Rather a lot of actors have got their doublets and hose in a twist about the changes to the Drama GCSE syllabus and have written an impassioned letter to the Sunday Times to vent their grievance. From September, the syllabus for GCSE drama does not require students to watch live theatre. In the current AQA syllabus students must answer questions on "a production of live professional or non-professional theatre." From September, a new line has been added to the syllabus: "For the purposes of this specification, live theatre can include digital recordings or streamed productions".
I feel the criticism of those signatories in the Sunday Times letter displays the London centricity which we battle in the arts. Of course, it's better if young people can experience a live theatre experience but as the exam boards argue, for some students and schools it's a logistical nightmare. There just aren't accessible theatres in many areas in England and Wales. Allowing students to analyse a digital recording enables all students to study for a GCSE in a subject they love which otherwise they'd be unable to take because of a geographical or financial impairment. Anything that encourages participation is surely a good thing?
I went to a state school in Staffordshire, not the most culturally rich of places and over 150 miles from London and 67 miles from Stratford-upon-Avon. Yet we were lucky to be taken to Stratford, London and Birmingham to see shows. This wasn't because it was part of a syllabus but because the proactive teachers who taught us wanted us to experience live theatre and being in a fairly affluent area meant the students' parents could afford it.
The letter to the Sunday Times states "we fear that the designation of digital recordings as live theatre may remove the need for teachers to arrange such events". I fear those criticising this change underestimate teachers. Teachers don't do the bare minimum. They won't see this change as an opportunity to shrug off another organisational headache. Drama and English teachers are passionate about passing on their enthusiasm for their subject. Whether or not it's on the syllabus, a teacher is going to move heaven and earth to take students to the theatre.
This new ruling by the exam boards is about widening participation and is a force for good. As Jessica Lober Newsome from AQA explains, "we're just making sure we don't discriminate against the handful of students who can't get to a performance through no fault of their own".
This widening of access doesn't just include digital recordings but streamed productions too meaning students have a chance to see some of the most successful theatre productions at local cinemas and even at home on their own computers.
National Theatre Live launched in 2009 and productions are filmed in front of a live audience meaning those watching in cinemas have a real taste of the authentic theatrical experience. War Horse, The Curious Incident of the Dog, and King Lear are just some of the shows which have been seen by over 3.5 million people in 550 venues across the UK.
Digitaltheatre.com is an on demand platform with the objective "to make arts accessible regardless of geographical, social or economic boundaries". For a fee, it is possible to watch ballet from the Royal Opera House, opera from Glyndebourne and Shakespeare from The Globe.
The highest quality performances are available at the click of a button. How are students watching these being disadvantaged?
This digital experience is different to the live theatrical experience but then no two experiences of the same play are the same anyway. Are you sitting in the Gods or sitting in the stalls with opera glasses, sitting behind a tall man, sitting next to someone checking their mobile? What digital recordings offer are different camera angles, some zooming in capturing the subtle facial expressions that are lost in row Z at the back of the stalls. Digital recordings also offer a solitary theatrical experience but in a classroom or cinema setting, they don't rule out the shared experience (meaning you can still encounter the frisson of those collective gasps but also, more commonly, the coughs and sneezes, and rustles of Malteser packets)
As a playwright, I am thrilled that the exam boards have made such an effort to widen participation so that those students in a rural, remote location or those from a disadvantaged background have the chance to take a GCSE in a subject they love. Theatre is such a fleeting thing anyway; as often as it is a memorable dream, it is forgotten in a moment. Allowing these students to study digital performances allows them to dream a little longer.