The Power of The Arts- why the arts are important

A black background with a string of pink and blue blurred loghts across the centre overlaid by a white box in which the title The Power of The Arts then a decorative line with a sunrise effect in the centre and Why the arts are important written in black bold font

In a previous post Save The Arts, I spoke about how the arts are in a danger as a result of the Covid 19 pandemic and unfortunately, they are still in a precarious situation. Today, I want to talk about why the arts are important, the power they possess and why the danger they are in could have far-reaching effects.

Perhaps you’re someone who has never believed that the arts are important. Perhaps this pandemic and the lack of live arts with no concerts, no seeing a band in the local pub, no open mic nights, no live stand-up, no attending your favourite festival, no seeing the latest films at the cinema, art galleries closed for so long and of course the prolonged closure of theatres and other arts venues that has stopped us from seeing plays, musicals, opera, orchestras, ballet and dance, to name just a few, has made you realise how much the arts matter to you and how much you miss them. Or maybe this year has afforded you more time reading, watching box sets and films, writing, playing an instrument or getting your art and craft supplies out and rediscovering or discovering a new interest has made you realise how much you rely on the arts and what an integral part of your days they’ve been.

The arts have a huge influence on us as individuals, whether they entertain, evoke emotion, allow us to express ourselves, make memories and connect us to others. However, today I wanted to focus on and share examples of not just the personal effect the arts have but the transformative power they have on individuals, society and our local communities, which I believe are the heart of the arts.

The Arts as a means of education

The arts play an important role in our education system, however beyond being subjects they can be applied to the education system in other ways to aid learning and understanding. One of these is Theatre in Education (TiE). Simply put TiE uses theatre to educate by giving students a more visual, practical and immersive means of learning which allows them to gain further understanding of the subject or themes in a show and accompanying workshops, which may be curriculum-based or issue-based but aimed at school-aged children. I will include examples of both in this post and although the examples are theatre/ drama based they often incorporate many other art forms such as music, song, dance, poetry, puppetry, mask and art.

Even though I do not recall experiencing any TiE while I was in school TiE was still the first example I had of the wider impact the arts could have beyond their personal benefits and it made me fall in love with theatre all the more. I was introduced to TiE through attending weekly workshops at Theatr Clwyd where we’d sometimes get to watch their TiE productions. Later on, I had the opportunity to get involved in the workshop side and experience what makes this format so educational and immersive. Shows were created around the curriculum, such as a certain period in history, and designed to help give the children a fuller understanding of the topic by attending the theatre to watch the show, participate in a q & a with the actors and take part in workshops based around the themes of the show. Teachers were also provided with education packs to help continue the discussion in the classroom. The show I assisted on, The Voyage, written and directed by Tim Baker was set in the Victorian era and explored issues such as poverty and workhouses. Pupils got to use drama to explore what it might have been like to live during that era, have to go live in a workhouse and the impact of the class system. I certainly noticed that the children engaged well with the subject, got to exercise their imagination and creativity and went away having learnt something new whilst having fun in the process.

Another example of a curriculum and history-based TiE show is Theatr na nÔg‘s production The White Feather written by Keiron Self and set during the First World War. The show was first performed in 2014 and was later revived in 2018 with “a play and a whole day of activities to commemorate the end of World War 1 and the Centenary of the Women’s Vote” (1) aimed at KS2 and KS3 students. Primary school pupils could watch the show, take part in a q & a with the actors and participate in workshops at Swansea Museum and the National Waterfront Museum. While secondary school students took part in a free research workshop at West Glamorgan Archive Service “to explore the important role that women played in the conflict as munitions workers, nurses and Land Girls. Attention will also be given to the moving story of local conscientious objectors… The session will also look at the suffrage movement in South Wales with particular attention to local suffragettes and suffragists. Students will also have the opportunity to carry out their own research using a variety of original documents.” (2) Here we see a combination of art forms and organisations working together to create an educational experience and history being brought to life through the play and witnessing original documents. Students also got to feel more connected to historical events by learning about their local area and people during that time.

The arts as a means of raising awareness and addressing social issues

As mentioned above TiE (as well as other art forms) can be used to educate and address certain social issues whether they are more global topics such as racism or more specific issues arising in local communities or schools. The arts can help address these issues, explore why they may happen, educate about the consequences in order to help tackle the problem, create a more unified community, provide an exercise in empathy and foster an understanding of the world around us.

