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A shout-out for the arts

Actor Jack O’Connell, center, actor-playwright Erin Layton and actor-playwright Don Creedon were in the audience last night for this month’s Artists Without Walls Showcase. PHOTO: PETER MCDERMOTT

By Peter McDermott

Einstein played the violin.

So Polly Toynbee reminded us a recent piece in the Guardian, making the case for more arts in education rather than less.

And referring to an institution founded in London in 1660, she said: “Recent research found science Nobel laureates are 25 times more likely to sing, dance, act and paint than other Royal Society members, and 12 times more likely to write poetry and novels.”

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Albert Einstein.

The veteran columnist was on strong ground, then, in arguing that the “arts enhance other talents.”

Toynbee took to task a recent British Conservative education minister Michael Gove and his successor, Nicky Morgan, for their biases against the arts.

She also had something to say, in this regard, about a contest being held in the main opposition party.

“In the lineup of Labour leadership potentials, how to choose between these able, good-looking and experienced Oxbridge graduates?” (One of the four announced candidates, incidentally, is a daughter of the diaspora. Mary Creagh’s mother, originally from Northern Ireland, was a primary-school teacher and her father, from the Republic, a car-factory worker.)

“The list of qualities required [for the leadership job] is probably impossible to combine within one human frame,” Toynbee said. But the candidates would certainly be a lot more interesting, she felt, if they revealed a passion for something outside of political life, and what could be better than arts performance? She cited the example of the pol who took piano exams and another who played Mendelssohn, which helped make them “plain talkers in a world of ear-aching politics-speak.”

There were plenty of suggestions on display last night at the monthly Artists Without Walls Showcase at the Cell Theater in Manhattan. Wouldn’t you like to see your -- or indeed any -- public representative try to meld hip hop and Irish dance like the guys from Hammerstep? Or get up there with a guitar, as Cavan’s John Munnelly did, and amuse a crowd with a song about Julius Caesar? Or, as Noel Lawlor does sometimes, though not last night, recite a soliloquy or some other type of piece from Shakespeare?

In her piece, Toynbee made the more general case for performance. “No one forgets any school play they were in,” she said. “No discipline is tougher than acting in front of an audience, learning a part, speaking up to be heard. All those are skills vital to jobs in later life, as employers complain of young people mumbling and slouching in interviews. But fewer schools employ drama teachers."

As for the Bard himself, Toynbee added: “The Royal Shakespeare Company’s work with schools, training teachers to teach Shakespeare performance, showed remarkable results: performing a play transformed attitudes to both Shakespeare and to school.”

William Shakespeare in the Chandos portrait at the National Portrait Gallery.