Why Teachers Fear the Trojan Women
Updated: Sep 1, 2022
Why do some teachers fear the "Trojan Women" and embrace "Grease"?
If you type into the Google search engine "The Trojan Women in schools" you will find first up on the search list: https://unwomen.org.au/unw_events/the-trojan-women/ The production aligned itself with support for Afghan women's struggle against the Taliban. The women had some prominence after the initial Taliban victory. However, their story is now largely forgotten and ignored.
It was also notable that many teachers attended the performance of "The Trojan Women" by DTC in The Old Chapel Studio in Canberra. It was also apparent that they got a lot out of the production and expressed gratitude for the company's achievement.
Yet this is not typical. Schools will often proclaim a reason for theatre productions being the ability to offer their students a "lens" through which to see the world; or something similar. But then they offer trite American musicals of total distraction such as "Back to the Eighties" (a dated and sexist piece of tripe), "Grease" (a disturbing and disgraceful popular work that normalises date rape and male physical suppression of girls), "Barnam" and other sentimental works such as "Annie" that simply evoke nostalgia for a mythic American Dream. Why is it that the more prestigious the school, the more likely the blanding out of theatre to confirm the notion of theatre as simply a side issue and pleasant frill! This is possibly an oddity, given that the wealthy are more likely to be in tune with arts movements than patrons for school theatre in poorer neighbourhoods! However, they are also more likely to demand the suppression of students from challenging privileged and entrenched class positions and attitudes. And so if theatre even exists in such schools, the chances are that it will be suppressed and offered in sparse doses ... possibly biennially! The entrenched thinking is that the arts are somehow pleasant and beneficial yet benign additives to the main game.
And students, fed on diets of narcissistic American entertainments, constantly clamour and lobby for Performing Arts departments and community theatres to present works such as "Grease", "Heathers" and / or "High School Musical".
"Tell me more, tell me more, did she put up a fight?" (Grease)
Yet over the years, teachers have said to me that shows designed with such values as depicted uncritically in "Grease" and other shows designed for five-year-olds are far more their theatre "cup-o-tea" than the likes of "The Trojan Women". I have even had teachers lobby students in High School NOT to go and see the likes of Brecht's "The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui"! So what is so frightening about theatre that challenges the stereotype and theatre that goes beyond distraction?
Part of the problem is an on-going misconception as to what Drama programs and theatre are all about.
Scratch an educational institution's administration thinking and one is likely to find enthusiastic support for the prestige and cultural artistry that theatre / musical presentation can bring. Lists of successful past student artists can be found adorning the walls and foyers of such places. Yet an examination of the programming of content and presentations may well provide a disturbing picture; a deceptive hologram of devotion to cultural distraction and pandering to American-centric affirmations of mythic proportions.
While community theatre and professional theatre has observable strands of more intensive cultural examination to some extent offering a balance to the kinds of Lyric Theatre presentations seen regularly in Australia, schools by and large are still locked into the "Look-at-me; Look-at-me".
And this has an effect on staff and the more artistically inclined teachers.
Teachers live with fear everyday. They are the meat in the cultural sandwich between social values, parental inadequacy, government bureaucracies, student thuggery, administrative limitations; between all this is their illusion of an idealistic ability to affect change and implement curriculums that might enhance the human condition. Teachers suck it in when some "experts" who got their Ph Ds in some area of education to escape the classroom and having to deal with real kids, now come to pontificate in schools about education necessity! Teachers basic fear of their own inadequacy prevents them from revolting and proclaiming what they essentially know to be true. And YES! This is an overstatement! There are lethargic teachers as well! But equally, there are very frustrated teachers who are being thwarted by systems of enforced mediocrity. One might just look at the new ACT curriculum being enforced by the ACT BSSS to witness mediocrity in action! And this is reflected in the arts.
For the teacher who simply loves musicals, it is not necessarily an issue which musical they choose to work on with students. But I question why there is a consistency in non-critical works that are simply culturally affirming of a particular world view and that provide little or no critical cultural values other than affirmation of the American Dream or some nostalgic English resonance of past sentimental journeys. The musical form is not the issue; rather it is the content. The same might also apply to the constant choosing of uncritical adaptations of the English theatre canon.
