An amazing thing happened a few weeks ago for one of my year 12 English Literature students. She visited the theatre for the first time.
Let’s take a moment to really think about this: a student goes nearly 17 years of her life loving English and excelling in it, acing her GCSE English exams and opting to take English A-level. And all without ever having sat in a plush red seat, experienced the lights dimming and watched real humans saying words written by playwrights to each other.
Clearly, something is going wrong here.
This student wasn’t the only one to benefit from this theatre experience, however. I had been frustrated at how difficult my year 12s were finding Much Ado About Nothing, a product I think of the GCSE Literature course: only one Shakespeare play, and if you opt to do this for the Controlled Assessment instead of the exam, well then you may not have studied any Shakespeare since year 10.
In hindsight, it was a mistake to begin with Shakespeare. But we plough on.
The production, at the Old Vic Theatre, was certainly not a “straight” production. Liberties had been taken with setting, costume and, most obviously, casting. Even better, in a way, for displaying how versatile Shakespeare’s works are, and how open to reinterpretation by successive generations of directors and actors.
Seeing the entire play all the way through is nowhere near as soporific as showing the (brilliantly uncut Globe version) DVD all the way through. There’s something different about seeing it in a theatre, without a desk and your notepad in front of you, and without the hard plastic chairs. (Adorably, almost all of my year 12s insisted on bringing their copies of the text to the theatre, and valiantly attempted to follow it through while watching.) Also, I’m not sure how Ofsted or any other inspector would feel about me showing a film for 2 hours.
Watching the play the whole way through has led to increased confidence, increased awareness and increased understanding of the text. It will undoubtedly improve the resulting coursework, and I am forever grateful that my school actually paid for every child’s ticket in full.
Yet the theatre is about more than coursework and understanding. It is a rich cultural experience that should not be withheld from any member of society. I would argue that it is our responsibility as English teachers to ensure that every child has seen a play the whole way through by the time they leave us. This is regardless of it fitting in with their course: any experience of theatre enriches a student’s understanding of the vast body of literature, and, moreover, the different realms of literature: for some students, we must concede, literature means novels and poetry. It means words on a page. We need to change this.
I was told by a colleague of a headteacher of an outstanding primary school who used their entire pupil premium for the year to take every child to a West End show. I know some critics might deride this as a casual waste of money. But I applaud the bravery of that headteacher. He recognized that there was something so worthwhile in the enterprise of theatre, something so empowering for students, that it was worth that money.
And when it comes down to money, which it does, it seems unfortunate. As a head of department, I consider the most vital resource to be books: there always should be money in the budget for books. Yet after that, we need to consider these ephemeral “books in action,” which give so much to our students.
As a result of our year 12 theatre trip, the English department will be taking selected students to a theatre show once a term. The numbers, for money and staffing, will have to be small; no more than 20 at a time. The students will need to be chosen carefully: we want to take students who deserve a treat, and students who will benefit from this cultural experience. Perhaps we can build this momentum to bring an entire year group every year. The play, of course, will also need to be chosen carefully: I don’t think I want to take year 7 to Chekhov. Rafe Esquith also notably emphasizes the importance of educating students about the play before the visit, so they can squeeze the most out of the experience.
The theatre should not be an optional extra. It should not be cast aside as too expensive, or a waste of valuable resources. And we should not have 17-year-old budding literary critics who have never been there.