contributed its demise. But that’s the end of a long story, and we are only at the beginning.

“In the 15th and 16th centuries the boy singers of the Chapel Royal, with their exquisitely trained voices, experienced a brief flaring of history and became a small troupe of boy actors. They were immensely popular, performing constantly at court and eventually in the public arena. Several other rival boys’ companies came and went over the years, both in London and in the provinces, the most enduring of which was formed from students at St. Paul’s School. The Children of the Chapel and the Boys of St. Paul’s even competed successfully with the great men’s companies of the Shakespearean era and were eventually disparaged by Hamlet as the “aery of children, little eyases, that cry out on the top of question, and are most tyrannically clapped for’t,” e.g. squawking eaglets, who were robbing adult troupes of their city audiences.

“The boys’ companies were small, usually comprised of no more than twelve actors, and for most of their history they were only seen in the halls of the aristocracy. They were a far cry from the legions of schoolboys spouting Terrence and Ovid and performing comical skits in Latin. But there are two reasons to devote space in this book to them. One is that their remarkable story will reveal the vibrant thread in the weave of theatre history, leading directly to the golden age of Elizabethan drama. They spanned the century of the Reformation, and there are records of hundreds of their performances. Although we know little about the content of their plays beyond their titles, the bit we do know reveals a perceptive and witty adolescent view of the political turmoil of the time. In itself it is a fascinating and little known history that is worth the telling, but, because it is a digression here, the telling will be referred to a later chapter.

Nathan Field, who began his illustrious career as an actor performing with the Children of the Chapel

“The other reason is more germane to our topic. Boys who made up those companies came from the same society and the same education as their schoolboy peers, and their abilities were noticed first by a headmaster teaching singing and hearing their recitations in their earliest years of schooling. At court they often competed with boy players from some of the prestigious grammar schools in London and other large municipalities. Eton, Westminster, St. Paul’s, and Merchant Taylors’ were only a few of many schools invited to perform at court, and their schoolmasters were frequently dramatists of some fame. Indeed, we have the names of several boy actors who entered the companies directly out of grammar school. It seems fair to think that the training received in school prepared them well, and there were certainly parallels in subject matter. Furthermore, the culture of playacting went far beyond the classroom. Anyone who has read Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall will remember that any leisure time enjoyed in the evenings by Thomas Cromwell’s young nephews and clerks was filled with play-making. The boys’ companies were only the tip of a cultural iceberg that was deep and profound. In fact, for most of the 16th century, theatre throughout England was almost entirely dominated by schoolboys. This book will closely examine their education, starting one of the most famous play-making schoolmasters of the Tudor age and then going back to the man who created the model for the humanist curriculum for the age of the Reformation: Erasmus of Rotterdam.”

* * *

This history is a bit of a digression from the main thrust of my book. The few dozen boys in the small number of professional boys companies were worlds apart from the day to day training in music and performance skills in the Latin grammar schools all over England, but their role in the history of English theatre is so fascinating I just couldn’t leave it untold.  Part 2 of this blog will continue the fascinating story of the immensely popular boys companies, right up until the Golden Age of Elizabeth.

Cleveland Settlement House Memory Project

A few years before my parents died, we were visiting New York City and they took me on a little tour of their early lives as young marrieds in Greenwich Village. Back then, in the mid-30s, my dad was starting his career as an actor with the Federal Theatre Project. They lived  on Commerce Street, a short block from the Cherry Lane Theatre.

Anyone who has lost both parents is haunted by the lost opportunity to ask unanswered questions. I’m no different. Now that I am pursuing this history project I could kick myself for not filling in the snippets of information they shared casually over the years. That day, walking around the Village, we passed the Greenwich House, a settlement house founded in 1902, and my mom just tossed out this tidbit: “I taught creative dramatics there.” How had I missed that fact—that before I was born, my mom did a stint doing exactly what I ended up doing as a career, and I never knew it!?  What was it like for her back then?

So I started searching the internet and found an article written in 1986 by Margaret E. Berry, Former Executive Director of the National Federation of Settlements and Neighborhood Centers. There I was astonished to learn how many progressive movements that we now take for granted had their roots in the settlement houses: The kindergarten (child garden) movement, federal fair housing legislation, legal aid services, meals on wheels for the elderly, even Roosevelt’s New Deal and the Works Projects Administration! But what struck me most were the philosophical underpinnings of their arts and cultural activities programs.

