A Personal Journey and Some Professional Reflections
The performing arts were not necessarily ‘in my blood.’ I grew up in (what was then) a small country town in South Gippsland on the Bass Coast. As such, like many rural and country areas, sport was the dominant social pastime. Most discussions on a Monday morning at school (and throughout most of the day) focused on the local weekend-round of football results or deep analysis of AFL champions such as Johnathan Brown or Brendan Fevola’s Saturday night achievements. Sport, specifically AFL, seemed, on paper, to be a natural fit for me. My family consisted of sportsmen who not only dominated local football but were, in the mid-1980s, on the verge of being drafted to the then VFL before personal injury and circumstances prevented this reality. But alas, this sporting prowess seemed to skip my DNA. I tried my hand at most sports that a country kid had access to- AFL, cricket, and Little Athletics, but it became obvious I was a more talented spectator than sportsman. After playing forward pocket for a local football club for two years and never kicking a goal, I knew it was time to hang up my (relatively clean) boots.
I vividly remember when a door to the performing arts world opened for me. It was a Sunday in late 2005 and my sister and her friend had decided to audition for a local production of Little Shop of Horrors. I tagged along for the drive and watched as the two of them entered the theatrical group’s hall. I can recall my sister coming back to the car saying, ‘they need some boys.’ I was reluctant to entertain this idea – I don’t think I even knew what a musical was. After some thought, I decided to head in and was greeted by the production team. I hadn’t prepared any material, so, given the time of year, they asked me to sing Rudolph the Red- Nosed Reindeer. As soon as I was able to, I left the room and walked towards the car thinking I had embarrassed myself. However, a few days later the home phone rang. A member of the production team was on the other end and asked to speak to my sister first. Unfortunately for her, the outcome of her audition did not bring positive news. It was then over to me- You’re in, they exclaimed. After years of misery, trial and tribulations on local ovals, perhaps it was time to trade some grass for some boards.
As a teenager, participation in theatre programs meant so much to me. I felt as though I had finally found my place and there is a clear, personal line that can be made from that fateful Sunday in late 2005 to now. As an educator in an arts domain, it is easy for me to offer up some qualitative data that speaks to the positive social and academic impacts these programs have on young people. Though, for some who teach or study outside of arts domains, the area can sometimes be seen as academically inferior to other subject areas. This initial, external judgement call is what saddens me the most. So often, especially in the junior and middle Years, I marvel at the creative energy of young people and the enthusiasm they bring to their creative undertakings. But it seems that when the time comes to choose a pathway towards Year 12, often the performing arts are sidelined due to an incorrect and misinformed judgement that the domain ‘isn’t academic’, ‘only gets marked down’, or ‘won’t assist with a career’. Being part of many student subject selection meetings over the years, I sometimes question students who show clear aptitude for subjects such as VCE Theatre Studies but decide to forgo it for more ‘traditional’ subject offerings, with the reasoning, ‘I really like the subject, but I don’t want to be an actor.’ My initial reply to this is generally along the lines of, ‘so do you want to be a Mathematician?’ to which the usual answer is normally, ‘absolutely not.’ While many students may not wish to become actors or theatre makers, there are so many transferable skills, just like Maths, that can be applied to many careers. There is a reason why some universities offer double degrees in performing arts and law, for instance.
Broadly, there is a large body of evidence that highlights the positive influence participation in the arts has on students. The organization, Evidence for Learning recently released its Teaching and Learning Toolkit for educational leaders. The purpose of this toolkit is to consolidate available research and data to determine how effective particular learning programs and interventions are when considering an average month of learning progress, the cost to implement and the validity of evidence available to support the findings. Though unsurprising to those of us who teach and lead within arts domains, it is reported that participation in the arts leads to, on average, an additional three months of learning progress. Also, Evidence for Learning found that participation in the arts had a more positive academic influence than smaller class sizes and peer-to-peer or adult-to-student mentoring. The consolidation of research indicated that participation in the arts had the same effect academically as attending a Summer School program and even extending school time, but at a much cheaper cost. 1
While Evidence for Learning confirmed the positive academic impact that the arts can have on a student, University College London has recently published a report that summarised findings from a series of longitudinal studies conducted between 2017 and 2022 that examined the relationship between arts and cultural engagement and subsequent health and wellbeing outcomes. In UCL’s report titled ‘The Impact of Arts and Cultural Engagement on Population Health’, some of the findings connected to children and young people, found that adolescents aged between eleven and twenty-one who participated in an arts-based program or hobby, were less likely to have behavioural problems. Another part of their analysis showed that young adults who engaged in the arts had associated increases in ‘flourishing’, defined by a greater emotional, psychological and social wellbeing. Just like the Evidence for Learning publication, UCL found that ‘as arts engagement enables children to develop their imagination, creativity and problem-solving abilities, [this] may then have further benefits in other areas of their lives, with a clear link to fewer instances of mental health disorders such as depression. 2
Quite often we think that we must fit within a pre-cast personal mould. This template is often a combination of family expectations, personal identity, and societal constraints. It can be terrifying to try and do something that exists beyond this mould. For those who are born with the performing arts as part of their DNA, they know what these types of programs mean to them. For those, such as myself, who took some time to discover the domain, we are grateful to our past selves that pushed away self-doubt and fixed mindsets. For those, young or old, who may be sitting on the fence or watching from afar, participation in the performing arts will change your life for the better.
Ryan Bowler | Head of Drama, Theatre and Dance (Prep -Year 12)
1 Teaching and Learning Toolkit. [online] available at: https://evidenceforlearning.org.au/education-evidence/teaching-learning-toolkit, E4L Evidence for Learning (nd).
2 Fancourt D, Bone JK, Bu F, Mak HW, Bradbury A, ‘The Impact of Arts and Cultural Engagement on Population Health: Findings from Major Cohort Studies in the UK and USA 2017 – 2022’, London: UCL; March 2023.