- United Kingdom Columnist
Last night I watched 'The Monuments Men' and I've drawn a careful, mindful parallel between the need to preserve and protect great artworks while the world was at war, and the need for theatre to remain accessible for young people while all the world seems to be at war over financial gains and strains. Saving a Picasso piece or Michelangelo's Madonna and Child while the real human cost of war was all around, seemed futile at first; men were dying for stone and canvas- surely, this should not have been a priority? The same can be said of lamenting the loss of theatre opportunities for students; the world has much, much bigger problems- people are dying, financial constraints are worsening for some of the poorest in society, Brexit looms and Trump could be the next POTUS. All of this is well deserving of lengthy editorials - surely taking teenagers to the theatre is not a priority? I can see it, I assure you, and yet lament I must and lament I will. We need to provide more opportunities for young people to visit the theatre, and we need to invest in future generations of theatre-goers. It's said time and time again that children are our future, are they not? If they see theatre as unobtainable, they may well see it as dispensable. They likely hold the future of theatre in their powerful hands and we need to instil a sense of value of the arts in the minds and hearts of young people.
So what exactly do I have to bemoan? Allow me to explain, dear reader. I have proudly been the facilitator of students visiting the theatre for the first time on multiple occasions; it is one of the most rewarding aspects of my job and it's something that I will keep working at for the duration of my career. However, I found a recent experience positively deflating. To support their study of the musical as play text, I attempted to book tickets for GCSE students to see a production of Willy Russell's wonderful musical, 'Blood Brothers'.
Actually seeing the text-as-studied brought to life as intended would have been invaluable for some of the students struggling with their studies. Seeing the show would also have assisted struggling students with the new exam requirement to memorise quotations; seeing the characters and story realised before their eyes would certainly have been memorable preparation for their exam. Their disappointment when told that the trip could not run was well matched with my frustration that I could not make it work for them.
While attempting to book tickets, I was told that the discounts and deals often available for school trips were not in place as it was a touring West End production. Therefore, the cheapest tickets available were in the gods, at £26 per student, with no allocation for staff chaperones (I have known smaller shows and theatres to offer a free staff ticket per ten student tickets booked). This alone was enough to put most of the nails into the coffin, but factoring in the cost of the coach to get us all there and back was the very final nail. The knowledge that many of these students had never been to the theatre before and were likely to never show an independent interest made my heart sink further; their time at school is almost up, they will soon move on and to my knowledge, many will not have set foot in a theatre by the time they leave school. The window of opportunity for these students to experience theatre at a young age has been missed because this trip was just too expensive to run. So I am asking, how can we promote a love of theatre from a young age when young people feel that theatre is inaccessible?
So why not just book a smaller show which does offer more affordable options? Well, because this was an intended school trip, and school trips are subject to many, many terms and conditions; among other, practical things, they must be educational, they must be linked to the curriculum and they must be affordable for a substantial amount of students in order to be deemed worthwhile. Therefore, theatre trips are mostly restricted to texts being studied, primarily at GCSE and A Level, so seeing this particular production of this particular show at this point in the year seemed perfect- and it would have been, had it been financially viable. So what does this mean? It means that opportunities are not always readily available and now, as prices continue to rise, theatre seems to be slipping ever more out of reach for young people.
Trips run by schools are often the only opportunity to experience the rewards of live theatre afforded to many young people, and missing this window seems nonsensical to me. After all, if theatre is to thrive in the future, love of theatre must be introduced for future audiences in a positive, memorable way, not as something that 'wasn't for me'- particularly when it's financial restriction alone which stands in the way. Despite the financial frustrations and aside from the educational value, there's a sense of life-long enjoyment to be instilled.
School budgets are tight and I know of schools with printing and photocopying embargoes owing to budget constraints; subsidising theatre trips on a large scale is not a priority, and even with systems in place to support students from low-income households, it's not easy to have such funds released for arts trips. What's more, there are so many students not considered to be from low-income homes and yet come from homes which, understandably, given the current economic climate, do not have the financial freedom to pay such high prices. More and more families are struggling financially, food bank reliance continues to increase and consequently, school trips are out of the question regardless of how educationally valuable they might be. I have complete sympathy and I completely understand why funds for trips (including theatre trips) are not a priority when schools and parents are struggling financially, so I'm suggesting that theatres and companies do more.
I'm not sure what the exact solution is, and I know options will differ depending on schools and regions, but if theatres and companies could find a pot of gold which could make prices kinder to younger audiences, whether the show is a touring production or not, it would be gold well invested. I know that many theatres run commendable outreach programmes, striving to connect with younger, new audiences, so perhaps we need to see a more monetary manifestation of this investment in terms of school involvement? While I am of course aware of the increasing financial strains in the arts, my point is that to ensure future revenue for decades to come, fresh interest is needed and young audiences need the opportunity to fall in love sooner rather than later. School-aged young people should be given more attention and not just in the form of youth theatres and similar programmes, but through more direct interventions with schools.
So I'll repeat: children are our future, are they not? They likely hold the future of theatre in their powerful hands, so let's invest in them, let's facilitate a powerful connection with theatre and the arts from an early age, and let's build more bridges to allow opportunities to be realised rather than abandoned.