Last night I attended a reunion of an organisation I was part of in my late teens to early twenties. The ethos of Dublin Youth Theatre and what it gave me and countless other young people remains with me and I would argue it is a continual influence on my work, despite a career shift away from the arts and theatre.
It is easier to describe DYT as what it is not. It is not a stage school. It does not ‘train’ young people in becoming actors. But equally it does not treat theatre as a superficial “bit of a laugh”. Theatre is the medium through which DYT enables young people from all backgrounds to find their voices and express themselves in a supportive but, crucially, critically aware environment. DYT also creates superb theatre to watch. And the voices people find are not always in performing. Mine wasn’t. I was a playwright and a director. I went on to direct professionally and set up and ran my own theatre company.
Theatre is an old art form. Learning through digital technology is not, unless you include counting on your fingers as “digital technology” I guess. But when I first read about affective learning having higher impact on memory and social constructivism’s role in personal knowledge building, it all resonated with my experiences as a theatre practitioner. Theatre is a collective experience and being there with other members of an audience creates a dynamic that is unique to that performance.Yet members of that same audience can come away with different interpretations and responses to the play. So it is with a student’s experience of online teaching. There is a line to tread between giving the individual freedom of choice and building a community of learners who feed into each other’s learning, just as an audience can feed itself when, for example, laughter becomes contagious.
And the parallel goes beyond seeing learners as ‘the audience’. At the very heart of DYT was an inherent respect for young people and what they had to say. Paddy O’Dwyer, the founder of DYT, last night put it perfectly when he said “every young person is seen as an artist”. That is to say, a contributor with something to say and a unique voice in which to say it. And, most importantly, they will be listened to.
Is that not a way to view learners; as artists, each of whom have their own history, voice and contribution to make? Self-expression can lead to self-actualisation and there is no reason why an online environment could not be the medium. Theatre, like the academic world, has its conventions which, more or less, should be observed. But ultimately enabling learners to gain confidence and find their voices online gives so much more than mere knowledge in a subject area.
In the grand scheme of things, theatre does not often feel like it is doing truly important work, however the work of Dublin Youth Theatre and other youth theatres with a similar approach really is transforming the lives of people. I hope, in a some small way, my work in enabling staff and students to engage with technology-enhanced learning, is also having a transformative effect.