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Megan Vaughan: Is the drama GCSE students see actually any good?

The History Boys at the National Theatre in 2004. Photo: Stephen Cummiskey
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When both the AQA and OCR exam boards recently announced that pupils studying drama GCSE would no longer be required to attend any live theatre as part of their course, I was immediately pissed off. It seemed to me like yet another sign that school resources were being deviated away from the arts; yet another instance of young people being told that creative subjects were a waste of time. It follows the education secretary – the actual education secretary – telling us that arts subjects hold pupils back. I was ready to come out swinging.

I thought back to my own experience of selecting GCSE options. Back then, my school didn’t openly discourage bright pupils from doing arts subjects, but they made it very very difficult for us to take more than one. Even in the middle of the booming 1990s, neoliberal economic policy was encroaching upon the cultural lives of children, and the pressure from above to focus on GDP-friendly STEM subjects has only increased post-2008. My instinctive, angry reaction to live theatre visits being dropped from GCSE syllabuses was, therefore, largely political. There are already loads of reasons for kids not to take GCSE drama; let’s not give them another one.

I carried on thinking though. The only theatre trips I can remember going on for GCSE were a never-ending version of Macbeth in Chester (seriously, it felt like days) and a local amdram performance of The Roses of Eyam where part of the cardboard backdrop folded in on itself mid-scene. Shite, basically. Absolute pedestrian shite. Now, I’m as sceptical about NT Live as the next person, but if you’d have shown me a video of London Road when I was 15, it would’ve blown the brains right out of my head.

The most interesting thing about this little period of recollection is that it took me by surprise. Having found my way into theatre years after my GCSEs were over, I was kinda taken aback by how dreadful my memories of those early trips were. I can remember so many formative, life-changing shows from subsequent years that I’ve rewritten my own history.

Was I the only one who felt this way? Did others making or working in theatre today have a similar experience? Or did I have industry colleagues who had been transformed or awakened by what they’d seen on school trips? Reader, I did a Twitter poll:

Look at these results. The first thing you notice from those results, of course, is that my followers – the greatest bunch of switched-on, creatively engaged geniuses the world’s ever seen – have given a pretty strong result for ‘amazing/life-changing’. Case closed, game over, etc. But not quite. 53% said that GCSE Drama trips were something other than amazing. That coming from a sample of respondents who most likely follow me in the first place because they’re pretty serious theatre fans. Take a look at the comments and you’ll see an even fuller picture, starting with the fact that not many of my poll participants are all that hot on following instructions. “I replied as if my O levels were GCSEs”. FAIL. “I didn’t do drama but…” FAIL. Honestly, could I have been any clearer with my criteria? I even had one guy get in touch after the poll had ended to apologise for not responding, but to assure me he’d done so strategically. His school theatre trips had all been terrible too, but he’d been so convinced that I was actively seeking pro-live responses that he’d chosen not to click in order to help me out. As if I was planning to print out my poll results and post them off to Nicky Morgan with a strongly worded letter. (Dear Twitter: We need an AV voting system on polls ASAP.) So what key findings can we glean from this horror-show of garbled responses? (Aside from the fact that Warren Mitchell’s naked Lear-penis has burnt itself onto many an impressionable retina, that is…) Firstly, there’s a huge difference in the type of work being seen.

How come Ian Nicholson got to see Shockheaded Peter when Caitlin Hobbs had to endure Amanda Whittington in Ladies Down Under?

How come Rebekah Ellerby got to see Enron when Bryony Roberts had to sit through Buddy? How come I was watching collapsing scenery in a Macclesfield side street when literally everyone else on the whole internet was at An Inspector Calls? It’s just not fair.

Also, in a sample of 348 people, the bad experiences appear in shockingly high numbers. For every ‘life-changing’ visit to The Red Shoes or to a Robert Lepage, there were five more complaining that it was “nothing new or innovative” or that they got a bollocking for being “bored and confused”. Of course we can’t instigate benchmarks for the quality of the shows visited – that’s a hiding to nothing, and impossibly subjective – but can the exam boards do something to ensure that creatively and intellectually stimulating work is being chosen by teachers? Rather than getting outraged that recordings are being shown in class, perhaps we should be despairing that education budgets and geographic imbalances mean that some students only get to see one performance of The Woman In Black during an entire two-year course.

Here’s another hypothesis that I’ve been working on. A focus on text-to-making in British drama teaching perpetuates the cult of the playwright that this country has been brainwashed into. Who knows how it started (Shakespeare’s fault probably, or George Devine’s), but here in the UK we remain wedded to the notion of the writer as the primary theatre artist. Why not expand some horizons; give a whole lesson a week over to watching recordings of the most spectacular and challenging productions from around the world; expose the next generation of makers to the different styles, structures and politics that feed an international network of theatre cultures? Even for those pupils who do see exciting and stimulating work on their handful of school trips, going straight from words on a page to having a go yourself doesn’t help them place their own experimentation within a history of the form, nor learn the importance of integrated design and dramaturgy.

For the record, of course I think that it’s dreadful that AQA and OCR are removing the requirement for GCSE drama students to see a live show. That’s a vital and necessary part of any theatre education, not to mention a hugely valuable, humanising experience full stop. But a one-time visit to whatever touring musical is in town won’t cut it, and the introduction of recordings into the classroom offers massive potential for learning and inspiration. We can’t let our gut reactions colour our common sense.

One last thing now, before I shut up: Let’s hear it for the English teachers. It seems they’re bundling people off smelly coaches and into auditoriums in much greater numbers than the drama lot. Granted, it’s mainly to Shakespeare, a lot of which no doubt falls into the ‘pedestrian shite’ category, but they’re bringing drama to life themselves too. Here’s Euan Borland, now a freelance producer and key member of the team at the Half Moon Theatre in East London:

Those kind of moments are special. One might even say life-changing. Just because it’s your teacher doing it, doesn’t mean it’s not live theatre.

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