Waiting outside the classroom at Plunkett Street, a tiny public school nestled in the heart of Woolloomooloo, Rowan Freeman is greeted enthusiastically by every student who spots him. He’s about to finish a seven-week School DramaTM course with Plunkett Street teacher Emma Gillogly and her composite class of years 1, 2 and 3.
As an STC Teaching Artist, Rowan uses his performance background to inspire new ways of accessing a text. “You taught me how to bring the books alive, not just read them,” Emma tells him. “How we can change our faces, our body positioning and our voices to tell a story.”
“I’ve got kids here who are writing five pages and others who are struggling to pick up a pen, so I needed to find a way to engage the whole class with the same activities. Drama does that, because you can access it from every level.”
Rowan and Emma work collaboratively to devise exercises built around the reading of one picture book – for this course it’s Drew Daywalt’s existential think piece, The Day the Crayons Quit. “The strategies we devise around the book keep the kids locked into its world,” Rowan explains, “and that’s how you stretch a short picture book across seven weeks.”
“The kids are so engaged they are dying to turn the page at the end of the lesson,” Emma chuckles. “I had to hide the book! One week when Rowan was ill they were beside themselves about the delay – absolutely ropeable!”
“I come in and offer something fun that they don’t realise is learning,” says Rowan. “It’s like covering a healthy carrot in peanut butter.”
Implemented in 2009 by STC’s former Artistic Directors Andrew Upton and Cate Blanchett alongside The University of Sydney’s Professor Robyn Ewing AM, the School Drama program has been an unqualified success, expanding from its pilot year in the classrooms of Plunkett Street as far as Albury–Wodonga, Canberra, Melbourne, Brisbane, Darwin, Perth and Auckland thanks to donor support.
A sustainable impact is always the goal, therefore School Drama prioritises educating and empowering the teacher, providing “a suitcase of knowledge and skills they can use whenever, and share with other teachers,” explains Rowan.
“I loved working with Rowan because it was team-teaching. The kids didn’t only see him as the drama teacher, I would participate too; I would be the elephant on the other side of the door, or the penguin who got lost. The kids couldn’t believe it at first – Miss Gillogly as the penguin!”
Ten years since the Plunkett Street pilot, the School Drama formula is so robust it also helps struggling high school students, young people who are incarcerated and refugees learning English for the first time. The “suitcase of tools and knowledge” is now bursting at the seams, packed with ten years of resources and collective experience, but it’s the confidence that comes as a by-product that Rowan and Emma consider the most valuable.
“Confidence for the kids and confidence for myself,” adds Emma. “It’s good to know that I can be the penguin too.”
The School Drama program is supported by our generous Education donors, and the participation of Plunkett Street Public School in 2019 was made possible thanks to the support of the City of Sydney.