Who needs rules?

Exam boards in the UK have come out this week with a controversial change in the drama syllabus. Where it was previously compulsory for GCSE drama students to attend at least one live performance during their final year, the rules have changed. While visits to the theatre are certainly welcome, schools can instead draw on the free digital resources from the National Theatre and the Royal Shakespeare Company.

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Wow, did they know how to get the GCSE back into the headlines. This decision that digital broadcasts, live streams and online resources can be used to substitute the live experience of sitting in a theatre for theatre students has caused all sorts of controversy. Theatre reviewers, performers and owners are taking this opportunity to call the end of theatre as we know it citing this change as ‘one more curtain falling on the collective experience’.

But seriously . . . it’s time to look at the long game.

Theatre is often criticised of being part of a self-perpetuating cycle of privilege. Only the rich can afford to go to the theatre. This means that only these people pursue a career in the theatre. Which, in turn, means that only these stories are told on the stage alienating potential new audiences outside this segment. It’s like a 21st century Circle of Life.

Think about the people who are missing out . . .

We know that habits form when we are young. As we grow older we will often fall back on the enjoyable experiences of our childhood as they hold plenty of nostalgia for us and represent the person we have become today. If you went to the theatre when you were young, you will probably come back when you are buying your own ticket. If your family were crazy football fans and you went to every game, you will probably find it hard to stray from that tradition. So by enforcing a rule that every drama student must see a live performance in their final year, this disastrous circle is only being reinforced!

Not having to attend a live performance will definitely mean that these students miss out on a crucial part of the theatre. But at the same time, if that was a compulsory pre-requisite they may not have done the subject because they couldn’t afford to engage. Voilà, immediately there is a whole new segment of people outside the typical theatre-goer who will be learning about the entertainment form in an accessible environment.

But then there is the future. If these kids start with the assumption that seeing a live show is unaffordable, then they are going to want to do something about that. Maybe that is finding new ways to make theatre affordable through physical innovations such as discovering new theatrical spaces or making innovations in scenery, projections or costuming. Or maybe it is finding another way to deliver this medium to an enormously diverse audience that doesn’t currently engage in further advancements beyond our current channels of online streaming or television broadcast.

And then there are the stories. Opening this opportunity up to kids who don’t have the luxury of seeing a big production means that they will start to create shows which appeal to them and in turn will appeal to completely new subsets of the community in, hopefully, more accessible manners.

The benefits are endless and all it has lost is one ticket in the present . . . but it has gained a lifetime of tickets and new theatrical innovations in the future. Good one, GCSE!

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