I don’t think The Institution / The Government (hereafter known as The Man) cares about theatre. Perhaps that’s not news. Perhaps it’s just something everyone assumes. It’s an important observation, though, because it says something about society. It’s a whisper that maybe, just maybe, art isn’t important. Shhh, we’re not supposed to know that The Man thinks this.
I’m writing this in response to recent news that two of the major GCSE exam boards, AQA and OCR, no longer require drama students to see a live theatre performance as part of their curriculum. Of course students can go, say both boards. Definitely they should, say both boards. But as of September, they will be allowed to substitute a digital screening of a performance instead of seeing a live show.
AQA and OCR are claiming that this is about equal opportunities: they don’t want to discriminate against students who are unable, for whatever reason, to see a live performance (for example disability, cost and so on). But surely provision can be made for these situations? Surely it’s possible to arrange for special circumstances? Saying that this new rule shouldn’t stop students from being exposed to live theatre is ludicrous. Whatever the spokespeople say, I consider it to be a statement of intent: “It’s just not important any more to see live theatre”.
The new syllabus has, understandably, caused quite a fuss in the theatrical community. Alistair Smith from The Stage makes the case that live theatre is an art form in itself; it just isn’t the same watching a screening of a performance. Actors have also rallied in defense of live theatre.
However, there seems to be unexpected support for the decision to allow digital streaming. Lyn Gardner, stalwart theatre reviewer for The Guardian and general writer about theatre offers her tentative support to the AQA and the OCR. She argues that it can be very difficult for schools that aren’t near a city with a vibrant theatre life to get to performances. She points out that away from places like London and Manchester, there just isn’t enough live theatre being made.
Well, I agree. There isn’t enough theatre being made. The decision by the exam boards clearly shows this. But surely their decision is the worst possible outcome. It won’t reinvigorate theatre, as Lyn Gardner seems to think. It’s more likely to begin the slow decline of theatre into irrelevance, or at the very least reduce live performance to the commercial domain, which can afford to produce it.
But why are we letting The Man get away this anyway? If there isn’t enough support for theatre spread around the country, it’s not for lack of trying by theatres and theatre-makers. A lot of funding is conditional on some kind of outreach program; touring theatre is intended, in part, to service these areas; and most theatres I have worked in offer reduced or even free seats to students. We, the theatre makers, are doing our best to meet the need. So where is the support from The Man?
I shudder to sound Orwellian, but I think the problem is at the top. Funding from The Man is rapidly drying up and people from within our own ranks sometimes seem to want to undermine us. Back in 2014, the chief executive of the National Youth Theatre, Paul Roseby, argued that drama should be scrapped from the GCSE curriculum, and even then a lot of commentary was that the theatre industry has been fighting for itself for some time now. So undermining theatre is not new. The Man has been trying to make theatre seem illegitimate for a while. Back in 2014 Lyn Gardner made exactly this point in defense of the theatre. I wonder what happened between then and now for her to start defending The Man?
It’s not all bleak. In fact, as artists always do, we find ways to make a stand. There are numerous projects and initiatives which support theatre, but I would like to highlight just one.
Masterclass is the in-house education charity at the Theatre Royal Haymarket. Its’ aim is to nurture new theatrical talent. It does this by bringing opportunities to young people, and opening up potential career paths. Their flagship initiative is the series of masterclasses where industry professionals share their experience and expertise. What I find so exciting about Masterclass is that it’s not only focused on actors. There are of course masterclasses by actors, but also by writers, directors, reviewers and so on. The Apprentice Scheme is another example of support for non-performance roles. All you have to do to begin getting involved is to join their mailing list (it’s at the bottom of the website).
Masterclass has a new campaign which I think is a hidden gem, considering my complaint in this article. In Your Hands is a simple idea: the future of the arts is in our hands. All we have to do is claim it. More than this, it is a statement of intent: in my case, I am a director/playwright and I’m not ashamed of it. I’m also a journalist, and this is one of my articles. One step that seems so difficult for many people is to take the plunge and say “I am a …”.
So here I am joining the campaign. If The Man’s implicit statement is “what artists do is of no value to me”, I say let us, the artists, counter with a campaign saying “we are proud of what we do, and we think it has great value to you, The Man”. What better place to start than by staking your own personal claim by writing what you do on your hand? Heck, maybe it’s the first time you’ve ever made the statement “I am acting/writing/directing/reviewing/ASMing/producing” or doing any of the multifaceted and multifarious activities associated with life in the theatre. We just cannot allow ourselves to become invisible.
It’s all very well to have Prince Charles supporting theatre by joining in the Shakespeare celebrations this year, but I’m worried that this is disguising a institutional malaise. If we, the artists, do not reclaim our domain and show society how important our work is, we will fade away by mere attrition of funding. No longer does The Man have to ban what we do. All The Man has to do is not fund us, and then we’ll wither away and die.
But I don’t think theatre as a whole is under threat. Not in the short term, anyway. Anything commercial will have a life and will attract private funding. It’s the innovative, the daring, the lunatic that will be starved.
The future is in our hands, as it’s always been. It’s rather cliché to observe that the arts are in crisis. They’re always in crisis. All that’s left to each new generation is to find our own way to protect our right to create. For how else are new discoveries made? And if you are reading this, The Man, how else are new commercial projects to be found?
This is my call to artists. Write what you do on your hand and post a picture of it. Make a statement. Maybe, just maybe, if enough of us do that, we can put a bandage over the slashed artery of arts support.