Taking Flight theatre company in partnership with Disability Wales produced a show called Real Human Being, written by Matthew Bulgo which toured schools and communities between 2012- 2016. The purpose of the show and its accompanying activities was to raise awareness of and help tackle disability hate crime. It allowed the audiences to “explore the impact of negative behaviour… they were allowed in a safe environment, to experiment with their own ideas for dealing with abusive behaviour or bullying. Although the day was geared towards understanding and tackling Disability Hate Crime many of these themes and techniques are universal and could be applied to other situations.”(3) The show greatly benefited from using disabled actors not only as it’s important for representation and that disabled people should tell their own stories and their lived experience but it allowed “young audiences in schools and other types of provision to evaluate their own ideas and feelings around disability and disabled people. Through candid interaction with our disabled performers, understanding and acceptance was increased.”(4) This may have been their first in-depth interaction with disabled people and was all-important in stressing that disabled people are real human beings too.

Elise Davison, Artistic Director of Taking Flight said that they often get asked when the show is returning and they feel a real need to revive it. Sadly, with the rise in disability hate crime and discrimination against disabled people, I think there is certainly a need but also feel that projects like this could be a great way to help address the issue. I’d definitely love to see it in action.

Theatr Clwyd’s Justice in a Day project in conjunction with the Police and Communities Trust (PACT) North Wales has been running for 10 years. Creative Engagement Associate Emyr John says that its aim is to “educate young people about the consequences of criminal behaviour,” giving an insight into “how the criminal justice system functions in the way it treats young people under 18 but also the dangers surrounding those people who are getting involved.”(5) Aimed at year 8 and 9 students the show and it’s activities help to address and hopefully reduce criminal activity. Each year PACT will propose an issue guided by the types of crime they are seeing in the area. Over the years the show has addressed domestic violence, arson, knife crime, steroid abuse, county lines, internet abuse, grievous bodily harm and underage drinking. The format of the event is that the students are shown a scene and then do an activity based on that scene while it is still fresh in their minds, often getting to talk with the actors or members of the actual police to help deepen their understanding. The experience is heightened by a visit to a local Crown Court, where the students have to go through the security checks and sit in a courtroom where a real magistrate and police officers take part in the sentencing scene to really get a sense of the consequences of criminal behaviour and hopefully act as a deterrent.

Such a long-standing partnership between the theatre and PACT shows a real belief that the arts can help impact social change, the power that they can wield and that they are clearly noticing a positive change in the community.

During my undergraduate degree, I was involved in at university was creating a short film in conjunction with the police and fire and rescue services to help tackle the rise in deliberate fires and the consequences of hoax calls in the local area. As well as raise awareness of The Phoenix Project an initiative who “invest in young people, utilising the skills, experience and reputation of the North Wales Fire and Rescue Service for the benefit of the community of North Wales. Reducing fire deaths and injuries in the region.” (6) We got to devise, script and film the piece, which showed how a group of youths got involved in starting deliberate fires as well as the dangerous consequences of hoax calls. During filming, we got to work with the fire service to safely film a car set alight to physically show how quickly a small fire can escalate. The film was shown around the local area and in public spaces as an awareness piece. The university continues to work with the emergency services to create different educational pieces to help educate, prevent issues in the area and for training purposes.

The arts have even been used to help children understand the changes Covid 19 has imposed on our lives and help them make sense of these uncertain times. Hot Coals Productions alongside School Poet have filmed “A New Kind of Normal,” combining performance  illustrations and animation to create an “interactive performance poem in 8 parts to help primary school children discuss, process and flourish from their experiences of the Covid 19 pandemic and lockdown.” (7) The interactive elements and teacher resources encourage “the children to think about what they would like to see in their own ‘My New Kind of Normal,’” designed to “help foster deeper understanding of the messages of the poem- such as the power of community and the importance of our planet.” Encouraging the children to get creative and even write their own poetry. What’s even more wonderful about this piece is that it has integrated captions, BSL and sign supported English to make it accessible.

The arts in health and healthcare

In recent years the arts are being used more in healthcare with art sessions offered to inpatients in hospitals and other healthcare settings such as care homes. They’re even being used as part of treatment and care plans that can be “socially prescribed” or patients being referred to local arts programmes as health boards and public health services partner with arts organisations, charities and practitioners to create more holistic approaches for patients healthcare and symptom management, particularly those living with long-term conditions. As well as helping address some of the well-being effects a diagnosis can bring such as depression and loneliness. These types of programmes have been widely used in Dementia and Alzheimer’s care.

