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This Autumn, we’ve got the fullest programme that we’ve ever had in the Drama Department. It feels like we’re in rep at the moment!

Along with our annual Michaelmas show and the popular House Drama competition, this term we’ve added an original Y10 show that’s been written and directed by professional playwright, Martin Murphy, along with a production of Laura’s Wade’s play Alice, entirely produced by pupils. It’s exhausting, but thrilling to see the department thriving.

Having joined the school 15 years ago with a remit to set up A Level Theatre Studies, the subject is now well embedded in Highgate life. GCSE Drama was introduced a few years later, in 2011, and we consistently run two sets at GCSE along with a healthy A Level contingent. We worried that during Covid, the subject might die out because people weren’t used to performing or had lost their confidence, but we had the biggest uptake ever the year we came back to school.

I feel very lucky to teach in a school where we have the resources to facilitate arts subjects. Seeing cultural specialisms being squeezed out of the state curriculum and the growing disparity in arts education is worrying. There’s a danger that it will become known as an elitist area; it seems like a really misguided move.

As human beings, we all need to be able to connect with each other. It’s how we form positive relationships with friends, family and at work. These creative outlets in schools help children learn how to form these connections, as well as developing creative thinking, collaborative working and self-confidence, which are required in every area of life. The creative arts are a huge industry and make an important contribution to the economy – it’s really blinkered.

In our work with London Academy of Excellence, Tottenham (LAET) – our flagship partner school – we have introduced A Level Theatre Studies and Music for the first time this year.  The new drama teacher has set up a popular drama club, and they’re putting on a show themselves. We can see there is such a desire for it and the pupils have so much creative energy.

All pupils at Highgate do drama up until Y9 when they take their GCSE choices. Our annual House Drama competition provides a great way to get involved and is independently run by the pupils. All 12 houses perform in the one-day heats, with four progressing to the final the following evening. There’s excitement each year over who’s going to adjudicate the finals – this year we enlisted OC  Billie Esplen who wrote and directed her own play while she was at Highgate and has gone on to work with Sally Wainwright, on the fantasy series Renegade Nell and has produced a show in Edinburgh this year.

For our school musical next term – which pupils from Y10-13 can audition for – we’ll be performing at the Arts Depot in North London. It’s an exciting opportunity to perform in a larger auditorium.

Our new Y10 production was set up to accommodate the sheer number of pupils we had interested in co-curricular drama. The project was formed in partnership with Martin Murphy, a contact made through the School’s community engagement partnership with Jacksons Lane Theatre. He wrote an original piece, in response to workshops with the pupils, based around ideas important to them.

About ten years ago, we had the idea to transfer some of our work to the Edinburgh Festival. On that first occasion it was very last minute, and we only decided in Lent term. I can’t believe we pulled it off. Now we plan Edinburgh a year in advance and go every other year. This summer we went up with LAET pupils for the first time. It was an amazing experience and the relationships that formed between pupils from the two schools, I hope will be lasting. It felt like a meaningful collaboration and the start of many partner opportunities ahead.

Whenever I’m asked for advice on how to improve in drama, I will always say ‘see as much theatre as you can’. Because that’s where you learn everything. It’s beneficial to see a wide variety, it’s where you get your ideas from and refine your critical eye. Both GCSE and A Level students need to write about live theatre, so we’ve been to see a lot of different productions already this year.

Whilst there can be a level of academic scepticism around the subject, we’ve had many pupils go on to Oxbridge having done Theatre Studies at A Level. University admissions tutors have spoken to pupils to reassure them that they absolutely don’t view it as something that’s going to stand in their way, even if they want to specialise in something else.

Alongside the academic schedule of the department, I’m always encouraging pupils to create their own work. The pupil led production of Alice that’s been going on this term has been steered by a Y13 student who is keen on design and plans to go to university to do stage management. Not all the company are studying Theatre Studies, so that was interesting to see.

They’ve done everything themselves – casting, direction, acting and production – including a visit from the playwright Laura Wade who came in to speak to the cast a few weeks ago. I’ve loved being in that space with so much going on around. Teaching a lesson, while Sixth Formers in their study periods are painting the set or making an oversized teapot. Just seeing them all collaborating felt like such a creative experience and they’ve got so much from the process.

Whenever there’s a show on, there’s a real buzz about the department. People are coming and going, and there are rehearsals taking place in all the available rooms. You’ll walk into a classroom and the kids have pushed the desks back to make space to practise. The main drama studio is an experimental space, which can be transformed into anything – it’s been a forest, a mud field and even Abigail’s Party. We’ve got brilliant theatre technicians; it’s had every kind of set in there and stage configuration that you can imagine.

I love the relationship that we can have with the pupils: they’re fun, intelligent, creative and challenging, but in a good way. They help you think about things differently and it’s always exciting when you’re directing, and someone says, ‘have you thought about doing it this way?’ And that’s collaboration, it’s amazing. You never feel that you are just offloading information – it’s definitely a two-way process.

About the author
Juliet Fehr, Head of Drama
Juliet joined Highgate in 2008 as Head of Drama. She is also a Y12 tutor and loves the daily contact with a small set of pupils, including involvement in the House system. As well as a necessary theatre-going habit, Juliet is a great believer in the mental health benefits of exercise and runs regularly on the Heath.