Theatres: an inspiring place to learn

By Gillian Symons | 18 May 2009

So you might take your students to a theatre to watch a play - most likely one they are studying for their exams. But have you also thought about what else your students can learn from visiting a theatre?

Photo of a group of people sitting inside a theatre auditorium

Students on a tour of the Hackney Empire © Alys Tomlinson

Engrossed in an exciting theatre performance, have you ever thought about the contribution of the building design to the experience? The rake of the seating, the acoustics, the air conditioning, the angles of the sightlines and the décor all contribute to audience enjoyment. In other words, science, maths, design and technology and art and design are all important to the theatre experience!

Theatres sometimes contain clues about the technology available at the time they were built. Shakeseare’s Globe is a replica of the Globe Theatre built in 1599, when electric lighting had not been invented, so the building is open to the sky, making the most of available daylight.

Theatres may also tell us something about the technology and values of the present day. For example, the recently refurbished Royal Festival Hall includes a ventilation system based on boreholes drilled deep into the earth, which uses half the energy of conventional air conditioning.

Theatre design can reveal a lot about social history. In the middle of nineteenth century, rich and poor were completely segregated, not only in different seating areas but with separate entrances. Even today the cheaper seats in theatres of this period are reached by side entrances and uncarpeted stairs.

In contrast, modern theatres often have all glass frontages and cafes, bars and exhibitions near one main entrance, to encourage everyone to come in. Which of these social attitudes does your local theatre represent?

Three reasons why you should take your class to a local theatre

  • Theatres can provide the real and relevant context for learning that QCA recommends, whatever your curriculum focus.
  • Most students will have some experience of theatres to build upon – whether going to the local pantomime, studying a Shakespeare play or taking part in a school production.
  • There is a theatre or performance space within reach of most schools, whether it is a large regional theatre or a small local arts centre.
Photo of school students inside the Royal Festival Hall

Students visiting the Royal Festival Hall © Alys Tomlinson

Starting points – suggestions from the Theatres Trust

  • For help with finding your nearest theatre, search for your town or postcode on the Theatres Trust database. This contains architectural and historic records of 1,400 theatres across the UK.
  • Contact the education or marketing officer at the theatre. Many have a programme for schools, volunteers to show you around, or may even be able to design a special programme for your class.
  • The Theatres Trust have a useful leaflet on planning a theatre visit and online teachers’ resource packs for literacy, history, citizenship, and art and design. These are aimed at key stage 2 but contain ideas that can be adapted for other age groups as well.
  • Prepare students for a visit, suggests Mhora Samuel, Theatres Trust director, by encouraging your students to talk of any experiences of attending or taking part in performances. Also explain special words that are associated with theatres (take a look at the Theatre Trust literacy resouce).

Ideas for the classroom
Here are some suggestions for activities that will get your students thinking about the variety of theatre buildings in the UK and the impact of different designs on audience and production.

So what are you waiting for?
Why not get in touch with your local theatre for a motivating, curriculum rich experience? Many theatres across England have fallen into disrepair and are at risk of demolition. By exploring this exciting architecture with your students, you are not only opening their minds to purposeful design but also helping to save our dramatic heritage.

Photo of a group of people standing at the base of a theatre stage

Students on tour of the Hackney Empire © Alys Tomlinson

Additional resources
Virtual tour of Shakespeare’s Globe

On the Theatres Trust website:
History of theatres
Theatre decoration

To get you started: a theatre from each region
All the theatres below are featured in the Theatres Trust, exploring theatres resource.

Yorkshire and the Humber:
Grand Theatre and Opera House, Leeds

North West:
Lowry, Salford

North East:
Theatre Royal, Newcastle

South East:
Theatre Royal, Brighton

East Midlands:
Nottingham Playhouse

West Midlands:
Birmingham Rep

South West:
Bristol Theatre Royal/Old Vic

East of England:
Regent Theatre, Ipswich

London:
Hackney Empire

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