News that some exam boards are dropping compulsory theatre trips for GSCE drama students has caused some dissent. Not least among our writers. Here, an actor, a former drama teacher, a theatre worker and a drama practitioner explain how crucial these trips can be.
School groups regularly come to our shows, especially over Christmas when we have thousands of kids aged three to eight through our doors for the festive show. Without these trips, how could those young people talk about theatre? Could they have an informed, in-depth discussion about the content, style and performance of a show by watching a small TV screen in a brightly lit classroom?
They need to experience theatre to get under the bones of a text, to see its tiny inflections and suggestions which a cold reading misses out. They need to see good plays and bad plays to talk about the differences between them. They need to develop a critical eye to be able to write any kind of critical discussion.
Young people need to learn how theatres are not cinemas, that a certain amount of trust is placed in their conduct in front of live actors. They learn to respect not just the people on stage, but the process which ended with their viewing of the show. Watching an NT Live screening is great tool for discussion, but nothing can beat a trip to see real theatre.
“Excited chatter and laughter (and the odd rustle of a crisp bag) make the experience of seeing a play an event.”
I worry that schools who have already been hit by cuts to arts funding will see theatre trips as an unnecessary expense, another way to save money from an already tightly monitored budget. Surely this will hit schools in deprived areas the hardest; if parents are expected to financially contribute to a trip then inevitably some people will miss out.
Our theatre takes on a different energy when the auditorium is buzzing with young people. Excited chatter and laughter (and the odd rustle of a crisp bag) make the experience of seeing a play an event, rather than a clinical reading of a play which was never written to be read in their heads in a classroom.
Groups of looked-after young people in the foster system have been a part of our creative process in our recent play about a girl in care, informing our work and allowing their stories to be reflected back at them from the stage.
Young people are integral to our theatre, as much as theatre is hugely beneficial to young people. If we take away the experience of watching live theatre, we are damaging not only the future of theatre in the UK, but our children’s ability to find value and meaning in texts outside of their classrooms.
So, I’m from Norwich. Which, while it has a lot going for it, is hardly the theatrical hotspot of the UK. We got touring productions, sure… musicals and Agatha Christie mainly. And anyway my family wasn’t a theatre-going one particularly.
For one thing, theatre is fucking expensive and taking an entire family to the theatre was, and continues to be, actually impossible for working-class people.
But all that was OK because that’s what my drama GCSE was for: to fully realise and exercise my passion for something that was, and always had been, personal to me.
When I was in year 10 the announcement we would be heading to London on a theatre trip was met with jubilation. Shiny, sparkly London represented everything showbiz. When it was then announced we would be seeing Shockheaded Peter, a devised piece based on 19th-century German cautionary tales, we were less enthused. “Never heard of it.” “Sounds boring.” “But I’m shit at German”… etc.
It was grossly unfair. The year before had seen Les Mis. Floppy-haired men straddling the stage and belting out show tunes. Rumour had it Jon from S Club 7 played Marius. Now THAT was theatre.
You can see where I’m going with this.
Shockheaded Peter was irreverent, grotesque and totally thrilling. It flirted with genre, was terrifying and amazing and truly innovative. These guys onstage, I later found out, were a self-formed company. Literally a group of mates got together and made it themselves. I had no idea that was a possibility.
“There’s been a lot of talk recently concerning the lack of working-class representation within the acting industry. How can we hope for that to change if we take this kind of inspiration out of the curriculum?”
The second I got home I researched where they met and trained (LAMDA) and set my sights directly on that drama school – and trained there myself four years later.
Without that school trip I would never have known actors could be people like me. I would have continued to put them on pedestals, revering ancient so-called ‘masters’ of the profession simply because clever people told me they were the best.
It taught me that audiences didn’t have to be rich people laughing at jokes written in the 17th century, making me feel stupid and inadequate and like I had to pretend to enjoy it to fit in.
That trip to London gave me permission to form my own opinions about theatre. I could now take down anyone who slagged plays off, or called theatre ‘gay’, and I could articulate exactly what made it cool actually. And still can.
Part of my job as an actor has been to visit schools and talk to them about the job. I speak to all sorts, state schools and private, and the difference in artistic immersion is astonishing.
The kids in London have it great, and I tell them so; to be that close to this kind of theatrical diversity, where you can see a play at the RSC or Globe for a fiver if you’re under 25, or pay a tenner to watch a show at the National is a no-brainer for anyone with a passion for the subject.
But go out to the provinces and those kids RELY on being helped out a bit, being made aware of great theatre by their schools. By taking these visits out a drama syllabus, the Government is limiting art to kids based on their proximity to London and/or the privilege into which they are born.
There’s been a lot of talk recently concerning the lack of working-class representation within the acting industry. How can we hope for that to change if we take this kind of inspiration out of the curriculum?
I so hope this doesn’t come to pass. If it does, I so hope schools outside of London take the initiative to encourage students to seek out theatre for themselves, that stuff like NT Live (where plays from the National, RSC & Young Vic, among others, are filmed live and broadcast to cinemas all over the UK) sees a surge in school groups booking in.
