Dramatic arts teach Al Ain pupils self-confidence and skills

Mastering public speaking through the performing arts is just one of the countless skills pupils learn by participating in dramatic arts at school, both experts and teenagers say.

Roger Shipton directs Al Ain English Speaking School pupils during a rehearsal of Bugsy Malone. Ravindranath K / The National
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AL AIN // There was a time when teenager Stefan Wharwood was intimidated by the thought of performing before an audience.

But since becoming involved in drama at Al Ain English Speaking School, the 17-year-old has not only overcome his fear – he thrives on stage to the point where it has become a welcome creative refuge from the everyday demands of his academic life.

"At school, with all the stress and the worries to get the right grades and stuff, when you come on the stage, it's like you forget your name, you forget what subject you have next, you just act," said Stefan, who plays Fizzy in the school's production of Bugsy Malone.

“And it’s so enjoyable because you do it with your friends. It’s like an alternate reality. You have a character to play. That character doesn’t have any of your worries in your daily life.”

Mastering public speaking through the performing arts is one of the many skills pupils learn by participating in dramatic arts at school, according to experts and pupils.

While many private schools offer theatre, art and music classes or programmes, these subjects have been less developed in the public school system, where the emphasis has been on promoting science, technology, engineering and maths.

But last year, Abu Dhabi Education Council announced changes to the public education system aimed at enhancing art and music education in state schools.

The reforms are taking shape in parallel with the country’s growing cultural ambitions, recently manifested in the launch of Dubai Opera last year, and is also highlighted by the much-anticipated opening of Louvre Abu Dhabi on Saadiyat Island this year.

Dr Scott Kaufman, the scientific director of the Philadelphia-based Imagination Institute and a speaker at last month’s World Government Summit, said arts education had value beyond academic grades.

“There is great value in investing in art and music programmes in school,” he said. “Arts engagement has value as an end in itself by helping us to make sense of the world, express our deepest selves, and increase social cohesion through sharing and collective viewing.

“The arts don’t have value to the extent to which they impact on Stem [science, technology, engineering and maths]. It has value because it’s what makes us human.”

But to really appreciate the value of performing arts education and get a first-hand account of the effect it has on pupils, look at the evidence on stage, said Roger Shipton, head of drama at Al Ain English Speaking School.

“It teaches them to be part of a team but also to be a successful individual,” Mr Shipton said.

“The thing about drama is that it undoubtedly requires leadership skills. I do need leaders on stage. But at the same time, I can’t just have people who want to celebrate their own performance, they must be working for the team.”

For 16-year-old Emirati Ahmed Al Shaikh, who portrays Fat Sam in the play , the real reward for all that after-school teamwork is simply being able to put on a good performance for the public.

“Being a part of a play is really hard, but in the end the feeling you get when all these people are entertained ... that’s the payoff for all the hard work,” Ahmed said. “It’s more something you can feel, the feeling you get when we finish a play, that fun – that happy feeling.”

“A sense of completion,” said Zimbabwean Naftali Tanyongana, 18, who plays Bugsy Malone. “It’s a really fun experience to have and you get to show off in front of a lot of people. You get to go in front and say, ‘I’m the star’.”

Bugsy Malone will be staged at the school on March 13 and 14.