In Defence of Live Theatre

GCSEs feel like a long time ago. In fact, on meeting younger relatives who are at the beginning of their courses, I have very little sympathy when they moan about having to revise the details of ox-bow lakes or the various stages of the water cycle. This is partly because I don’t want to be reminded of my own revision of those same topics now that they have safely been forgotten. Then, as now, I associated GCSEs with what was effectively temporary learning: I had to know the facts for the exam and then, as far as I was concerned, I could forget them and await the grade. GCSEs were an exercise in memory.

However, it should not be ignored that a considerable factor in my distrust for GCSEs came from their lack of relevance to my life. True, mathematics papers desperately tried to show the use of numeracy in a ‘real world’ context, phrasing their questions so that you could see how fractions were fundamental when shopping in a supermarket. But no matter how hard the teachers tried, they could not prevent the students’ discovery that, on embarking on their GCSEs, education suddenly became much more about memorisation and much less about realisation. There were two exceptions: Drama and English. It was here that parallels could be discovered between our lives and the exams did not have set answers. Yet it was no coincidence that these were the subjects where the syllabuses still felt stimulating and fact retention did not guarantee an A*.

Of course, like their fellow courses, Drama and English had their mark schemes and revision guides. The crucial difference was that it was only through Drama and English that we could escape the classroom. Our destination? The theatre.

This is why the new syllabuses for GCSE Drama on the AQA and OCR exam boards are so concerning. As of September 2016, “schools can choose to show their drama pupils a recording of a play – such as those produced by National Theatre Live and Digital Theatre – instead of a trip to the theatre.” Both exam boards have cited affordability and accessibility as reasoning for the move, with Karen Latto, subject specialist for Drama at OCR, stating that the exam board “is committed to equality of provision for all our students, and the flexibility to include digital theatre productions is in place to ensure that every student can access live theatre.” But that is exactly the problem, recorded theatre is not “live” theatre. The shared experience, the uniqueness of the particular performance, the minor imperfections that make a performance human, the sheer escapology of the doors closing and the lights going down.

These are just the beginnings of why live theatre matters, why it is irreplaceable. If we want our children to learn from humanity at its rawest, surely this is our access point, not the ability to pause, rewind and condense humanity on to a DVD.

I had planned to structure this piece around the argument that AQA and OCR’s decision is merely a fair reflection of the pure extortion that is modern-day theatre ticket pricing. But the answer to this question does not warrant an article; the answer is simple. Unless you want to price theatre out of the hands of those who arguably need it the most, to make it the reserve of solely the wealthy, reduce theatre ticket prices now.

William Rees-Arnold

Image courtesy of Donald Cooper

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