If teachers of the arts are trying to evoke a lens through which to see the world, then simply fabricating artificial and false dichotomies illustrated by so many chosen musicals is not going to do it. While acknowledging that in spite of the content of a musical, the student performer may rise above the content and still evoke something that is challenging, exciting and engaging, the point still stands. Pandering to lowest common denominator tastes from audiences and students alike is not going to provide any kind of lens for viewing and approaching life and the world. At best it provides a sense of team challenge and possible cooperative spirit; at worst it panders to narcissistic instincts and limited visions of social and personal reality! Schools are not community theatres.
There are many community organisations that can provide the cultural ego based experiences for talented yet uncritical young people with little interest in viewing theatre as cultural challenge and even necessity! It is not up to the education system and schools to be ego pampering vehicles for the non-discerning!
A Concoction of Pretty Gargoyles
But the American musical form can provide a safe retreat for staff and students creating occasional performing arts works in schools. Having rows of doll-like and very talented girls and some boys smiling for the benefit of their audience is very reassuring that our conservative values of European and American origin are well and truly being adhered to. The beguiling exaggerated smile with a welcoming and slave-like facial expression to placate the audience's control and demand over the performer is part and partial of so many musicals. By their very nature, the performer is made subservient to the world-view of the establishment. It follows in the tradition of the artist paying tribute to the upholders of the state with the high ticket pricing to weed out the lower income classes. The musical can simply be a concoction of pretty gargoyles smiling hideously for the gratification of the powers-that-be. It is purposed with making somnambulistic audiences "feel good".
Certainly NOT all musicals follow this pattern. Schools with varied programs mixing musicals with plays and other performance style offerings can legitimately claim to be proffering high educational values with the musical vehicle for enhancing cooperation and even a lens through which to see the world.
I am proud to be producing such works with very talented and committed teachers with DTC!
The Greeks and the Sacrifice
The ancient Greeks offered up a theatre in communion with cultural expression, a kind of spiritual adherence in recognition of that invisible connection with aspects of the universe that cannot be easily explained; those events in human experience that sought explanation beyond the observable world yet seemed to have a hold over all humanity! While virtually all traditional societies had and still have the physical means to express the hidden inclinations and human/social gravitations, the Greeks paved the way for a secular theatre that touched on the spiritual; what the late Peter Brook called "theatre of the invisible made visible"! At some point the religious significance of "sacrifice" can transform theatre.
"Sacrifice is a celebration of life, a recognition of its divine and imperishable nature. In the sacrifice the consecrated life of an offering is liberated as a sacred potency that establishes a bond between the sacrificer and the sacred power." (https://www.britannica.com/topic/sacrifice-religion, Accessed 04/07/2022)
While the separation of theatre from religious ceremony might seem a natural outcome of secular progress there is a downside in that the techniques are very similar to advertising and marketing processes. The removal of the actor from that of buffoon or prostitute also might seem a progressive act. Yet perhaps, the equation of the performer/writer/theatre practitioner with the "All Licensed Fool" might provide a better discussion. The All Licensed Fool of Elizabethan times was a speaker of truth when speaking the truth was otherwise likely to get you decapitated! The very techniques of presentation that derived from the ancient world and traditional societies have been trivialised and appropriated in the crassest demonstration of American theatrical tradition that barters sex, base instinct and consumerist abstraction for a fabricated artistic form that panders to lowest common denominator tastes and inklings; while in denial of both!
If we must appropriate from the ancients and the traditional means of theatrical presentation, we might adopt the idea of the artist as a kind of fool or Shaman. The audience then is that of seekers of truths and possibilities and not simply as seekers of distraction and evasion. They are more than narcissists in need of justification or affirmation of their cultural and social beliefs and certainties. They are in fact part of a spiritual tradition that questions the possibilities and the seemingly obvious. I suggest a theatre that respects its audience as having these qualities is more likely to engender a strong artistic and even spiritual sense within its own cohort and thus reinforce possibilities for cultural examination and personally deep explorations.
Such work requires more than professional competence. Rather it requires an acknowledgement of one's fears and a willingness to step up and be vulnerable as teachers, artists and as citizens. The real women of Troy at the end of that mythic war still exist today. They are still the silenced voices of people defeated by the ignorance, violence and short memories of perpetrators and descendents. As practitioners of theatre, our ego and natural neurosis needs to be held in check so that an open attitude of venturing and investigation can flourish and, like that pebble in the puddle, create ripples of cultural respect and introspection; creating and flourishing in a cluttered fluorescent forest of our own making ...
(13 Aug 2022)
Read more from Shadow House PITS Write:
and have a look at the DTC movie: UNDER THE LIGHT