Young artists at Hull House

The Settlement Movement began in the late 19th century as a social experiment, to address the cultural needs of impoverished communities. It was modeled after Toynbee Hall, established in London in 1884 “as a practical tool for remedying the cruelty, exploitation, and  bleakness found in city life.” The first settlement house in the United States was University Settlement in New York City, but the most famous was Hull House, established by Jane Addams in Chicago. Eventually there were over 400 settlement houses in cities and towns across the country.

Here’s an interesting fact: the reason they were called “settlement houses” is because a variety of caring groups “settled in” to neighborhoods with wretched living conditions, to learn as well as to help. They lived in the communities and shared the stresses endemic to neighborhoods of poverty. They did not approach their jobs as teachers, but as students: students of the huge diversity of cultures pouring into our nation at the time.

Music lesson at a Philadelphia settlement house

Social dance class at The Memory Project in a Cleveland settlement house

My best source so far, in searching for the answers to questions I never got to ask my  mother, is a monograph written in 2011 by Nick Rabkin: “Teaching Artists and the Future of Education.” In it he makes the assertion that, “Artists have worked in community-based arts education for more than a century, and the roots of their work in schools are found in arts programs at the settlement houses at the turn of the last century.” To quote Margaret Berry, “In the settlement house there were always activities which brought fun and fulfillment to life—music, art, theater, sociability and play.” But Rabkin points out that the settlement houses cast out the old conservatory model of arts training in favor of a much more socially conscious, all inclusive model, in which art making and art exploration was “for everyone and essential to the fabric of a democratic society.” The iconic example is that instead of art students standing in smocks at easels, painting vases, a drawing lesson at Hull House might be a class of scruffy youngsters sketching the unsanitary conditions in the alley behind the settlement. Teachers at the settlement houses taught aesthetics and technical skills but were also “attentive to the arts as tools for critical exploration of the world, celebration of community values and traditions, weaving the arts into daily life, cultivation of imagination and creativity, and appreciation of the world’s many cultures.” We see in this philosophy the derivation of the strands of our national instructional standards in the arts.

Hull House is where the great swing era clarinetist, Benny Goodman, learned music, and the Home for Colored Waifs in New Orleans gave us Louis Armstrong. Social dance, modern dance, and creative movement were regular offerings, as were culturally embedded crafts.

Neva Boyd

And then there was Neva Boyd, who taught at Hull House and then founded the Recreational Training School there. The school taught a one-year educational program to teachers, in group games, gymnastics, dancing, play theory, social problems, and dramatic arts. It is the program that trained Neva Boyd’s most famous acolyte, Viola Spolin! Yes, that Viola Spolin: mother goddess of improvisational theatre, mother of Paul Sills, thus grandmother of Second City (Chicago), and godmother of The Groundlings (Los Angeles), ComedySporz (Los Angeles), Laughing Matters (Atlanta), Magnet Theatre (New York), Improv Asylum (Boston), ImprovBoston (Cambridge), Jet City Improv (Seattle), and improv companies in cities and towns all across America and the world. They all owe their origin to theatre games played in settlement houses.

Improvisation games are now included in actor training, and they bring joy and laughter to theatre education programs in schools and community programs. K-12 school teachers with some improv training use theatre games to illuminate text and subtext in stories from literature and history and across the curriculum. Neva Boyd’s training program also very possibly trained the teaching artist who trained my mom to teach creative dramatics in the late 30s at Greenwich House.

 

 

Sam’s fiddle, from circa 1920

This old fiddle belonged to my father-in-law, Sam. He got it in about 1920, when he was a student in Boyle Heights. Sammy was an immigrant from Eastern Europe. His family initially struggled with poverty, but he and his siblings had regular music instruction in school and he learned to play the violin. EVERY child in Los Angeles had that opportunity back then! Up until the early 80s, every school in Los Angeles had full-time music and arts teachers. When I began teaching in East Los Angeles 1969, my students had a music class and a visual arts class every week and orchestral music was offered in the upper grades. Up until the early 80s, that was just the way it was done—not just in Los Angeles, but all across the state.

