Part of my work is to teach theatre studies to fifteen and sixteen year olds in a relatively provincial Dutch town. For the last ten years as a school we have been able to fund two trips to local theatres for each pupil involved. The shows that have been seen have ranged enormously from one man stand-up to dance shows and from try-outs before national tours to straight forward plays. Excellent though many of the performances have been, with this not being Amsterdam, Rotterdam or the Hague, we have never really had the chance to expose the pupils to truly large scale productions.
Like in education in many other countries we are having to cope with budget cuts in many areas and it looks likely, that this school year, it is not going to be two shows, but only one. The pupils will undoubtedly like the time out from school to visit the theatre still, but as a teacher it presents a problem. The idea of the trips to see shows is to expose the pupils to an area of the cultural world that they might not otherwise find their way to. If we allow them just a single visit, it means that particular visit really does have to hit the mark. On top of this, as a teacher I have to find alternative filling for the course to replace the missing theatrical experience. However, in many ways, finding more cultural material has never been easier. With the rapid move towards digitalization in education there is so much that you can bring into the classroom at the press of a button.
I was reminded all to clearly of this fact yesterday when I visited my local multiplex cinema for a live streaming of Micheal Morpurgo’s War Horse from the National Theatre in London. Apart from a few moments when the failing satellite link causes the sound to drop out, it was a fantastic way to experience the show. OK, being there in the theatre would have been truly spectacular, but this film version really wasn’t bad at all. There are even a view advantages over the ‘live’ show, such as it takes you closer to the action and gives you multiple view points. If I could lay my hands on a DVD of such a performance it is certainly something I could make use of in my lessons. It could be used to talk about any number of the aspects of the craft of good theatrical productions, all within the context of an extremely accessible show.
And yet I am troubled slightly by the ease of switching the live performances of much smaller scale theatre for the Premier League of theatreland in the form of a filmed and streamed production. Obviously there are many aspects and details of the production that are lost in a video transmission, sharing a space with the performers, the intimacy of the experience and the simple tension of a live performance unfolding in front of you. All these are regrettable loses, but if I continue my Premier League football analogy, I am troubled by the effect on grass roots theatre, the smaller clubs in football terms. The National Theater is a great institution, with a prestigious and well-earned high reputation. It is spreading its wings, and moving into new areas through live streaming of shows, as are others, such as the Bolshoi Ballet and the Met. Opera in New York. If this brings new audiences to the arts that is fantastic, but it must not be at the cost of diversity. The dominance of the few ‘super’ clubs at the top of the football ladder has come at the cost of others lower down. A result of the national and international branding of these clubs. Such a chain of events may well present similar problems in the cultural world.
In the coming years I will undoubtedly be digitally streaming my pupils’ cultural experiences often enough. And as I saw yesterday, the quality will definitely be high. But I want also to offer my pupils real, first hand theatrical experiences. A performer literally just feet away, the interaction with the audience and the wonder at the performance of an actor casting his performance out into the darkness of the audience at even the smallest theatre. These too are so valuable things to see and experience. They are the things the pupils tell me about the next day at school.