The play's the thing
Hilary Moriarty reflects on why building a school theatre is always a good idea
Posted by Julian Owen | May 15, 2018 | School life
the-plays-the-thing, hilary-moriarty, school-theatre, national-director-of-boarding-schools-association

A wise and kindly headmaster once ticked me off for running a fund-raising campaign to build a new sports centre for the school of which I was headteacher, and which had not then entered The Schools Arms Race, with new facilities popping up like a rash.

“Good luck with that,” he smiled, in a ‘Been there, got the T-shirt’ kind of way, then added: “You do know you’re building the wrong thing?”

Not surprisingly, there had been considerable debate in my school about what we might consider essential, what would be nice if you could have it, and how would you raise the money for it anyway?  Priorities and power bases had all been aired. We were lucky to have a couple of hundred acres, so lacrosse pitches, tennis courts and cross-country running were no problem. We even had a swimming pool, though that was outdoors, and, of course, it had limitations.

So we were not badly off for sport, but not up to speed in the mid-’90s. And oh how it rained. And that brought out the worst (best? I never did decide) in our lovely head of sport, who promptly brought the lacrosse team indoors, where it appeared the only available space was a beautiful 19th-century ballroom, in which Jane Austen would have been at home and which still had its original chandeliers.

OK, sometimes it was the netball team.  That did not seem a whole lot less likely to do damage to a listed building. Never mind the health and fitness of our girls, who were at the time not half so keen on a new sports hall as was the head of sport. Of course, we needed a sports hall to preserve our architectural heritage and my sanity as headteacher with an office right next door, and to boost our marketing efforts.

So I was convinced, as were governors.  If this was the wrong thing to build, what would have been the right thing?

“What you really need,” said my friendly neighbouring head, “Is a theatre.”

Now why didn’t I think of that? I do not recall it ever being a runner in the discussions. For one thing, we had only a fledgling drama department, the subject not then being developed in the curriculum, as it was later, with GCSE drama and A-level theatre studies. Any school play leaned heavily on the English department, sometimes the music department, and art, and then anyone on the staff who was prepared to help backstage or on the front desk. As amateur as you could imagine, even if sometimes very effective.

And the productions were terrific, but rehearsed mostly in classrooms then performed in the school hall for a couple of nights, with only occasional grumps if the staging got in the way of the usual assemblies.

"If you have any choice at all, build a stage, and they will come." 

In my school, a theatre did not seem like an urgent need. More wise head-shaking.

“Think about it,” the headteacher admonished. “When you build a sports centre you get teaching and practising and competition, and your school may get better at competition because of your new training facilities. But that’s what it is, a glossy, shiny place to train. It’s not exactly a field of dreams, is it? Who will get in and see it in all its glory – parents when they trot round the school to decide if they will sign up a child – after that, probably not much.”

“But if you build a theatre – now that is about performance, not training. Being wonderful, right there on stage, today, tonight, for the next three days, and all the parents will come, and they will be happy, and celebrate the success of their own children and everyone else’s. And they will gather for coffee, or even a glass of wine – you can make a bit on that – and they will talk of how well the school is doing, and how great it is to have both a fantastic education and an avenue to the stars with an Oscar in your sights.”

“A theatre,” he said, “is about community and mutual support and applause and wellbeing. A sports centre is about competition and aggression and even cheating. I know which I would rather build.”

I have long thought he had a point. And I have not been surprised by the number of schools which have come to the notion of building a theatre or a performing arts centre and found well-springs of approval they might not have expected 10 years ago. In my days at the Boarding Schools’ Association, one proud headmaster showed me his newly built theatre, bubbling with the story of how an elderly lady had come to visit the school after her husband’s death.  He had been an old boy of the school, she wanted to see the school which had helped make him the man he was. She was shown the half-built theatre, and told of their scheme to name seats as the donor wished as part of their fund-raising. The lady reported that her husband had always spoken fondly of being in King Lear in school – he had never forgotten it. She went home and paid for a whole row of seats to be named in his honour. Hard to imagine this level of sentiment and commitment to a viewing gallery over a basketball court.

“A theatre is about community and mutual support and applause and wellbeing. A sports centre is about competition and aggression and even cheating. I know which I would rather build.”

The times themselves have, seemingly, changed. Regardless of the relentless insistence that any reasonably bright student should, of course, study STEM subjects so that they can become rich in the best jobs and famous because of the technological inventions they are going to create in our Brave New 21st-Century World, there is growing awareness of the value of the arts.  Here are avenues of self-expression and pathways to considerable career greatness if – well what? If you have the talent, and the dedication, and the teaching, and the encouragement and, yes, the facilities to discover, nurture and display your talent.  And – yes, I know – the luck, but that’s the case in any field of endeavour.

I recently visited a prep school proud of its place in the careers of household-name actors. Posters for their latest films are part of the school’s declaration of the diversity of talents which they value, exercise, and promote. And who, at nine or ten years of age, does not want to be famous? In this school, it’s not just about excellent grades, it’s also about discovering what else you can do, and developing confidence which will last a lifetime. One of my sons swears, three A grades at A-level notwithstanding, that the best thing an independent education did for him was to make a happy public speaker of him. 

And that’s another thing about theatres – it doesn’t have to be King Lear or An Inspector Calls. It can be dance, and stand-up comedy, and talent shows, and big band house competitions, and choirs, little, large, a capella and rock, and pianists and string quartets and orchestras and brass bands playing the theme from Game of Thrones. 

In fact, if you have any choice at all, build a stage, and they will come.  

Hilary Moriarty is an independent advisor for schools, a former Head and former National Director of Boarding Schools Association. 

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