Why are the most elite schools in China interested in adding theatre to their curriculum? Twenty-first century skills

By Julie Theobald posted 05-20-2014 16:12


Last fall I was approached by a Chinese company, Dipont Education Management, who was interested in partnering with the Educational Theatre Association to launch U.S.-style drama in schools in China. Dipont caters to high-achieving Chinese students with supplemental programs to enrich their education.

Recently Matt Conover and I traveled with Dipont through China to understand the landscape of Chinese education and their vision for what drama could do for their students.  

Education is a very high priority in China. For more than thirty years the government has enforced a one-child policy to control population growth (now somewhat relaxed), so the parents are even more invested in their single child’s success. For the affluent, that begins with the very best education, starting with selective kindergartens. Their children go to school for much longer hours, more months of the year, and have ingrained a strong work ethic.

We started our journey of four cities in four days by visiting the Nanjing Foreign Language School, one of the most prestigious high schools in China. It is a public school but highly selective, with four thousand applicants for three hundred spots—and those applicants are from a pool that has already been screened down at the elementary and middle school levels.

The Nanjing Foreign Language School philosophy states in part: “In this school, we believe we must dream, as well as act, to accomplish great things.” The lobby includes an etched glass plaque prominently displaying where their 2013 graduates are attending college: Harvard, Columbia, Northwestern, Duke, Chicago, Dartmouth, Cornell, Grinnell, and the list goes on. I met with their principal (“school head” as they call it) and she wants to encourage student participation in drama to build self-confidence.  How affirming it was that one of the most elite schools was looking to build a drama program to grow their top students and distinguish their school.  


I watched about twenty-five students who signed up to experience drama for the very first time.  The American teacher, Elise Lammers, asked all the students to come up on stage and form a circle, and went through familiar warm-ups like stretching the body, vocalizing, and doing a mirror exercise with a partner. When asked to deliver the line “I said a BOOM CHICKA BOOM” as a janitor, astronaut, and with an upper class British accent, the Chinese students responded with wide eyes, giggles, and increasing confidence.  I took fulfillment in watching the students transform from embarrassed to focused and specific in their pantomime exercise at the end of the class. Originally Ms. Lammers asked for one or two groups to perform their piece while the others sat in the audience, but soon all hands went up and wanted a turn.


After the forty-five-minute “demo class,” which closely resembled an American introduction to acting class, we talked about theatre education in the U.S. and showed a video of our international Thespian Festival. When it came time for Q&A, the questions all followed a very similar theme: “Will we get drama at our school?” “How can we get drama at our school?” “How can you tell the government and the rest of China that we need drama?” and the all-important, “How can I convince my parents I need to sign up for drama?” In response to that last one, I explained the research that shows how participation in the arts and theatre builds life skills and is correlated to higher academic performance. When I pulled out the “Did You Know” advocacy piece created by EdTA, and read the statement that research from the College Board shows students who take four years of arts classes score 104 points higher on their SATs, the reaction in the room was audible. These students have been raised on the importance of doing well on tests and particularly the SAT, with their desire to go to U.S. colleges.

Day 2

We left very early and hopped on a plane to Beijing to the RDFZ school, one of the top schools in Beijing. I met my new “Chinese sister,” one of the school heads who was wearing an outfit very similar to mine!


I felt like a celebrity as they welcomed me with a billboard above the building and brought me to a ceremonial room with cameras flashing, flowers on the table, and prominent figures at the school and in the Chinese government. They showed a video about the school that displayed their obvious pride in their global accomplishments. RDFZ students performed a musical concert in Russia, played soccer with Brazilian athletes, met with foreign diplomats, and clearly were high achievers. We had translators in the room so our conversation was more formal.  I shared my personal experience with theatre education as a student, and how it taught me risk-taking, humility, perseverance, discipline, accountability, and gave me confidence and joy.  The administrator reiterated that the college admissions officers were telling her the same thing; the twenty-first century skills of collaboration, communication, critical thinking, and creativity are what they desire in applicants from China.

Then the students arrived in our room. Their chemistry teacher from the U.K . had just directed them in their first real production—A Christmas Carol. The actor playing Scrooge and the actress playing Jacob Marley talked about their characters. Scrooge had to go through a transformation in the play as he realized that good was better than evil.  The Chinese girl playing Marley had to find a deeper voice and more imposing physical presence to back up Marley who is “mean” and not like her own personality. They told us how they used projections on screens to establish the setting since they didn’t have the means to create a full-out set.


Afterward we were swarmed by students in an informal Q&A. They wanted our autographs and had questions about Broadway and how to produce a musical at their school.

Day 3

After a traditional Peking duck dinner and another very early flight, we were back in Shanghai.  Today was more of a business day as we were interviewed by a popular magazine in Shanghai, The Bund, whose writer wanted to understand the differences between Chinese and U.S. approaches to theatre education. After the interview, we brainstormed with Dipont on how to essentially create the field of theatre education—an ecosystem—where one does not exist.  Dipont has recently partnered with the National Forensic League to create a U.S.-style debate program in China that has grown quickly to three thousand debaters, with some even attending U.S. tournaments and camps. We talked about the chicken-or-the-egg dilemma of how to get teachers, students, school administrators, and parents on board. Dipont’s vision is to start by hiring the teachers. By starting at the few top schools whose administration “gets it,” doing a demo class and enabling students to experience drama, they will create a demand and other schools will follow.  

Day 4

Our final city, final day was in Hangzhou, an hour train ride from Shanghai. Here we visited the Hangzhou No. 14 High School and met the teachers who are innovating the education system.

In our last school visit, the one-year-old drama club performed for us an original one-act play written by a student. It was entitled “Madhouse” and had a slight resemblance to One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, through the eyes of a Chinese student novice in playwriting. The students were fully committed to their characters, expressing themselves in English, and worked tirelessly to pull off the production in between studying and taking AP exams. The audience was truly involved, and they laughed, gasped, and applauded in reaction to the work onstage. 


The dynamic in the room after the performance felt eerily familiar. We shared our feedback and the students expressed their enthusiasm for performing. I observed that natural “high” that occurs from the feeling of accomplishment and bonding within a cast and crew.  It was pure joy for me to experience their enthusiasm. They had caught the bug!


I learned this week that China is on the cusp of big change, and that change is all about being more open. The headlines in today’s newspaper talked of the government changing policies to encourage more trade, reducing red tape, “deepening reform and opening up more.”  Even the Chinese auto industry is recognizing they have a long way to go on innovation and creativity. To compete in the world market, you need to create new products.  “Auto industry leaders must make their employees secure enough to think out of the box and get out of their comfort zone. I believe this will increase innovation,” said Rachel Xiao, talent and competence managing director at Volvo China.  (Sound familiar, theatre peeps?!) Theatre games and many of the things we do in theatre classes are all about creating a comfortable environment for risk taking.

It occurred to me that this is how a movement begins, with a spark of inspiration. Will theatre education in China become a movement? Will it transfer around the world and help growth and access in the U.S.? How ironic it is that the US is preoccupied with STEM because of Asia, and here are the very top schools in Asia looking at how to apply U.S. theatre education to make their students more well-rounded.

I hope that EdTA and our programs like ITS and the Thespian Festival can help this company and ecosystem to grow in China. It will be a great test and testament of our value. Recognizing student achievement, supporting teachers with professional development and a peer network, influencing public opinion including parents, government, and school  administration… that is what we can bring, and what these Chinese kids need to have the opportunities to grow as future leaders in the world.