The benefits of a visit to the theatre

In 2016, new academic syllabuses set by GCSE exam boards AQA and OCR dropped the requirement for schools to ensure that pupils watch and analyse at least one live theatre production. Guidelines stated that, in place of a visit to the theatre, teachers could show pupils recordings of plays instead.

But is a film or recording a sufficient educational substitute for live performance? Research suggests not. For secondary school pupils, a visit to the theatre provides much more than just entertainment. If students are studying a play at school, for example, they’ll have a much better understanding of it if they see a live performance.

Researchers from the University of Arkansas’ Department of Education Reform found that pupils who watched the theatre production of a play gained significantly enhanced knowledge (58 percent increase from standard deviation of the group tested) compared to those who had simply read the script or watched a film version. Let’s take a closer look at the benefits of a visit to the theatre.

Learn new skills

Watching a play or a live performance requires children to develop new skills. Students learn to understand the protocols of theatre, such as not making noise and knowing when to applaud. As the Prince’s Foundation for Children & the Arts explains, “Learning in theatres has its own skills-set – theatrical literacy and the understanding of dramatic conventions, a specialised vocabulary, and the ability to sit and watch a performance without distraction.” Learning to focus for an hour and a half – or more – is a skill that’s particularly important in this digital age.

Theatre-going and participation in the arts can help academic performance and social skills. Politics aside, a consultation by the Labour Party found that engagement by young people in the arts boosts confidence and improves communication skills, as well as increasing attainment in maths and literacy. An evaluation of the Start programme – an initiative that works with cultural venues and schools to give disadvantaged pupils the opportunity to engage in theatre and arts – found that a significant number of teachers reported that their pupils gained better reasoning skills after taking part.

Inspire a lifelong love of theatre

Taking young people to the theatre doesn’t just help them academically; it can also inspire a love of live performance that will stay with them into adulthood. It’s important for children to see theatre as a cultural experience that is open to everyone, regardless of background, financial status or ability. Making theatre visits the norm helps to break down the barriers that often limit attendance, such as lack of interest, a lack of awareness or the perceived elitism of the arts. A study by Arts Council England found that children who are encouraged to attend and participate in arts such as live theatre have a much higher chance of continuing these activities as an adult.

From a very young age, children use their imagination to create stories and act out scenarios. Theatre is a continuation of this human instinct: to express ourselves through other characters and narratives. Exposing young people to this medium encourages them to continue their development of self-expression and creativity.

Increase tolerance

Theatre also helps students put themselves in the shoes of others. The University of Arkansas study tested students for tolerance, having hypothesised that trips such as theatre outings expose pupils to diversity, making them aware and accepting of different people and ideas. They found a 31 percent increase in acceptance and tolerance levels. When they compared these results to students who had only watched film versions of a play, rather than live theatre, they found that these pupils showed lower tolerance levels.

In fact, the Prince’s Foundation for Children & the Arts reports that students who take part in arts at school are 20 percent more likely to vote as young adults, and twice as likely to become volunteers.

Understand new concepts

Award-winning arts journalist Katie Colombus puts it perfectly when she says that, by watching live theatre, “We are transported into the hearts and minds of the characters, recognising and understanding their actions and feelings which encourages communication and learning empathy – all within a constructed, safe environment”. At the theatre, students are exposed to both people and scenarios that they might not normally witness. Stereotypical gender, sexual or social roles may be turned upside down, and, for some children, this may be the first time they experience such concepts.

Watching a film or a video on the web just isn’t the same, as Sue Buckmaster, artistic director of Theatre Rites explains: “It’s the physical engagement that is so missing in the wonders of going online. There’s something about the live or physical experience that does touch self-reflection in a different way. We can do that digitally but there’s something missing.”

Live performance has numerous benefits that other forms of learning can’t match. By making your next school trip a visit to the theatre, you could help increase your students’ knowledge, empathy, tolerance and imagination. Get in touch with Study Experiences to find out how we can help you organise a theatre visit for your class.