An act of healing
Drama in schools today is still, despite the efforts of drama teachers, seen as the end-of-term production. In class, students take on roles to develop a range of perspectives, a variety of language styles, an appreciation of theatre and a confidence in expressing the self with clarity and imagination. But one aspect of the subject is rarely mentioned, even though it can be the salvation of many a student. Drama can heal.
Each January, London Drama opens its annual Writing Challenge to encourage young playwrights and poets. Two years ago, Maria - a year 8 pupil who had recently lost her mother - gave me a script called "Emotions". And there it was, her story - although she, it seemed, was now "Jessica".
I read the play. Jessica loses her mother and cannot see her way ahead. Desperately trying to find some kind of direction, she keeps meeting insurmountable obstacles.
The play shows parental conflict. All Jessica's energies go towards avoiding conflict and protecting her little sister. She even gathers a group of friends together to put on a play to show her parents what will happen if they carry on fighting. The prospect was grim: father would end up in prison, her sister would commit suicide. Her plea goes unheeded. In a fight with father, mother dies. Jessica's dramatic prophecy is fulfilled and she kills herself on her mother's grave.
I agonised over whether to enter the play or not. Eventually I realised it was Maria's decision.
Clearly, Maria was desperately searching for answers, trying to find who was responsible for her mother's death, and levying her own dramatic punishment where she felt it was due. The father figure appeared to carry this anger, although the physical damage in the play appears to be a metaphor for real-life absence from the family and all the pressures Maria saw this as causing. It seemed she could see no way forward in her life. She is now without either parent (her father has emigrated) and lives with her grandmother, whom she loves. Jessica tried several strategies to prevent the death in the play - mirroring Maria's pleadings for the family to stick together. Jessica promises her sister she will never leave, a promise she wished her mother could have made her.
By the time the play was returned, with a positive and sympathetic adjudication, we were preparing for the school drama festival and Maria announced she was doing "Emotions". She had already gathered her friends - just as "Jessica" had - and work had begun. They were all right behind her.
I was dubious about the suitability of the piece, but stuck to my policy of respecting her choice.
I watched developments. I did not want to tamper with such a delicate and important exploration or devalue the work by rejection. On the other hand, I had to impose some quality control. I heeded the advice of Dr Sue Jennings, a drama therapist who said psychologically sound pupils will not be damaged by their own dramatic exploration. The best thing the teacher can do is watch.
In the first rehearsal, Maria said she was changing the ending. Before I could ask her about this, she became involved in conversation with her friend, the one who was to play her mother.
Her friend said, "Yeah, you need a better ending - there is too much death in this."
"I know," said Maria, "but I don't know what else to do."
How true this was of her situation. Somewhere inside, she knew the play she had needed to write and which felt so right at the time, was no longer appropriate. But if her initial perceptions and feelings were no longer appropriate, which ones were, and how would she discover them? Through the language of play making the friend had strongly confirmed what Maria knew she had to face - sooner or later, she had to let go.
"What you need," her friend continued, "is to have a baby or something - something to live for at the end."
Maria liked the idea but explained that she (not "Jessica") was too young to have a baby in the play.
"Having someone to live for" seemed a positive step, and possibly as far as Maria could get at this stage to wanting to live for herself. I asked if there was anyone else she could live for. There was the younger sister - in reality and in the play. Her friend suggested this.
"But she dies," said Maria, looking uncertain at the thought of the plot being so challenged.
Her friend was not about to stop now. "But not for any good reason," she said casually.
"No, I suppose not," agreed Maria.
These must have been the most painful and brave words ever said by this 13-year-old. It seemed all her anger, resentment and negativity had been holding her together. To let that go was to face an overwhelming ocean of decisions and new emotional battles. With no mother there for support this would be a lonely and painful time.
She faced it, Her version of what happened had fulfilled its purpose in a symbolic way, but now it was time to move on. She had a wise and clear-sighted friend to help her - and other friends, too. They encouraged her on to the stage; they wanted to get started.
The group carried on supporting her as they worked through the play, some of which was kept, some of which changed little by little. Maria had made the decision to let go of her perceptions, and had to build new ones. This meant replacing one piece of the jigsaw at a time. Drama provided the perfect vehicle. She worked with patient and dedicated friends who knew subconsciously what all this was really about but never said so. She was not alone.
The finished product started with a grave scene where Jessica talked with the ghost of her mother. Her mother asked her to show how she felt - an invitation to show the play.
Much of the original story remained intact. But father did not go to prison, he left the story - how was not explained. He was more realistically portrayed as a source of the original hardships. Mother was sick and did not die as a result of the blow alone. This meant father was not directly responsible for her death. Again, this was much more realistic. The sister remained and became Jessica's reason to carry on living. Maria was left looking at the spot where her mother's ghost disappeared - alone and saddened but with a reason and purpose for carrying on under her mother's instructions: "No, Jessica, you cannot come with me. Your sister needs you."
Today, Maria is working on her GCSE. She is enthusiastic and expressive and enjoys her work. She seems happy and I know she has discovered powers to support and strengthen her. Maria's was the story I saw and instantly understood. How many others, I wonder, are being worked out in this way, in the drama lesson, at home in front of the mirror, and in playground games?
Surely this kind of self-healing, without drugs or doctor, is the healthiest kind, especially for young people like Maria, who have the answers inside them somewhere and just need the right vehicle to find them.
For many years, drama has been valued for its ability to draw results from pupils who may perform less well in other subjects. It is also seen in all its glory in the school show, and other school celebrations. But under the current system it is often given too little time, space or money to enable it to be seen in its fullest and most vital light. Surely this life-saving subject deserves more.
Amanda Kipling is head of drama at St Thomas More School, Eltham, London