It used to be an annual ritual. Mamta Mishra’s school-going son would bring home an assessment report sparkling with A grades. But that didn’t make her feel thrilled. Her complaint was that her son Ravi didn’t have the personality of an achiever. “He was reserved and didn’t talk to anyone in school. His teachers treated him like a wallflower,” recalls Mishra, a Delhi-based marketing professional.
Last year, a friend suggested that Mishra enrol her son for a theatre workshop. Although Mishra equated theatre with khadi-clad intellectuals and Bollywood wannabes, she gave it a shot. When 14-year-old Ravi joined First Act — a 15-day children’s theatre workshop conducted by the Delhi-based Actor Factor Theatre Company — he didn’t learn about mikes, makeup and mugging up dialogues. He got a crash course in personality development instead.
“The workshop doesn’t try to turn children into actors. We train them to communicate effectively, better their body language and think creatively,” says Shashwath Shrivastava, secretary, Actor Factor Theatre Company. So First Act does not apply the traditional tools of theatre training. There are no bound scripts, assigned roles and rehearsals.
Ravi’s group, for instance, was taken to a city footpath and a park. “They had to observe the scene and come back and recreate it in the form of a short play. The children write the story and dialogues themselves,” says Vaishali Chakravarthy, director, First Act. Similarly, students are asked to enact scenes from their everyday lives — at home, in school and with friends. “This helps them understand their lives better,” adds Chakravarthy. Starting next year, Actor Factor plans to take the workshop to schools across Delhi.
Theatre is no longer just an extracurricular activity that ends with staging a Shakespeare play on the school annual day. Instead, it’s entering classrooms as a teaching aid. “Theatre has found new roles. It is being used to make classroom lessons interesting and as a personality development tool for students as well as corporate professionals,” says Shrivastava.
Shweta Dixit had tried every trick to get her students to remember that Jehangir was Akbar’s son and Shah Jahan was Aurangzeb’s father. “The Mughal empire’s history left most students foxed. They couldn’t remember the chronology of the kings and who fought which war,” says the history teacher at a Jaipur public school. But when a local theatre group, Event Bright, was roped in to help, it made the lesson a cakewalk. “We turned medieval history into a dramatic family saga, full of conspiracies, sibling rivalries and pitched battles. The students acted in the play and the dialogues were impromptu, which helped them remember events more than mug them up,” recalls Ilyas Khan, founder, Event Bright.
With private schools experimenting with new teaching methodologies, theatre has found its way into the classroom, says Anish Victor, artistic co-ordinator of Bangalore-based theatre group Rafiki. “Many schools are doing away with rote learning and redefining the role of the teacher. This has made way for new teaching tools like smart classrooms, onsite trips and theatre,” he says. Rafiki currently works with six Bangalore schools and conducts theatre-in-education workshops for teachers.
Also, with a growing focus on handling children with learning problems, the reading-and-writing model of education is taking a backseat. “Those who aren’t good at listening and writing perform poorly in the traditional methods of education. Theatre is a more wholesome teaching tool,” says Sibu Vaz, founder, Script Peoples Theatre, Bangalore. The group has also been conducting teacher training workshops in the city for the last eight years.
Play-acting is not just about bringing history and geography lessons to life. Theatre workshops have become a tool for life skills training as well. “Children often go through stressful situations — like sexual abuse, kleptomania and poor self-image — which they cannot discuss with an adult. Theatre workshops that address these issues serve as an emotional outlet and throw up creative ways of managing the problems,” says Sukhesh Arora, artistic director, Yellow Cat Theatre, Delhi.
CLASS ACT: A corporate theatre workshop conducted by Experimental Theatre Foundation, Mumbai
Started in 2005, Yellow Cat works with several Delhi schools, including The Shri Ram School, Cambridge School and The British School. Life skill training is a big part of its work agenda. “We get children to play-act situations like bullying and peer pressure and its solutions,” says Arora.
However, not everyone believes that drama is taking over school classrooms in urban India. “It’s still a nascent idea,” says Simran Luthra, a Hyderabad-based theatre professional. She would know. Luthra did a training course on theatre-in-education last year, after which she visited several elite schools in the city to sell the concept. The response was poor. Education in India is still textbook-driven, believes Luthra. “Most school principals said teachers struggle to complete the annual syllabus. There is no time to fit theatre into teaching.”
But clearly, change is in the air. Mumbai’s Experimental Theatre Foundation (ETF) has given this genre of play-acting a new name — Theatre of Relevance (ToR). The group has conducted its ToR workshop in three business schools and several companies — including Reliance Industries, Indian Oil Corporation and Bharat Heavy Electricals Limited.
“In management circles, theatre has become a tool to improve communication skills, encourage teamwork and think out of the box,” says founder Manjul Bharadwaj. He offers statistics to back the growing focus on drama: according to psychologists, words play only a 10 per cent role in communication. It’s the other aspects that hog the majority — eyes play a 25 per cent role, voice and tone 30 per cent, and the rest goes to body language and clothes.
The ETF’s workshop on crisis management — called “Our iceberg is melting” — is a huge hit with B-schools and corporations, claims Bharadwaj. Participants are asked to imagine they’ve fast forwarded to the year 2020, where they live in the times of futuristic technology and changed workplace dynamics. They have to play-act their reactions to change. “Change has become a constant feature at today’s workplaces. The workshop aims at preparing professionals to face transitions,” explains Bharadwaj. The other theatre-in-management workshops that ETF offers are on positive attitude development, communication and envisioning.
With the demand for drama as a teaching tool on the ascent, theatre companies are being set up purely to cater to this market. Jehan Manekshaw calls Theatre Professionals (TP) — a Mumbai-based company he founded four years ago — the country’s first theatre start-up. TP is in the business of applied theatre — it designs tailor-made workshops for schools and companies.
Manekshaw believes theatre and management practices have a lot in common. “The cornerstones of theatre are three Cs — confidence, communication and collaboration. These apply to management as well,” he explains. TP’s corporate training programmes revolve around developing soft skills, teamwork and self-awareness. “For this, we use different techniques like improvisational and participatory theatre,” says Manekshaw.
Theatre as a teacher seems here to stay.