Today schools with hundreds of students are guaranteed only one day of vocal or (“or” not “and”) instrumental music per week, offering lessons to a fraction of the classrooms, and there are instrumental programs in fewer than one third of the elementary schools. Even that pittance was not revived until the early 90s. The Elementary Arts Program, which I am proud to have helped design 20 years ago, offers weekly visual arts, dance, and drama lessons in 9 week rotations to an even smaller fraction. Dozens of excellent community arts programs offered by the Music Center, the LA Opera, local art museums, and dance companies are available, but limited in time and scope and must be included in a school’s ever-stretched budget. Arts classes in secondary schools are electives. Despite all of our efforts, it is still perfectly possible for a child to go through thirteen years of public education in Los Angeles and never receive a single arts class!

And yet everything we have learned from brain research tells us that the arts are crucial to cognition. The arts teach us how to learn. True educators have know this for hundreds of years. To quote Plato again, “The patterns in music and the arts are the keys to learning.”

How did we forget this? What happened?

The following is an excerpt from the introduction to my book, Good Behavior and Audacity, where I try to answer that that question. It begins with my interview in 1968 for my first teaching job, in an impoverished school in Romoland, in the high desert near Riverside, where my husband was a student:

* * *

“To start with, the evening I drove out there to be interviewed by their board of education, a group of three farmers and the principal, I can recall only one question. They wanted to know if I could play the piano. They wanted their sons and daughters to sing! It was what they were used to from their own formative years, when every classroom had a piano and every teacher had to know how to play it. I told them I could not play piano, but I could play guitar, and that satisfied them. I sang with the children every day after lunch, before story time. That was the only peaceful half hour of the day.

“But once a week, two angels would arrive from the county office: a music teacher and a visual arts teacher. That was happy Tuesday. It was standard practice back then. All over Riverside County, and all over California, every child received a music lesson and a visual arts lesson every week. The teachers were fantastic. I learned all about Orff technique in the music classes—the pentatonic scale—and I learned arts strategies and activities that I used for the rest of my career.

“That was long before I dared to use drama activities in my teaching, but we did make an eight-millimeter movie one day with the help of my husband and an actor friend, and I do remember that being the most enjoyable day I ever had with them.

“I was offered a contract there for the following year, but my husband had finished at UCR and we moved to Los Angeles. There I was able to enroll in an intern program in the Los Angeles Unified School District and get a second chance at teaching, this time with some training and support. And there, too, in 1969, every elementary school in the district had full-time music and visual arts teachers, and every classroom got a lesson in each, once a week. In addition, in order to get my credential I was required by state code to take a class in elementary music instruction and one additional class in the arts, with the choices being visual arts, theatre, or dance.

“I taught for many more years, first in elementary and then in secondary, in private schools and public, and will share some of my accumulated insights in later chapters, but I’m glad I started long enough ago to have those memories. 1968 was before A Nation at Risk, before Proposition 13, and before No Child Left Behind and the romance with “accountability,” which was pretty much the nail in the coffin of arts education for every child in California.”

* * *

A Nation at Risk: The Imperative for Educational Reform was the report published in 1983 by President Ronald Reagan’s National Commission on Excellence in Education. Its publication is considered a landmark event in modern American educational history, but it was tragically misguided in its conclusions. A Nation at Risk was the beginning of our obsession with data and with raising test scores in a narrowly focused interpretation of literacy and numeracy. Authentic literacy (story telling, story listening, story reading, story writing) and numeracy (measurement, time, space, value) are embedded in every aspect of the art-making process. How did we miss that?

Well, we did. And from A Nation at Risk on, starting with Proposition 13, every time there has been a budget squeeze (which has somehow managed to be just about every year) the arts have been squeezed first. Time to change that, folks. Wake up.

 

 

 

 

Bravo New Jersey!!! They’ve accomplished something which, to our shame, we can only dream of in California: a return to arts education in EVERY SCHOOL IN THE STATE!

