My mother will tell you that I always liked school. If I didn’t want to go, she knew I was either sick, bullied, or had a math test. Mum’s a teacher (especially skilled in drama and comprehension) and it’s thanks to her that I enjoyed school despite my tonsils, meanies and maths. She knew me and that I worried. She knew that despite my clever accountant Dad and his best efforts to explain long division, I struggled with math. She knew that words muddled themselves up and that reading (without pictures!) was difficult. She also knew that drama was an important part of children’s learning and development. So, I went to drama class.
Learning to count to 100 was nerve-racking. The teacher who taught it was probably the scariest person on planet earth. Tears were shed. Then a stroke of genius hit, and Mum brought out the counting mat. This calico square had numbers 1 to 100 on it, set out with 1-10 across the top and so on. A pattern emerged! I saw the numbers down each column line up and repeat on each row with a new leader. I sat on the mat, with Mum’s stories and songs and learned to count to 100. This mat was magic. And so was my Mum.
As I grew older, the gap between me and the rest of the class lessened. My teachers labelled me a 'good reader'. Even maths improved! Although it’s never been my favourite, I was never the bottom of the class.
The largest contributor to this improvement was drama. My parents were heavily involved in theatre and I lived for it. As I thrived acting out a scene pretending to be a camel, so did my reading, general knowledge, communication, mathematics, problem solving and social skills.
(There are countless studies on the benefits of drama for learning. This one explores how time spent and enjoyed in arts, increases ability to learn other things. Science!)
Drama was a saviour in high-school. Bullies get meaner, subjects get harder. But drama gave me the confidence to try anything, because I excelled in that subject, it felt possible to try everything. Everybody can succeed in drama - at their own level - there is never any failure.
In drama, 'weird', quiet Belinda was no longer silenced. There was no need to hide. We could let go of high-school and just be people. And drama's non-competitive nature meant we were all equal.
For an hour, I got to let go of my worries and be someone else. I even got the chance to act the bully, discovering how that feels and what might make someone behave that way. To play a character, you must identify with them. Drama teaches you to feel what others feel. I grew more empathetic.
I still believe drama equipped me to survive high-school.
(Imagine if the people who send asylum seekers into abuse on Nauru and Manus were in drama class right now, putting themselves in another’s place. Weekly drama classes should be compulsory for politicians.)
When the time came to pick another course of study, I couldn’t think of anything else I needed to do. Because of drama I felt I was capable of anything. I wanted to save the world. Maybe a teacher? Or an early child carer? Or a shop owner? Or a computer tech?
Thankfully, I left saving the world until later, and stuck with Performing Arts. I moved to Melbourne and met a kindred spirit in Jennifer Piper. We started wit incorporated, and spend our days (and nights) making theatre in Footscray.
Several of Mum's drama students are still in theatre, 40 years later. But drama has benefits beyond a career in the arts. While I was travelling towards theatre, my classmates were following other paths. Mum remembers someone who struggled to form sentences when she first arrived, who later worked in Public Relations in Auckland and then advertising in Spain. Other students are now film techs, marine biologists and primary teachers. We don’t learn communication and confidence from any subject the way do from drama. And we need to communicate, no matter our occupation.
My love for children's drama survived adulthood and I continue to introduce children from diverse backgrounds to the joy of drama.
It might not sound much like saving the world, but when I look through the eyes of my students (and think about how it looked to my own 5-year-old self), creating drama's safe, collaborative, artistic, explorative, inspiring environment for kids almost feels like saving the world. Because drama saved me.
Because of drama I am an actor, salesperson, playwright, teacher, director, production manager and entrepreneur. Did I ever expect to balance budgets and write business proposals? No! But I can. Thanks to drama. And Mum.
Belinda Campell has a Bachelor of Performing Arts from NASDA (NZ). She's the Artistic Director of wit incorporated and runs the children's drama program, Wit Kids. Enrolments are now open via witinc.com.au/wit-kids