It was back in 2008 at the 2020 summit in Canberra and the actress was deep in discussion with Professor Robin Ewing from the University of Sydney.

“Cate was really interested in creativity in primary schools and artists in primary schools,” says John Saunders, Education Manager at the Sydney Theatre Company.

“Robin Ewing’s work had been in … helping [teachers] to, I guess, realize their creativity and then, using drama as a teaching tool, as pedagogy, to improve student literacy – so they kind of dreamed up this program.”

The result is School Drama – a seven week professional development intensive that pairs a primary teacher with an artist in residence from the Sydney Theatre Company (STC). Working side by side in the classroom, the pair devise ways to “bring books to life” through drama, whether that be “diving into” key moments and role-playing scenes from a text or analysing character voices.

“I think it starts to demystify the scariness of drama or the unknown,” Saunders says. “And because [teachers are] seeing it they go ‘this is tangible creativity, it’s not this sort of airy fairy idea of creativity and I can definitely do this in my classroom’.” 

This year doubling in size, the program now runs in more than 100 regional New South Wales schools and has spilled across state borders with the help of the South Australian Theatre Company.

While drama can often be forgotten in the classroom, Saunders says the neuroscience suggests it is “more important now than has been ever before” to student engagement. And strong results show it can have plenty of “non-academic outcomes” as well.

“Shifting [student] motivation and engagement in school, shifting their confidence, particularly in sharing their ideas and speaking and writing,” Saunders says. “And also we’ve seen some shifts in empathy where students have talked about standing in the shoes of a character and really deeply understanding that character.”

But, in a crowded curriculum, he says pre-service teaching degrees now spend less and less time on art.

“We’ve seen them cut and cut … so we know that teachers are coming out of university having had very little experience in the arts. We know also, from some of the research, that they really want to be able to teach the arts, they see them as really valuable and important and particularly using them, I suppose, as the glue that can connect curriculum.”

That has certainly been the case for Julie Sonter, who was one of the first teachers to participate in School Drama during an early trial at Plunkett Street Public School. This year, Sonter has been working with the STC’s Zoe Hogan.

“She’s been amazing,” Sonter says of Hogan. “I’ve seen not only the kids grow through the program but myself. I feel much more confident in using drama strategies … the kids are so much more confident, their self-esteem has grown … so not only has it enhanced my teaching, but the whole wellbeing of the class has really been enhanced as well.”

Saunders puts it down to the unique “co-mentoring” model of the program that sees both teacher and artist working together as experts in their field.

“It’s all about empowering those teachers to continue to use the skills that they’ve learnt long after we’ve left them.”