Several years ago my colleagues and I in the LAUSD Arts Branch were involved in a national effort to develop an evaluation (e.g. “test”) to provide hard data to support our arts education efforts. The national conversation at the time was obsessed with data, data, data, and every growth effort was put on hold until we had it. It was the time of “Data-Based Decision Making,” which, roughly translated, means, “No Data=No Decisions.” The mantra was, “If you don’t test it, they won’t teach it” (which in many states has turned out to be catastrophically true), so we naively dived in and did our best to come up with something authentic. At the time, we were working with a partner in the New Jersey State Council on the Arts.

Last June I wrote a post about our efforts in which I explained the irony of standardized testing in the context of arts education and described all of our obstacles. Basically: all we could come up with was an elegant and sophisticated single-answer vocabulary test. True evaluation in arts education involves embedded rubrics that serve the creative process but cannot provide hard “data” without astronomical expense.

I’m so sorry that, in my calcified old brain, that I cannot call up the name of the gentleman we partnered with in New Jersey!!  Since then he and/or his colleagues, have been busy. Apparently they didn’t wait for the elusive data. They understood the role of the arts in social and emotional health and in cognition—learning skills! They went ahead with their determination to get the arts back into the role they have held historically, at the core of eduction. (Now, finally, I suspect we will watch their test scores rise!)

If you go to their website https://artsednow.org, you will see many of the same standards-based elements and tools that we developed, but there’s something else. They did what I knew we had to do but never could. They got imperatives from the top: from the state level. They held school leadership at the district level and at the site level to account. Every superintendent and every principal in New Jersey must account for her/his stewardship of the arts offerings in their schools.

That’s the way to get it done!

 

This past weekend I had a chance to present some of the findings of my book, Good Behavior and Audacity to an audience of friends and arts educators. My ever-generous friend from the Music Center Education Division, Susan Cambique Tracey (featured in an earlier post), and her husband Paul sponsor about four salons each year devoted to the arts and arts education, and they invited me to do one. It was wonderful fun. Susan says the salons are their way of giving back, showing gratitude for their life in arts education, and I felt that gratitude glowing around me all afternoon. The session was documented in film so I’m excited that I will be able to share bits of it in upcoming posts.

I started the program with a visual exploration of these four woodcuts picturing Elizabethan classrooms. The first two are dated 1573, the very year that William Shakespeare turned nine, so looking at them you may imagine him as one of the boys pictured.

One result of the Humanist movement in early 16th century England was a robust interest in pedagogy, with many books written on the subject. One of the most famous of those teacher/authors was Richard Mulcaster, who just happened to train Thomas Jenkins and John Cotham, two of Shakespeare’s teachers at Stratford’s Latin grammar school. Reading his two books, Positions and Elementarie, was one of the igniting revelations that got me going on my own book, because of Mulcaster’s use of the arts in his daily instruction. The title of my book is actually taken from a quote by a 17th century jurist who had been a student at the Merchant Taylors’ School while Mulcaster was the headmaster. He credited Mulcaster with offering daily instruction in both vocal and instrumental music, accompanied by dance, and with using theatre to teach “good behavior and audacity.” Mulcaster also included drawing as one of the essential teachings for young children, so all of the arts were present in his school.

So now, my readers, I would like to engage you in the same visual exploration and see if we can draw some conclusions about Elizabethan classrooms.

Examine the four woodcuts closely and look for similarities and differences.

These images are all from the internet, and there isn’t much accompanying information about any of them, so I am in the same position as you are looking at them. What we see we see, and, using visual thinking strategies, what we conclude is what we conclude. I cannot verify our conclusions, but I do have the advantage of several years of research to draw upon and so I will add information where I can.

First of all, yes, indeed, that is a dog in two of the pictures. I have no explanation for the dog. (It does bring to mind the comic presence of a dog in both Two Gentlemen of Verona and A Midsummer Night’s Dream, but those were not classroom dogs!) Is the presence of a dog an indication that those two classrooms were rural? Perhaps.

Also, this last one is much busier than the others, and much more crowded (and there is no dog), so perhaps this one depicts a school in London?

Here are a few more observations:

1. In each one the headmaster appears to be holding a rather exalted position, in a throne-like chair. And he has a switch close by in case he needs it to maintain control. In fact, in this last one another adult (likely an usher, or assistant teacher), is flogging the naked bottom of a boy.

