Imagine if exam boards condoned Maths GCSE calculus units completed with the use of a smart phone calculator app rather than a scientific calculator. If Chemistry GCSE practicals did not require live demonstrations by the teacher of the scientific process before students were expected to complete the experiment, and they could just watch a quick YouTube tutorial instead. If in human body modules of the Biology GCSE, you didn’t have to monitor each other’s pulses before and after doing star jumps or running on the spot, but you could just use pre-recorded or made up results from a textbook to comment on the effect of exercise on cardiac rhythm and respiration. After all, how important can hands-on learning be when faced with the more pressing issues of time and money?
Well, allow me to reassure you, none of the above will ever happen; STEM students, unlike Arts students, are rarely expected to complete their studies using insufficient tools.
With the recent announcements from OCR and AQA that drama students can now write on their final paper about recorded theatre performances rather than the previously stipulated live performances, one cannot help but wonder when examiners will finally cut to the chase and tell students with a passion for acting that the acting found in Coronation Street or the latest Marvel film is all the observatory training they need.
Live performance is unlike anything else. Anyone who has ever taken to the stage, whether to act, sing, dance, joke, read or play, will tell you that. Theatres have a separate, organic dimension which a camera – no matter how skilfully operated – will never be able to capture. The expectant, shifting ambience, the knowledge that whatever happens cannot simply be scrapped and revisited, the unpredictable and ever changing nature of plays in performance, the ambiguous audience who will howl at a joke one night and sneer at it the next, all prepare students of theatre not only for acting in front of a live audience themselves, but for life. Whether you choose to spend your life pursuing artistically performative careers or working behind an office desk, the flexibility and external awareness that live theatre embodies is essential to success.
STEM students, unlike Arts students, are rarely expected to complete their studies using insufficient tools.
Recorded performances, as any good English student such as myself is trained to say, show a bias and reception all of their own; they are not an original artistic product, but the reading of one. Camera angles, microphone placements, changes to set and technical scripts to accommodate a film crew, the changed nature of an audience which knows it is observed and recorded and put under new pressures, all alter the nature of the artistic product, making it something else entirely. That is not to say that there is nothing to be enjoyed or learnt from recordings – studying drama and plays over the last few years of my life has led me to greatly appreciate how moving and brilliant recorded performances can be, showing new and intriguing perspectives on old scripts and stories – but to equate them with live performances, especially in conjunction with a qualification purposefully designed to teach live performance, is wrong.
I refuse to acknowledge this change to the syllabus as a question of accessibility, one diverting route board representatives have tried to lead the media toward taking. Sewing machines are expensive, but do exam boards endorse textiles degrees which require only the ability to work with bare needle and thread? Not every school has easy access to a high-quality sporting ground, but that doesn’t stop funding and – more crucially – time allocation for talented and driven students to visit environments designed to test their potential and enthuse them for further challenges. The real problem here is a lack of passion and dedication for arts subjects at every level of the educational system, from the Department of Education, through to exam boards, through to funding bodies, through to governors and senior staff in schools which block and divert money, time and staff away from the arts subjects. It’s a deeply-rooted issue, and one that needs to be cleanly and completely resolved for fear we bring up a generation of disillusioned, uncreative and uninspired children who struggle to find their place in a society so unwaveringly focused on more quantifiable fields of academia.