A CODie Abroad: The Drama Landscape in China

Have you ever wondered what arts education looks like across the globe? What challenges and experiences drama and dance teachers face in other countries? In this edition of ‘A CODie Abroad’, CODE Past President and IDEA Secretary Kim Snider takes us to China, where she explores the challenges and possibilities of drama education in the world’s most populous nation.

This past winter I had the opportunity to travel to China to work with arts educators in Guangzhou, the country’s third-largest city. There, I worked closely with Fresco Su and Lynn Zhang of Artogether, an arts education organization whose aim is to expose Chinese children, parents, and teachers to drama and theatre, subjects not normally taught in school.

“In China, we have an extreme lack of education about arts education,” says Su, who graduated from the University of Warwick’s Drama and Theatre Education Masters program in 2010. “Some teachers are beginning to use ‘play’ in their classrooms and are interested in [drama], but are not confident in using it.”

Artogether believes that while single workshops might give teachers a glimpse of the power of drama and dance, ongoing training courses are needed to help teachers gain the skills to bring the arts into their classrooms. An additional challenge is that many of the tenants of arts education—such as the ability to listen, compromise, and work collaboratively—are concepts that aren’t a part of China’s traditional school system.

“[In drama] there is no certain answer, which isn’t like our education system, where we tell students the answer," says Su. “In drama, we find the answer together.” He explains that though traditional arts such as drawing and music might be taught in Chinese schools, the emphasis is on practicing the skills rather than “seeing creative things happen.”

Su and his colleague Lynn Zhang have created and delivered a series of overnight camps for children and their parents that immerse young people in creative activities such as role-play and movement. They are working on developing training courses and workshops for teachers, as a well as a site-specific performance for young audiences in the coming year.

During my time in China, I delivered a two-day workshop for twenty-seven participants with the help of my translator Lynn. Interestingly, it wasn’t just educators who came to learn about the possibilities of drama education, but office workers, academics, and even parents looking to engage their children in creative pursuits.

Together, we explored games, drama conventions and movement, with a focus on using sources as the basis for dramatic exploration. These sources included the pictures of Harris Burdick, maps, found objects, poetry and stories.

I’ve traveled to over twenty-five countries, and one of my greatest joys when traveling is to learn the traditional stories of a culture. When researching Chinese tales to explore in my workshop, I came across the dramatic and tragic story of Lady Meng Jiang, whose husband died building the Great Wall of China.

Lady Meng Jiang’s story was well known by the workshop participants, but they were both surprised and delighted to explore its intricacies through dance, soundscapes, whole group role-play and more. China, like many countries, is inundated with popular Western stories and teachers often turn to these when creating lessons. “Today I’ve learned that I can use our own stories for creating drama,” said a kindergarten teacher at the end of our session.

My time in China confirmed a number of beliefs I hold dear; that there are passionate arts educators across the globe working to create innovative teaching environments; that anyone can be creative when given the freedom to do so; and that the arts hold tremendous power to inspire and connect people despite their differences. Thank you to Fresco Su and Lynn Zhang of Artogether for sharing their inspiring work with me and with CODE.