I’ve read that flogging was not uncommon. In fact there were plenty of euphemisms for it, like “marrying the schoolmaster’s daughter,” or “learning a new song today.” But most of the books on pedagogy from the time, including those by Mulcaster, explicitly state that kindness and reason were preferable to corporal punishment. I suspect that the mere presence of the switch may have been enough to keep order in most cases.

2. In the last picture we see that there is musical notation on the back wall and there appears to be a child playing a keyboard instrument like a virginal and other children singing. Most statutes from the time list regular music instruction, and at least at Merchant Taylors’ School it was included every day.

3. In each picture there is a child standing in front of the headmaster, and in the last one there are several in line waiting their turn. They are reciting their memorized lessons from the classics, and from what I’ve learned about physical rhetoric, or “rhetorical dance,” they were required to do so with appropriate gesture, expression, and emotion.

4. The other children in the room are engaged in their own activities—reading, writing, or talking to or perhaps collaborating with the students next to them. They are paying no heed to the child in front of the headmaster, an indication that there was nothing out of the ordinary about a student declaiming his lessons; it went on all day long and attracted no attention.

5. There are no desks. The children are reading from and writing in notebooks, or tables. Remember that Hamlet, in his frenzy after his encounter with his father’s ghost, says, “My tables! Meet it is I set it down, / That one may smile and smile and be a villain!” He is talking about exactly what these children are holding: their own tables, which accompanied them to and from school every day. In those tables they wrote down the lines they were required to memorize. They also wrote down rhetorical figures they found in their classical readings and kept them organized in columns. At some point, they also wrote down their own invented examples of figures, often developed in collaboration with their peers.

6.  In the absence of desks, there is an open space in the center of the classroom. That open space was called a place to be heard: an auditorium. A stage!

So….setting aside the corporal punishment and the dog: focus on this thought: what does it mean for a child to go to a school where the core goal is to be seen and heard.

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!

This week’s post will be the first devoted to a thread of history in the twentieth century: that of federal funding for teaching artists in schools. It’s a slim thread, to be sure, and in today’s political landscape it’s almost impossible to imagine, but there have been times of crisis when our government has actually turned to the arts and to arts educators to help us through. My dad, for instance, got his start in the Federal Theatre Project, during the Great Depression. I am currently reading Hallie Flanagan’s book Arena, which is about those years, and it is full of stories of children experiencing theatre arts in some of the most impoverished parts of our country.

Susan CT

Susan Cambique Tracey relating her experience in the NEA’s Arts in the Classroom program

But there was another period of funding for arts instruction in schools—one which is much more recent. Susan Cambique Tracey, of the Music Center’s Arts Education Division, recently gave a keynote address at the Actors’ Fund in which she relates some of her extraordinary experiences in the 70s, as one of the teachers in the dance component of a National Endowment for the Arts program designed to put teaching artists into high-need classrooms. The program lasted one brief decade but had a huge and lasting impact. (A link to a video of her address is below.)

Lyndon Johnson followed up on foundational work started during John Kennedy’s brief tenure when he established the National Endowment for the Arts in 1965. It was folded into his “War on Poverty” and linked to the civil rights movement. The NEA then created Arts Councils in every state, and this network remains robust and vibrant to this day. It has led to a national framework and then national standards for education in all arts disciplines.

For one decade, during the seventies, the NEA also funded a program called Artists in the Classroom, and Susan was one of 25 teaching artists sent out to teach dance. She worked in several states and in Puerto Rico, and describes that time as “like living in Camelot.” The program had three goals: 1. to teach dance as an art form, 2. to teach dance for self-expression, and 3. to use dance as a tool for learning. Susan found that she had a gift for the third goal—for making connections in to the instructional goals in the classroom. You can view here her remarkable story. She faced challenges and delights. Here, for instance, she tells of working in an agricultural community where the students’ two main concerns were the appropriate time for planting alfalfa and how to prepare the best fertilizer bag. She had to address these through dance, and she made it work! She’s an ARTIST! (If you’ve ever studied African dance, you may have some idea how it could be done.)

Happily, Susan made a meticulous record of her life-long career in dance education, so she is a treasure trove of information. She couldn’t be more generous with it, so you will be hearing more from her. “Nobody has been interested!,” she told me. I hope that is not true, since this entire site is dedicated to the history of the performing arts in education in this century and beyond. It’s a history to which arts education advocates desperately need access.

