Ancient tragedy of arts access for girls

Female drama troupe takes to the stage to tackle injustice

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It is said that hell hath no fury like a woman scorned. Arguably, no play better illustrates the sentiment of this classic literary line than Euripides' Ancient Greek tragedy Medea, which charts the revenge of a mythical sorceress abandoned by her husband.

So it seems fitting that a new, all-female youth theatre production of the play is being used to highlight a "tragic" lack of opportunities for girls to study Classics, drama, music and dance at school.

Whereas Euripides was a man writing for male actors and an audience of men, the Big Shoes theatre group from Redland High, a private girls' school in Bristol, has a cast and crew of 16 young women aged 15-18.

Despite a growing presence of talented women in the arts, the school's drama department - which is staging the show at the Edinburgh Festival from today - believes that things have not changed enough over the centuries.

Sarah McCormack, head of drama at the school, said: "Medea stands as an unparalleled example of the difficulties, the injustices, the irrationalities and the energies that coalesce around the experience and understanding of womanhood.

"It was written by a man for an all-male cast and while the profile, influence and impact of women in the arts is growing, I am aware that when you go to the theatre even now, the bulk of the parts are for guys and the bulk of the people on or backstage are men."

Ms McCormack said she understood "anecdotally" that drama schools tended to recruit "in proportion to employment", which meant they took on more boys than girls.

She added: "The arts and Classics have an increasingly beleaguered role within the school curriculum and, as one of our students said, `You're not expected to study English at university never having read a novel, yet it seems to be expected that you will study drama never having done a play.'

"A greater focus in school would help both boys and girls but I think girls tend to be less willing to throw themselves off a cliff than boys. Therefore the opportunities at school are really crucial to giving them the confidence to make choices."

A spokesperson for the Edinburgh Festival said it had attracted roughly equal numbers of male and female performers for years. The Royal Conservatoire of Scotland in Glasgow also said that its intake was balanced, but attacked a "tragic" lack of focus on performing arts for all pupils in schools.

Principal John Wallace said: "Dance, drama, music; together they underpin the capacity for humans to be human and to interact with and without language. Rhythm underpins all three and the tone and pitch and metre that inflects the latter two and all language are the building blocks of how we learn.

"That this is not self-evident is one of the tragedies of all developed national educational bureaucracies across the globe. The potential of every child is lowered by the absence of these staples of human understanding."

Teachers also backed calls for more performing arts in the curriculum. Jo Richards, a professional dancer who teaches at several Edinburgh secondaries, said: "Dance is increasingly popular. It helps pupils to develop important life skills, such as discipline, which will be useful in so many different things whether they go into the performing arts professionally or not."

Andrew McGarva, director of music at Kilgraston School in Perthshire, said the arts "significantly developed" children's cognitive, motor and social skills, including teamwork.

The Scottish government said that new training opportunities for school staff were in development, including a postgraduate diploma in education specifically for dance teachers.

A spokeswoman added: "Expressive arts are an extremely valuable area of learning within Curriculum for Excellence, and we want to see an ever greater understanding of how the skills and experiences gained in those subjects are valuable for learning, life and work."

Medea runs from today until 9 August. The Edinburgh Festival Fringe runs until 25 August. For more information, see

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