The demise of Stage Challenge, and its sibling, J Rock, has provoked widespread and impassioned responses from across the country, writes Emma Willis.

Teachers, students and newsreaders have lamented its loss. “I loved Stage Challenge” declared Kanoa Lloyd on The Project before imploring the Ministry of Education to stump up the shortfall in funds. Theatre, which rarely gains media coverage unless some large-scale spectacular is in town, finds itself briefly in the spotlight.

Such public defence of the performing arts is welcome, even if the occasion is not. From the tertiary sector perspective, arts and humanities have in recent years come under increasing pressure from directives that emphasize to students the “premium” value of STEM subjects – science, technology, engineering and maths – over subjects taken within Bachelor of Arts or Fine Arts degrees. One need only to look at shrinking departments and falling student numbers for evidence of this. Staff at the University of Otago mounted a high profile “Love the Humanities” campaign, for example, in response to job cuts on the campus.

This is not just a local issue. The same struggle to defend the importance of arts subjects is being played out in Australia, the UK, and US. Just google “value of a liberal arts degree” and you’ll find screeds of articles, studies, and opinion pieces articulating the value of the proverbial “bugger all.” STEAM has been proposed – science, technology, engineering, arts and maths – as a replacement for STEM in recognition of the complementarity of, for example, science, and philosophy.

Part of the problem with these pleas for the arts is not their substantive arguments, but the fact that they are mounted from the back foot. Teachers and advocates are in the position of having to defend the arts against what is more and more taken as the normative “common sense” position: Arts are a nice, but non-essential part of the educational experience, and, by extension, society as a whole.

And poor old theatre is often trotted out as the example par excellence of why not to do an arts, or even worse, performing arts degree.

When in 2016 the Ministry of Education and Statistics New Zealand released data revealing what graduates in various fields earn in the first nine years of their employment, performing arts was languishing at the bottom of the table. Steven Joyce remarked that, “To some extent students will always want to follow their passion but this information will help them to see where their passion may lead them in terms of future income”. It is worth remarking that long-term studies have revealed that while Arts graduates may earn less in the short-term, in the long-term they often out-pace more technically oriented degree graduates.

The choice to “follow your passion” suggests dreamers and fantasists fool-hardily turning away from “a prosperous future” and letting the nation down in the process: we need engineers, not clowns!

Joyce’s remark is worth further scrutiny, however. The choice to “follow your passion” suggests dreamers and fantasists fool-hardily turning away from “a prosperous future” and letting the nation down in the process: we need engineers, not clowns! Having represented the drama major at university courses and careers days, I can attest that the perceived “poor value” of such a degree is a fear held by a great many parents: What kind of job will my child get?

But the clichéd trope of “following your passion,” evoking images of self-focused aspirants, doesn’t tally with the character or motivation of the young people that I find in my classroom. Instead, I would describe these students as making their study decisions based on their values: Curiosity, creativity, community, empathy. I admire them for this. In a climate where they are frequently reminded of the folly of getting a performing arts degree, they go ahead and do what feels right for them. In an era of rational pragmatics (the dogma of “common sense”), these students refuse to base their life-decisions on the tabulation of future income. And I would argue that this kind of attitude is what enables them to forge empowered paths in life.

Theatre is the study of what it means to be human. It involves putting yourself in someone else’s shoes, trying to see the world through their eyes. And in an educational context, the process of doing this is more important than the outcome. Not only do students learn the very soft skills that are so valued in today’s employment environment – team work, listening, problem solving and so on – they are engaged in creating meaning. What programmes like Stage Challenge say is that such work matters, that creative and philosophical labour is important.

Last year our stage one drama students each had to give a three-minute speech, entitled, “What Matters to Me.” It was a completely captivating, humbling and eye-opening experience to listen to student after student share on topics ranging from myth, to identity, to the pressure to achieve, to theatre itself. Activities like Stage Challenge give students the opportunity to express what matters to them and to shape their values in the process. That should matter to all of us.

Dr Emma Willis is a senior lecturer in drama at the University of Auckland

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