Drama isn’t something that can be theorised, or limited to a classroom. It must be practised and, crucially, experienced.
The tickets for the fifth-year O-Level trip to see the RSC production of The Taming of the Shrew hadn’t sold well, so, even though I was only in the third year, I was allowed to go. I think the deal was struck that very day and I had no time to go home and get changed.
On the 50-odd mile coach journey we were issued with a list of stern warnings from our teacher: no talking in the theatre, no going backwards and forwards to the toilet. Even noisily opening a packet of sweets would be frowned upon.
I took this all very seriously. I’d been to the theatre before but never to see Shakespeare, so I was concentrating on being good and making the most of it. Even getting to grips with the title of the play was doing my head in. Wasn’t a shrew a creature like a vole? Not much taming required there, surely?
“What I remember is a man on a motorbike tearing down the aisle, arguing wildly with the usherette and smashing up the set.”
The fifth-year students were also terrifying, but fortunately chose to treat me as the coach mascot. “You must be dead brainy if you’re going to see this with us…” There’s no safe answer to that kind of question – even when you’ve been allowed to sit on the middle seat of the back row – so I just assumed an expression that indicated yes, I probably was very brainy, but that wasn’t necessarily my choice.
The set was lavish; a colourful marketplace with a very real looking array of fruit and vegetables. Before the lights dimmed, I’d made sure I’d been to the toilet and was quietly unwrapping a little pile of Spangles in readiness, when downstairs in the stalls there was a massive furore.
What I remember is a man on a motorbike tearing down the aisle, arguing wildly with the usherette and smashing up the set. I was frozen with fear. Christ, if I could get thrown out for rustling sweet papers, what was going to happen to this guy? As he wrenched and threw scenery around I suddenly realised this was part of the play.
Never have I been so transfixed. For the next two hours, I alternately squinted at the notes in the programme trying to keep abreast of the plot, or sat on the edge of my seat willing Kate to return to her dangerous defiant self.
At the end, I can’t say I was entirely clear about what had happened but it had been utterly thrilling. It was a glamorous, grown-up experience. The shock and excitement of a daringly executed live theatrical production has stayed with me for almost 40 years.
The new specification for GCSE Drama – which permits analysis of filmed productions rather than a requirement to attend a live theatrical performance – is a step backwards.
The National Theatre’s screening of live theatre is a fabulous initiative and there are some marvellous film versions of classic plays. But nothing beats the experience of live theatre; breathing the same air as the performers, collaborating in the fiction and knowing there can be no second take is an experience that all GCSE Drama students (I’d go further and say ALL students) deserve to have.
It’s infuriating and ridiculous to scrap theatre trips as part of the GCSE Drama. Going to see a live performance is a visceral and vibrant experience which cannot be replaced by watching a recording. It evokes an emotional response in the students and often an instinctive one, enabling them to have a much better understanding.
Live theatre also enables students to develop critical thinking about theatre and drama because they are experiencing it as part of a live audience. It inspires creative ideas which they are able to use in their own work. It gives them a better understanding of all the techniques they have learned by seeing them used on stage. It’s like learning a language and speaking it for the first time, outside of class and to a complete stranger.
“Creative subjects teach students about themselves and the world they are living in. It teaches them to question, have an opinion and the courage to defend and represent their opinion and choices.”
It also develops their director’s eye, not only by what they are seeing on stage but also through witnessing how other audience members are responding to the performance. It plays a massive part in their understanding of performer and audience relationships which they are able to transfer to their work. There is a crucial point for a drama student when creating their GCSE piece or any other performance and that is knowing why you are choosing a technique or style.
Book-learning is not the most conducive way of achieving what is a practical process. Students learn about different types of staging far more effectively by seeing live performances and experimenting with different ideas themselves rather than just learning the theory. They need to experience the different forms in order to be able to make meaningful judgements.
It angers me and makes me very sad if this does go forward because the implications of taking away the theatre trips are massive. Rather than creating ‘equal opportunities’ for disadvantaged students, this move makes theatre even more exclusive and elitist as well as putting more pressure on local theatres, where the vast majority of theatre trips take place.
For disadvantaged students especially, GCSE Drama often provides them with the only opportunity they have to attend live theatre and this move effectively closes off the theatre experience for a whole generation.
Creative subjects teach students about themselves and the world they are living in. Drama teaches them to question, have an opinion and the courage to defend and represent their opinion and choices. It teaches them the skills to be independent and work with others. To reflect on themselves and their processes and how they would do things differently. It allows you to co-exist with others even if you have differing opinions.
What better way to control our next generation than by not allowing them to develop these skills or allow them to find their own voice or opinions. Shredding creative courses bit-by-bit is to devalue them, take away their resources and ensure they don’t fulfil their purpose.
Some of Standard Issue's brilliant women's carefully crafted words for your reading pleasure.