Your Time to Shine

Sarah Lambie
Thursday, October 22, 2020

With the judging panel for the 2021 Music & Drama Education Awards soon to be announced in full, Samantha O’Reilly – 2020 winner and 2021 judge – tells Sarah Lambie what her department's win meant to them

 Samantha and her team picking up their award
Samantha and her team picking up their award

In what now feel (perhaps melodramatically) like they were the final moments before the apocalypse, the middle of March 2020 saw the last big event held face-to-face for thousands of music and drama educators: the Music & Drama Education Expo and its attendant Awards. The glitzy ceremony at the London Marriott Hotel Grosvenor Square was a fitting celebration of the educators, products and services which make our amazing sector what it is.

Looking ahead to 2021, it is perhaps more important than ever to recognise the work of the amazing people who have fought through the toughest odds to provide performing arts education to people of all ages and backgrounds this year. Nominations in 17 Awards categories are open now until 2 November 2020.

I spoke to Samantha O'Reilly of Coombe Boys' School New Malden, winners of Outstanding School Drama Department 2020, to find out what winning meant to them: ‘We actually went to the ceremony absolutely 100% not expecting to win, because we knew we were shortlisted against some other amazing schools.’

O'Reilly explains that the opportunity to find out about the other schools on the shortlist was ‘lovely – to make those connections all over the country and find that there were people out there doing similar things.’

‘As a team we agreed that we'd go and really celebrate the fact that we'd been shortlisted: enjoy the evening (it was a lavish affair and it was lovely to dress up and go out), but then to have won it – it was absolutely thrilling to come away at the end of the evening as winners, but totally unexpected.’

‘I'm very glad you don't ask any of us to speak, like at the Oscars,’ she tells me, ‘because I would have had absolutely nothing ready! My head teacher didn't join us on the night: as soon as we'd won, I rang him. He said “it's 10 o'clock at night, what is going on?!”’

‘For us,’ she says, ‘it was about really celebrating the recognition of 15 years of getting drama, that didn't even exist in the school when I first started, up to where we wanted it to be. It was validation for the team, and something that we really celebrated with the boys: they were absolutely thrilled. But our biggest surprise was the lovely reaction we got from our parents: we were just inundated with messages of congratulations and support and we were really lucky to have just got that in before coronavirus struck us.

‘We'd begun to think about some plans for how to take that win and title and use it to our benefit, and then we ended up in lockdown, which was really frustrating. Lots of people were making contact with us because of the news, who we would want to partner with – and then we all came to a crashing halt.’

Facing adversity

How, then, did this Outstanding department deal with the lockdown?

‘Like all good drama teachers we immediately said “ok how can we adapt and be creative?” We looked at what we had planned scheme of work-wise to see how we could adapt it, and then we leant really heavily on the support of loads of fantastic people who just gave during that lockdown period.

The team's usual end-of-Year 9 puppetry scheme of work was offered at a distance with the help of free resources from Gyre and Gimble, Little Angel Theatre and Handspring Puppet Company. ‘If it hadn't been for the fact that the wider arts community had leant out and supported schools in that way,’ she says, ‘I think we would have struggled a lot more as drama teachers.’

O'Reilly's department did ‘watch-parties’ at their usual extra-curricular drama times, logging on together to watch NT Live and other productions, and then having group discussions. They worked closely with Company Three on their Coronavirus Time Capsule – ‘and that was a really nice pastoral piece of work alongside the drama element, because they were able to communicate how they were feeling with us, and what they were experiencing, and capture that for ever, so it's a piece of history.’

The staff took the opportunity to benefit from online CPD with the likes of the Paper Birds, and took ideas from other teachers’ work, signposted on the websites of National Drama and Open Drama. ‘Pilot Theatre did some amazing stuff – we were able to chat with the playwright of one of their pieces, they released and streamed a production that they were touring that they couldn't take on any further…all of those things were ways of keeping our young men really engaged in a subject that usually so relies on them being able to work together.’

‘And then as soon as we could,’ she concludes, ‘we did summer schools: ‘show-in-a-week’ outdoor site-specific theatre – just to get everyone back together again and do what we love, explore and stage work. It was absolutely thrilling to be able to have young people with us again.’

Looking forward

O'Reilly is firmly entrenched in the community spirit that lockdown created and keen to ‘give back to those people that gave to us’ – already looking at ways to book school group tickets for the local Rose Theatre in Kingston, and planning school bookings with Splendid Productions, Pilot Theatre and Frantic Assembly.

There is still time to nominate yourself and others in the 17 awards categories, and the opportunities both for recognition and networking brought by the process are self-evident. O'Reilly's final words on the subject: ‘I would 100% encourage people to do it.’