One such project is Theatr Clwyd together with Betsi Cadwalader University Health Board’s Arts from the Armchair a “theatre-based multi arts intervention for people with mild cognitive impairment and their carers.” The project aims to “design activities which help in their management of a life-changing prognosis. It avoids risk of isolation and loss of meaningful social interaction,” as well as “providing an opportunity for creative experiences in a safe, supported and structured way and promote well-being through improved engagement.” (8) Participants take part in a range of activities from a wide spectrum of the arts, tailoring sessions to meet participants interests and are often connected to other events at the theatre with casts and creatives joining in sessions or doing q & a’s, set tours, visiting different departments such as wardrobe and social visits to the cinema and theatre. As well as benefitting from intergenerational activities and connection with visits from pupils a local school. Participants, their families and carers very much become a part of the theatre family and have an environment in which they feel safe and included.

Dance for Parkinson’s is a “dance project that aims to help improve the lives of people living with Parkinson’s Disease.” (9) Established in the UK in 2008 with English National Ballet, Dance for Parkinson’s now has partnerships nationally with National Dance Company Wales, Dance East, Merseyside Dance Initiative and Oxford City Council. There are also other networks including National Ballet Scotland. It welcomes people living with Parkinson’s Disease, their families and carers “to explore narrative, characters, themes, concepts and music which in turn stimulates imagination and encourages freedom of expression.” Through this programme, attendees learn ways to manage their symptoms, explore their range of movement and have “developed lasting friendships which have greatly improved their confidence and reduced feelings of isolation.” (10) One participant said “It makes me feel I can cope better, I can walk better… it’s the best medicine.” (11)

Creu/ Create is a project aimed at young people aged 12-16 who are experiencing mental health problems ran by Conwy Arts Trust, Venue Cymru, CAMHS and Conwy County Borough Council. Designed to help participants well-being, give coping strategies and ways of dealing with their mental health, build confidence, bring a sense of hope and purpose and form friendships through engaging with the arts and being creative. One Create Participant said, “I’ve done something this evening I thought I’d never do- I made a friend,” (12) which shows how life-changing and life-affirming this project feels to its attendees. The project covers a wide range of creative activities often based on participants interests and what they enjoy but can include film making, acting, rapping, dancing, writing, drawing, building computer games, photography and editing, composing, lighting design, directing, sound engineering, cooking, playing games and chatting. (13) And also benefits from collaborations with arts professionals from Venue Cymru and other backgrounds. Participants can be referred onto the programme from their GP, school counsellor or mental health practitioner.

During my degree, I got to experience how theatre/ drama can be applied to a slightly different side of healthcare by taking part in a GP training exercise, in which we got to act out the role of the patients. The medical examiners set out a series of briefs for us actors, covering who the character was, their background, why they had made a GP appointment along with anything else they wanted us to highlight as clues for the doctors to hopefully pick up on or to behave in a certain way that added to what the doctor needed to handle. For example, in one of my scenarios I played a character who wanted antibiotics for a cough who got quite insistent if they felt “fobbed off” and not given the antibiotics. The GPs had no prior information, reflecting a real-life situation and were assessed on not just identifying the problem and their advice but the way they interacted with the patient and dealt with each situation to help prepare them for the varied patients and situations they’d face in general practice. This is a long-standing partnership and again clearly shows a belief that the arts play an effective and necessary role in their training and development.

Apologies to keep mentioning projects I did during my degree but it really did help cement how widely applied the arts can be and made me love them all the more for the power they can wield.

I hope that this post has enlightened you about the influence the arts have beyond the areas we usually associate them with and stressed their importance. That arts are educational, informative, a vehicle to help raise awareness and help tackle social issues. They have the ability to help increase our knowledge, increase our empathy and make us more understanding. As well as give certain health benefits, improve our mental health, connect us to others and unify communities. They can even help fight crime!

Without the arts we risk losing all this.

A big thank you to everyone who sent in suggestions for this post. Apologies, I have not been able to use them all but then this post would be a novel. But there are plenty of projects out there using the arts to make impactful and positive changes.

Sources for information used in this post:

  1. Information from Theatre na nÔg’s website.
  2. Information from Theatre na nÔg’s website.
  3. Information from Taking Flight website.
  4. Information from Taking Flight website.
  5. Information from promotion video for Justice in a Day, Connor’s Time.
  6. Information from North Wales Fire and Rescue Service website.
  7. Information from School Poet website.
  8. Information from Arts and Health in Wales A Mapping Study of current activity 2018.
  9. Information from Arts and Health in Wales A Mapping Study of current activity 2018.
  10. Information from Arts and Health in Wales A Mapping Study of current activity 2018.
  11. Information from National Dance Company Wales website.
  12. Information from Venue Cymru website.
  13. Information from The Create Project website.

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