I am in County Hall with a team of drama workshop leaders at the end of a two-day drama and citizenship conference. Pupils from Tower Hamlets secondary schools are presenting short pieces of drama to politicians that show everyday concerns. The pieces also propose solutions: policing can be improved by officers being trained by young people, classroom management made more effective through creative teaching, youth crime addressed by a revamped youth service.
The politicians are invited to respond to the performance and seem a bit uncomfortable. For most of them, being invited to exchange views from the audience, finding your young constituents on your place on the platform, is a unique and unnerving experience. The politicians try to address the young people's concerns - some clearly shocked by hearing at first-hand what's going on in their own constituencies.
A councillor for the Greater London Authority (a member of the police committee), lays down a challenge: "which of you would consider a career in the police?" she asks. Not one hand goes up. The pupils reflect the diverse cultural backgrounds of Tower Hamlets. The GLA councillor - a black woman - shares her own frustrations about police recruitment when community relations with young people are this low.
We all go away from the event with positive feelings, tempered by uncertainty. We have helped the local authority set the foundation for a youth parliament, the participants have developed their democratic skills (articulating arguments, team-work, empathy, public voice activity), the citizenship curriculum has been addressed engagingly. But it is not that easy to overcome young people's cynicism and disillusion. Despite this rare opportunity for direct exchange with those in power, it is unlikely that there will be any tangible or immediate change.
The Tower Hamlets conference was part of the final phase of a two-year programme by the Theatre Royal Stratford East, working with schools and local authorities, to find creative ways to use drama for citizenship. Making a Difference was a project made up of several complementary strategies, including story-gathering workshops with young people, a tour by a professional theatre-in-education team of a Forum Theatre piece (One Thursday) and work with youth parliaments and similar forums across east London.
Making a Difference alerted me to the huge potential for using drama to support citizenship education. For drama teachers and those of us providing drama services to schools, the citizenship curriculum provides new opportunities to do what we do best.
Clearly a curriculum that states: "pupils should be taught to use their imagination to consider other people's experiences," opens itself up to drama. But other elements of the curriculum, such as the need to understand different tiers of government, can benefit from drama approaches, such as the Tower Hamlets conference.
It was Carrie Supple, the project officer for the Citizenship Foundation, who encouraged me to explore this work further and to write a book on my experiences. Playing a Part is essentially a tool for all those involved with teaching citizenship, with something in it for drama and non-drama specialists and all those working with secondary-age pupils. Carrie herself has provided a chapter.
There are many practical ideas at the heart of the book. Responding to requests from teachers, the forum theatre play One Thursday is reproduced as a classroom text and there are chapters on games, exercises, devising and creating theatrical youth parliaments.
Playing a Part is based on several central notions about how drama can address young people's disenchantment with politics. First, drama activities work best when suffused with a spirit of playfulness. This is not to say that the work is unstructured or frivolous, but that seriousness and creativity are bound together in the activities. A playful approach in role can encourage learners to suspend judgment of others, experiment with new ideas and engage their intellect and feelings simultaneously.
Drama inevitably starts by building belief in a parallel fictional world, one that resonates with everyday experience. From this point of absorption, the teacher can, in the words of drama practioner Dorothy Heathcote, "drop to the universal", so that the larger conceptual, political and moral questions can be addressed from a starting point of identification with a narrative.
Drama is highly effective at encouraging empathy. For the pupil working in role, part of the enjoyment is to strive for authenticity, to reach further into the thoughts and feelings of other people. This ability to imagine being in someone else's shoes is not only vital in challenging prejudice, but also in creating a mature political culture based on honest exchange rather than entrenched positions.
Playing A Part: Drama and Citizenship is published by Trentham Books, pound;16.99