Life is theatre. Theatre is life. If we’re showing what life is, can be, we must do theatre.María Irene Fornés, Fefu and Her Friends.
This line, spoken by Emma—my favorite character from my favorite play, María Irene Fornés’ Fefu and Her Friends—echoes the educational philosophy of her namesake, Emma Sheridan Fry. “Life is Activity,” Sheridan Fry states in her 1913 book Educational Dramatics, and activity is theatre. What I love about María Irene Fornés’ play is that it is inhabited by women—bold, audacious, and arguably melodramatic women. Fornés provides a salon space where these women can debate and perform both their artistic and educational sensibilities. What I love about Emma is her unabashed embrace of theatricality. For her character, theatricality is a means of communicating, teaching, and living. She breathes theatricality.
When Fornés stumbled upon Sheridan Fry’s book, she saw her own teaching philosophy reflected in the text and had to incorporate it into her play. Fornés sees her play “as a lesson, because I feel that art ultimately is a teacher.” And this, is the crux of Sheridan Fry’s method. It’s all about arts integration.
“The significance of the Dramatic Instinct to the educator is that it exists in everyone and stimulates the Being to activity in any department … The educator inducing Dramatic Instinct thus comes into control of natural activities, and may select, develop, and regulate them to accomplish his [sic] educational intent.”
Sheridan Fry was ahead of her time. She saw theatrical tools as life tools that could develop a sense of self, improve speech and literacy, stimulate imaginations, and broaden a student’s horizons. Sheridan Fry’s pedagogical methods anticipated sociodrama, role-playing, and other theatrical activities integrated into classrooms of all kinds. Because theatre is an art that encompasses and integrates other arts, it is uniquely positioned for arts integration in classrooms.
In a way, working with the Englert and FilmScene on their Strengthen.Grow.Evolve Campaign this summer, I feel like one of the women in Fornés’ play. I’ve been engaging in a salon of sorts, talking to the staff of both organizations to learn about educational opportunities presented by the Englert and FilmScene for K-12 students and to locate places where we can meet the needs of local schools and school districts.
Educational dramatics and drama, more generally, are fruitful places for arts organizations, like the Englert, to aid schools in opening and expanding opportunities for students. Drama and theatre curriculum is scarce in the state, as well as the four school districts in Johnson County (Iowa City, Clear Creek Amana, Lone Tree, and Solon). Enrollment in theatre or drama programs statewide is at a staggeringly low 3%. In Iowa City and Clear Creek Amana, it’s 2%. In Solon, 1%. And it’s even lower in Lone Tree. Some schools offer extracurricular activities, but these opportunities are not equitable across Iowa City let alone the county. Extracurricular and elective theater programs are also often not available to students until high school. Most elementary students are not given the opportunity to cultivate an interest in drama unless it is integrated in other curricular areas. There are currently no initiatives state-wide, county-wide, or even in the Iowa City Community school district for arts or dramatic integrated lessons, training, or curriculum.
Jessica Egli, the events director at the Englert, has begun to address this need by running workshops during after school programming around the district, creating the Acting Out! summer camp, and producing the Acting Out! Prep School, a ten-video workshop series available on YouTube. Acting Out! is a week-long camp for 4th-6th graders dedicated to using theater to build skills for life as well as dramatic strategies that can transfer to other learning environments. When I sat down with Jessica to discuss Acting Out!, she told me:
“My background is in theatre. Theatre has everything to do with self-exploration, trust, teamwork and all those good life skills. Acting Out! is kind of my baby. It’s not like some camps, where you just learn a play and then perform it. We’re building skills. We do this in two ways. First, we have a writing portion where students write a monologue for an original character. By the end they learn how to write and develop a character. Then, we do scene study, where they learn scenes or monologues from already published works. In this portion we focus on movement, voicework, learning to warm up and improv.”
As I spoke to Jessica, I heard resonances of Sheridan Fry’s educational dramatics and Emma’s assertion that “theatre is life.” Not only does this opportunity allow artistic expression, but it develops writing skills as well as literacy and critical thinking through scene study. The theatrical tools that Jessica incorporates into Acting Out! and other dramatic workshops can serve as a model for integrating drama into classrooms across Johnson County. As someone who imagines themself very much like Emma (Sheridan Fry or Fornés’ character of the same name), I relish the opportunity to be part of an initiative making programs like Act Out! accessible to more students.
- Sheridan Fry, Emma. Educational Dramatics: The Educational Players Publication. Trieste Publishing, 2018 edition. Cover Art.
- “Emma Sheridan Fry.” The Theatre: A Weekly Record of the Stage, vol. 9. Wyman & Sons, 1893, pp. 3.
- McGrath, Tom. from “Strong-Willed Fefu Leaves Her Mark on her Friends and Halcyon Audience.” Chicago Tribune, 30 August 2016. https://www.chicagotribune.com/entertainment/theater/ct-fefu-friends-review-ott-0902-20160830-story.html.
- “Strengthen.Grow.Evolve.” The Englert & FilmScene. https://strengthengrowevolve.org/.
 Sheridan Fry, Emma. Educational Dramatics: A Handbook on the Educational Player Method. The Educational Players Publications, 1913. Accessed through HathiTrust: https://hdl.handle.net/2027/loc.ark:/13960/t06x0n59d.
 “Iowa Arts Education Data Project.” Iowa Department of Education, 2021. https://educateiowa.gov/iowa-arts-education-data-project-dashboard
Special thanks to Jessica Egli from the Englert, who inspired the content of this post, and to Laura Perry for her helpful suggestions on developing this post.