Susan’s story begins 8 1/2 minutes into the video, is less than 30 minutes long, and is well worth the listen.

 

 

 

 

 

 

This is fun!

In The Taming of the Shrew, before the shrew, Kate, matches wits with Petruchio in their hilarious first encounter, the illiterate servant Grumio warns her that Petruchio will “disfigure” her with his “rope-tricks.” He’s referring to Petruchio’s scathing facility with rhetoric (which Grumio hears as rope-tricks) and his ability to use rhetorical “figures” to counter and obliterate any argument she might throw at him.

Student reciting

A schoolroom, woodcut from Alexander Nowell (1573)

When Shakespeare was a student, only a few generations after the printing press had been invented, rhetoric had been at the core of a child’s education for over two thousand years. Before literacy was prevalent, the ability to persuade though speech gave enormous power to the “rhetor,” the public speaker. The ability to make language punch and pop, to make the listener sit up and pay attention (or else!), was considered the most important skill of a person educated in the liberal arts. All through ancient times, the middle ages, and well into the Enlightenment, the “Trivium” (grammar, logic, and rhetoric) were the foundational subjects taught first to a child in elementary, or “trivial” school.

Shakespeare had to be able to recognize and practice in his speaking and in his writing at least 132 rhetorical figures, tropes, and devices. He had to be able to practice expressive, physical rhetoric (or rhetorical dance) every time he stood on his two feet and spoke to his teachers or his classmates. “Per Quam Figuram?” was the question asked repeatedly, all day, every day: “What figure are you using?”

Here are a couple of  passages from my book to illustrate:

* * *

Today a well-educated person might be able to list about twenty-five figures that are still commonly used. Examples would be alliteration, allusion, amplification, analogy, antithesis, apostrophe, assonance, climax, dilemma, epithet, hyperbole, irony, metaphor, metonymy, onomatopoeia, paradox, parenthesis, personification, simile, and synecdoche. But there were dozens more that Shakespeare had to learn. How about:

Epizeuxis:      Howl, howl, howl, howl, howl!   (Lear)

or

Never, never, never, never, never   (Lear)

or

O wonderful, wonderful, wonderful, and yet again wonderful  (Celia)

Catachresis:   I will speak daggers to her  (Hamlet)

Anadiplosis:    My conscience hath a thousand several tongues, / And every tongue brings in a several tale, / And every tale condemns me for a villain  (Richard III)

Hyperbaton:   Some rise by sin, and some by virtue fall  (Escalus)

Hendiadys:  to have the due and forfeit of my bond  (Shylock)

* * *

When Brutus or Macbeth meditates on the murderous crime he is anticipating, he is exhibiting examples of aporia: doubting or questioning one’s motives.

When Antony repeats again and again “Brutus is an honorable man,” or Othello keeps interrupting Desdemona with his demand for “the handkerchief,” or Hotspur repeatedly squawks “Mortimer” like a parrot, they are all using the figure epimone: the repetition of the same point in the same words.

Whereas when Othello is about to suffocate Desdemona with a pillow and says, “Put out the light, and then put out the light,” he is using diacope: using the same phrase twice, but with two different meanings.

When Brutus asks the Roman mob, “Whom have I offended?” he is using anacoenosis: calling upon the counsel of an audience.

When the grave digger in Hamlet argues that if a man goes to water and drowns it is suicide, but if the water comes to him and drowns him he is “not guilty of his own death,” he is using cacosistation: an argument that serves both sides.

When Cesario asks Feste if he lives by his tabor (e.g. is he a drummer?) and Feste responds, “No, sir, I live by the church,” we call that antanaclasis: two contrasting meanings for the same word, causing ambiguity.

When Macbeth contemplates the assassination of Duncan and considers that it will “catch/With his surcease, success,” he is using paronomasia: the intentional use of two words with similar sounds but different meanings, to exploit confusion.

When Mercutio has been fatally stabbed and he responds to his friends’ questions about his wound, “Ay, ay, a scratch, a scratch,” the figure he is using is meiosis: a deliberate understatement.

