Why exam boards must keep theatre live

Try to imagine a performance of Hamlet in which the play within a play – staged by the Prince to establish Claudius’ culpability for the death of the King was delivered not live, but through a TV set hooked up to a DVD player. Would Claudius betray himself in the same way, and would it matter so much?

I ask because recently it was announced that the drama GCSE syllabus is to change so that teachers can show pupils recordings of theatre performances rather than taking them to see live shows. This is to ensure that all students get to experience live theatre, with Karen Latto of awarding body OCR telling the TES that geography and financial constraints need no longer be prohibitive as a consequence. I don’t think anybody would argue with the intention here – like Karen, I want to see every young person able to experience theatre. However, like many others, I am concerned that the legitimisation of the DVD option will mean that some drama departments – already too often at the back the queue when it comes to school resources – will find money for theatre trips even harder to come by.

Recordings used in the way proposed may well increase students’ exposure to theatre – but is it an acceptable substitute? If, like me and many other practitioners, you believe that the experience of theatre is more than the ostensible content, then the answer has to be no. Performances are heavily dependent on the audience – not a generic audience, but the audience in the theatre for each particular show. When Bedales students write about theatre they have attended, they are critiquing something of which they were an active part – a factor we encourage them to consider.

We must also be aware that through the use of recordings we risk heaping a whole different set of interpretations upon students. Here, they must take into account not only the direction of the play, but also that of the recording. It would be worryingly uncritical of us to assume recordings of live theatre to be benign representations – some streamings of performances from the National Theatre, the Barbican and other venues have been complex multi-camera presentations that, for all of their merits, must be considered different experiences. Each audience member at the live event has his or her unique perspective – they all occupy a different space, and are free to give their attention to whatever they please. For those watching the associated recording, much of this work is done for them. It is performance and it can be brilliant – but it is of a different order.

The direction of travel in terms of what constitutes meaningful exposure to theatre must be considered with care. If it is considered acceptable for students to make critical judgements on the basis of exposure only to facsimiles, then might we expect the same to become true for examiners? As things stand, examiners are partly reliant on DVDs or a weblink as the basis for their appraisals, and we might consider whether we would be comfortable with this becoming their exclusive basis of assessment. If the answer is no, then we must reflect carefully on the implications for doing the same with students.

Let’s do what it takes to get students into theatres rather than risk confining more and more of them to the classroom. Let’s fund national and regional centres to offer discounted access for those who wouldn’t otherwise be able to afford to go. I know from my own experience that theatres are more than happy to open their doors to this end. Awarding bodies would be excellent administrators of such programmes, and I believe it would be good for them – and for their relationships with both theatres and schools – to be advocates for live theatre in this way.

By way of an afterthought, it occurs to me that Claudius might prefer the DVD option, but then of course he has a vested interest.

By Phil Tattersall-King, Head of Drama