More than a hobby

2008-09-30 00:00

SAY the name “Baron Cohen” and most people will think of Sacha Baron Cohen wearing his lime-green “mankini” in the hilarious film Borat. But it was a different Baron Cohen who was in Pietermaritzburg last week — and he was much more conventionally dressed.

Dan Baron Cohen is the president of the International Drama and Theatre Education Association (Idea) and was in the city for the Performing Identities conference, hosted by the drama department on the local university campus. Idea is linked to the United Nations Education, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (Unesco), and is involved in encouraging the use of the arts, and particularly theatre, in education.

Baron Cohen studied popular educational theatre at Oxford and later worked with playwrights Edward Bond in England and Ngugi wa Thiong’o in Kenya. He currently lives in Brazil where he has worked with landless people, trade unions and indigenous and university communities. And, yes, when asked if he is related to the other Baron Cohen, he laughs. “He’s related to me,” he says. They are cousins.

“We are at a time of little hope and great need for an optimistic vision,” he says, explaining that as president of Idea, he has had contact with governments all over the world, and that there is enormous concern about how to find an education model that is appropriate to prepare young people for life in our multicultural societies. “The 19th-century model that has been used for education is in crisis in the 21st century,” he says. He talks about Finland, which is considered to have a good education system, but has just seen its second school shooting in a year.

Baron Cohen talks about how teachers the world over are facing unprecedented problems brought into classrooms by children. “There are two new needs for education. To deal with the absence of social relationships in many homes — no father, no mother or no parents at all. And the sexualisation of childhood and the extension of adolescence. It is starting earlier and ending later. There is a loss of adult responsibility and adolescence is extending into the 20s and 30s.” Then there are environmental issues, rising suicide figures, depression, obesity and a growing need to equip children to handle these things within their communities. Teachers must be trained to do that.

Baron Cohen and Veronica Baxter of the drama department, who was the convener of the conference, both believe that theatre — and all the humanities — are vital tools in this area. And they don’t need sophisticated facilities, just a space, whether it is a classroom or a playground, and human beings. Baron Cohen says that, on his travels around Africa, he has found numbers of schools and teachers doing just that, although there are still many parents and teachers who think theatre is, at best, a hobby.

In an age where technology is often seen as a new god, the arts can be sidelined. Baron Cohen is the co-ordinator of the World Alliance for Arts Education which is made up of Idea, the International Society for Education Through Art and the International Society for Music Education. In 2006, in response to the demands of 140 countries, a world conference was held where the alliance set out proposals and explained that the skills, ideas and practical ways of applying the arts to education were available. “After all, theatre is not only made in theatres,” he says. “Every human is both an actor and audience at all times.”

“Too often, people are throwing the baby out with the bath water,” says Baxter. “The emphasis is on one set of skills, with funding emphasis going to science and technology. Obviously they are important, but the role of the humanities as a way of understanding the world is being eroded.” The conference was talking about applied theatre — how to use it to help the marginalised, to bring awareness and to educate on all levels.

“Theatre is outstanding here,” says Baron Cohen. “Paradoxically, it is because of the legacy of the past. This is a society threatened by violence and scarred by hundreds of years of inequality. And that has sharpened the debate. There are insights here that are not in more developed countries.”

Not that it is going to be easy. Too often, issue-based theatre can be “dire” and coercive, admits Baxter — not the way to engage with a young audience, or indeed, any audience. People still trot out the tired old clichés, sometimes in the hope that they will get funding. What is needed is a way to create new work that reflects the lived experience in an entertaining and engaging way.

Baxter uses the play Every Year, Every Day, I am Walking, which was one of the hits of the recent Witness Hilton Arts Festival, as an example. Dealing with the plight of refugees and their struggles against uncaring societies and xenophobia, it is powerful theatre without ever resorting to heavy-handed polemic. “We need to build a bridge between the pleasure you can get from artistic work and the development of human beings,” says Baron Cohen. “Without that bridge, politicians continue to think about art as an event.”

There are signs that politicians are listening, says Baron Cohen. Some countries, like Brazil, have already put new policies for teacher training into place. The recent conference, where nine countries were represented, saw heads of university drama departments meeting teachers and talking about forming networks to talk to politicians and put pressure on governments. It is a start and as governments realise that education is failing the next generation of citizens of a permanently changing world, maybe they will be prepared to allow theatre and other arts a space in classrooms to show what they can do.


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