When Prince Hal distracts the sheriff from his attempt to arrest Falstaff, he his using apoplanesis: evasion by digression to a different matter. Then again, when Falstaff pretends to be deaf when the Justice of the Peace wants to question him about a robbery, and babbles on, consoling the Justice about his own maladies, he is using concessio: where a speaker grants a point which hurts the adversary to whom it is granted. When he debates with himself about the virtues of honor and concludes that it is a “mere scutcheon, therefore I’ll have none of it,” he is using hypophora: reasoning with one’s self by asking questions and answering them.

The examples are endless. All the folded language, all the layering and amplifying of extended metaphors, all the colorful and unexpected uses of words, all can be traced back to rhetorical figures. Once you start to learn them you see them everywhere, and as you get better at it, reading a passage in one of the plays can be enormous fun, like deciphering an intricately clever puzzle. But, oh, there are so many!

* * *

We’ve had some great orators, and some of the figures they’ve used have become cultural memes—think of Kennedy’s “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country” (chiasmus)—but those examples stand out as exceptional. In Shakespeare’s day, every educated person had that power. Anyone who could not “hold court” on cue, could not stand in front of an audience and hold them spellbound, was pretty much irrelevant.

Just try to imagine, dear reader, the mental flexibility required of a child of ten or eleven, every day having to invent phrases based on the models above. No wonder they were so smart!

 

Arts colorBring back the arts!

(The following is a draft introduction to my book, Good Behavior and Audacity. I’m sure it will change before the book is published, but I’d love feedback on what I’ve written so far.)

In the hippie sixties, before I became a teacher, I was one of hundreds of free spirits spending as much time as I could in San Francisco. I was there in the summer of 1968, “the summer of love.” One evening I was in a café, and at the adjoining table were three policemen who had put their caps on the hat rack above us. I couldn’t help seeing that on the inside of each of the rims was a John Birch Society pin, and when they left, along with the tip, they left a pamphlet. I didn’t know much about the Birch Society, and I was curious, so I grabbed it and read it. The first sentence, the first page, in fact the entire pamphlet was about the need to abolish public education. The salient point was that, historically and until fairly recently, parents, not taxpayers, had paid for the education of their own offspring.

Why, it asked, should people with no children pay to educate those of others?

Perhaps to some this was, on its face, a reasonable question; but I scoffed in disbelief. What about the bedrock of a democracy? What about the foundation of a civil society? They can’t be serious! I wrote it off as pure far-right-of-right-wing malarkey and tossed it in the garbage.

I wish I had kept it! Within a year I had started a long career in public education, and over the decades I have viewed every new innovation and “reform” effort with wary suspicion, examining it through the lens of my memory of that pamphlet. I’ve followed the editorializing in the media, including my own LA Times, through the same lens. I’ve watched the erosion of the popular perception of public education go from a dribble to a river to a tsunami. It was with indescribably relief ten years ago that I devoured in one sitting Diane Ravitch’s book The Death and the Life of the Great American School System and discovered that someone with a voice of authority was finally documenting the lies.

 

But so far, Diane Ravitch’s voice alone has not been enough. The entirely deluded assumption that “private” is good and “public” is bad hardly existed in 1968, and yet only very recently a commentator on MSNBC made the cavalier statement, “Of course we all agree that public education is broken.” I had to scream at the screen, “NO, WE DO NOT ALL AGREE!!! WHO THE HELL DO YOU THINK YOU ARE, SAYING THAT?!!! Of course she didn’t hear me and thus took no offense. But I’ve spent my adult life as a public school educator and I have grandchildren now in public schools in three different states getting a fine education from excellent teachers, so I was shaken that nobody in the discussion challenged her.

I could go on a screed here about the Koch brothers (whose father was a Birch Society founder), the Waltons, charter school supporters, the distorted message of “school choice,” ALEC (the conservative American Legislative Exchange Council), and the slow but steady effort, by whatever malevolent forces there have been out there over the past fifty years to push formerly marginalized, negative views of public education front and center in popular discourse. But that’s not the point of this book.

 

The point of this book is that as a result of the growing distrust in public education, there has been a push for the rather vague concept of “accountability”; and the only relatively affordable—if highly dubious—method of measuring school accountability is the use of standardized tests. The use of, and preparation for, standardized tests have resulted in the virtual decimation of something we all used to take for granted: instruction in the arts for every child at every grade level.

