Every year I spend time sifting through the season promises of local theatres, hoping to find something to take students to see. Every year I am disappointed. What’s the trick that UK theatres are missing? The ever constant need for stagings of GCSE and A Level English texts (among others). Hundreds of thousands of school-age children across the country study literature texts, and the opportunity to see them played out in a theatre would be a valuable experience for all students, with the value for less able students being substantial. So with such evident demand present year after year, why are theatres missing this trick? Where are the stagings, traditional, devised or revised, of the texts being studied? I see very little which caters for this apparently muted audience; kids’ shows are popular, and every so often an exam text will make its way onto a regional stage, but when did GCSE and A Level students as potential large audiences get marginalised rather than spotlighted? Of course no one would expect a never-ending cycle of the same things – theatres sell themselves on the vibrancy and variety of their seasons after all, but there are great options available if UK theatres were to sit up and take notice…
It’s not difficult to get hold of a list of money-making possibilities – I say money-making for the benefit of feeding the interest of those in charge, but more important than the money to be made is to have students experience and value theatre at a young age. Any exam board website can provide a list of authors and texts being studied at each key stage, and although there are challenges in staging them, those challenges are not insurmountable. Yes, licences can be problematic to secure for a range of reasons, but productions which boast similar storylines or styles to those being studied are also strong contenders for a school trip. You may not be able to stage ‘A Christmas Carol’, but you might approach a local theatre company or youth theatre about devising something creative which can then be appropriately pitched to local schools. Another challenge to consider is that not all schools and classes will study the same selections, but emailing local schools for information about chosen texts and potential interest would help theatres to focus on the best options in their region.
Perhaps your gut is telling you that there’s just not enough promise of interest? It’s a fair response, but that too is a missed trick. Granted, the school year gets very busy, and even with my passionate beliefs about the value of theatre, I too get too busy to scan local seasons for possible shows. So why am I not hearing from theatres? Most target heads of departments, which is logical but not always the best option. Heads of departments are some of the busiest people in a school- why not check the staff list (almost every school website includes one) and find the email addresses of a few individuals from the relevant departments? They might ignore you, but they might also be grateful to have an important opportunity flagged up to them when they would have otherwise missed it.
As I wrote in a recent article, the future of theatre is very much in the hands of the younger generations, so we must find valuable, feasible ways to get them both into theatres; giving life to their compulsory studies is one brilliantpossibility. I know that there are various schemes at work and many companies offer workshops to schools, but increasingly, schools can’t subsidise or pay high costs for such visits; theatre trips are more plausible as they are subsidised by parents. With that said, it’s important to note that productions must remain affordable; sky high prices will most certainly destroy any possible success of theatres working to target and engage teenagers. The Stage recently reported that 4,500 students will see a Shakespeare production for free, thanks to a London based scheme. It’s a wonderful step in a noble, important direction and I hope to see more schemes in the same vein. However, it will take funds, willing theatres and caring councils to allow such opportunities to reach all students.
The bottom line is that we need to work much harder to bring young people and theatre together, and teachers need to help students tackle the difficulties of the new terminal exam system; in the world of literature study, theatre is very much capable of being the one wearing pants outside of trousers. School trips must be justified by their relevance and value to the curriculum, so if a production is the actual text being studied or carries worthwhile similarities, it can quite easily be successfully pitched to schools which are in great need of ways to keep students engaged with two years of course content for the new terminal exams. Bringing characters, narratives and complex ideas to life is truly one of the best possible ways to make the course content memorable. So yes, UK theatres are indeed missing an important trick, and in doing so, school students are missing out on opportunities to strengthen and deepen their understanding of their course content… Oh yes…and they’re also missing out on something which could potentially make them life-long theatre lovers…but who has time to worry about that?