Earlier this academic year I thought it would be a valuable experience to lead a whole year group on a co-curricular trip. I hoped it would provide me with an opportunity to spend more time with the girls, to get to know them in a less formal setting and to offer the girls an enriching experience outside of their normal lessons.
So last week I found myself boarding a coach to London with over 50 Year 8 girls, heading for the musical Wicked. I have to admit it wouldn’t have been my first choice of stage production, but it had been democratically voted by the girls as the West End show they most wanted to see. I was reassured by our RS teacher that the production had some clear philosophical messages that would be very relevant for teenage girls, but still felt there might have been better learning opportunities available.
For the uninitiated Wicked is supposedly the prequel to the Wizard of Oz but in fact the story takes place before, simultaneously and after the familiar Oz tale. It has been described as creating ‘a parallel universe to that of the Wizard of Oz’ and a ‘re-imagining of the same world’ that looks at things very differently. Ultimately, it challenges you to question your preconceptions.
The heroine is none other than the Wicked Witch of the West. She is an unloved outsider because she is different to the rest; most obviously because she is green, but also because she stands by what she believes to be right. She does not worry what others might think; her moral courage inhibits her popularity. In showing her courage she triumphs. The message clearly delivered is that what you look like is less important than what you stand by.
My RS teacher was right; the importance of this message cannot be underestimated. In a world where there is enormous pressure to attain unreal standards of ‘beauty’ as portrayed in the plethora of fashion magazines and Hollywood movies, it is vital to assert clearly and regularly that a person’s success and self-worth is defined by their beliefs and their actions; not by their looks. This message is as relevant to boys as it is to girls and indeed to adults, but for girls it is an issue that can be particularly painful and destructive in the teenage years. These are issues we discuss in our PSHE lessons, but to see the message played out on stage undoubtedly added a different and perhaps more accessible dimension than classroom discussions alone.
The musical also explores the importance of truth and how society defines good and evil. The wizard manipulates public opinion and through his propaganda the people of the Emerald City believe in the wickedness of the Witch from the West. They seek to destroy her. Glinda, the Good Witch, in her unflinching desire for popularity is seduced by his power. In falling for it, she loses all the people she loves. Discussions of morality, ethics and notions of truth are hotly debated in many of our classrooms at BGS, as key subjects touch upon these vital philosophies. However they can be difficult concepts to grasp and appreciate without a depth of life experience and often their real meaning only becomes apparent as the girls move up into the Sixth Form and have greater ability to understand and debate these ideas. Theory of Knowledge as part the IB Diploma directly asks girls to consider what we consider to be ‘true’ and how that truthfulness or knowledge can be shaped by our experiences and perception.
These significant messages were subtly conveyed against a backdrop of powerful songs, special effects and visually stunning costumes. It was not surprising that we were all captivated by the show and my misgivings laid aside. But the best bit for me was at the end of the evening, waiting for parents to collect their daughters, hearing the girls discussing the negative effects of stereotyping, prejudice and discrimination and appreciating the dangers of propaganda. It was wicked!