I don’t think this happened intentionally. Maybe no policy maker said, “Stop putting easels and blocks in kindergarten rooms. Stop scheduling time for singing and dancing. Stop funding an orchestra program. Stop teaching speech and push your drama classes into an after school program for the ‘talented’ few.” But at the same time, something had to be sacrificed to make more room for preparation in the tested subjects: literacy and numeracy. The airy-fairy arts were seen as the most disposable candidate. Nobody stopped to take a long look at the hundreds of years of pedagogy that understood the connection between engagement in the arts and the healthy development of cognition.

 

Let me grant first that the perceived need for accountability has resulted in some beneficial policies and has perhaps shaken a few useless old customs loose. The creation of instructional standards have had great value used as guidelines and benchmarks. But the marriage of these standards to tests used to bludgeon struggling schools and turn innocent children into data points has been catastrophic. Because of the cloud of accountability, classroom time devoted to test preparation has reached feverish heights, and the 20% of time each day devoted to the arts, recommended in most state statutes since the founding of our nation, is by now a thing of the past. And yet, test scores have scarcely budged. In fact, if you factor in other measures of schools success—school culture and morale, attendance, graduation rates, teacher retention, student engagement, happiness—the picture gets gloomier and gloomier.

This book tackles the largely unexplored history of arts education: unexplored probably because it was always just a given. If we look back to Plato and then to the sixteenth century humanists, we see a thread throughout the centuries that notes the power of the arts to engage and entertain as they educate. It has been painful to watch the past few generations turn their backs on this wisdom. Universal instruction in the visual and performing arts is now history; and sure enough, as the ancients could have predicted, those revered test scores have languished. It’s time for educators to wake up.

Public education is not broken, but there are times when it seems to be on life support. It tends to be as good as the public makes it, and it could easily be revived with public commitment.

 

There’s a simple solution—an easy war to resuscitate the joy in universal, public education: Bring back the arts!

“To Play” vs “The Play”

Pirates Playing

Pirates Playing

In 1582, in his book Positions, Richard Mulcaster, citing Plato, listed five essential studies for the young student: reading, writing, singing, drawing, and playing. When I first read that I thought that he meant “playing” as in “player,” or “actor,” and was kind of disappointed when I realized that he was referring not to drama but to playing a musical instrument (which, with singing, doubles the number for music!) Still, I was delighted that music and visual arts were up there with the essentials, and if you include rhetoric and the artistry of writing, the arts get four of the five!

But the more I learned about Mulcaster and his daily use of drama in his classroom, the more I realized that theatre was not, at the time, considered an arts discipline in itself, but the product of music, dance, visual arts, and “actio” (physical rhetoric), all of which Mulcaster included in his daily instruction. Through rhetoric, drama is directly connected to writing. (I am personally convinced by my research that the first draft of The Taming of the Shrew was a riotous and “play”ful collaboration of schoolboys at Stratford Grammar School, but I’ll save that for another post).

Playing Around

Playing Around Photo by Mi-Pham via unsplash

Today, outside of the field of child development, “‘play” is too often perceived as a distraction from learning—something in conflict with instruction. Nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, play is the first—and the most vital—foundational step in literacy; and the more that play can be folded into instruction, the the deeper and more enduring the learning. This is true all through childhood, adolescence, adulthood, and old age (as I am here to testify!)

The following is an excerpt from the final chapter of my book:

“When my four-year-old granddaughter walks in the door, inevitably the first thing she says to me is ‘play with me.’ That primal need for social connection and play will be dominant for at least the next twenty years and, in fact, it will never go away completely. Our minds develop in a social context. Children learn from playing with each other far more than they learn from schooling, which, for better or for worse, opens a wealth of opportunity. Is it any wonder that the most ancient and authentic form of communicating a story is called a ‘play’?”

At any age and IN any age, drama, whether as the verb “play” (e.g. improvisation) or as the noun “play” (e.g. finished performance) engages and entertains as it educates. The education one receives through drama/theatre goes way beyond literacy. It teaches empathy, social skills, time management, collaboration, cooperation, listening, thinking-on-feet, and on and on. Most important, once again, it “frames the mind for learning.” Cognition!