Director of Drama, Gilly Norell discusses the outpouring of alumni support for live theatre – for the importance and place of the arts in education – that was prompted by the School’s recent live performances of Decky Does a Bronco.
With stage doors firmly shut across the country, actors and audiences have been left bereft this year. Livelihoods are, and continue to be, ‘on hold’, with many of those working in theatres – both on and off stage – locked out of their careers. “I vividly remember being backstage on tour with Les Mis in March and realising that we were being shut down, with no idea when we’d be back on stage,” explains Old Oakhamian and musical theatre star, Katie Hall (OO, 08). “I’ve spent the last eight months pining for the theatre, and its absence has left a huge hole in my daily life.” Others, such as renowned actor Richard Hope (OO, 71), are awaiting news of postponed shows – Richard’s at the RSC – where no dates, venues or collaborators can be confirmed”.
Unlike professional theatres, whose survival is determined by the number of seats they sell, as a school we have, thankfully, been able to struggle on and open our doors to a semblance of an audience (an internal, socially distanced one, made up of staff and pupils). We have flexed rehearsals to accommodate a rotation of self-isolation for different cast members. We have held our breath waiting for the final curtain to be called should one of the cast catch COVID. We have managed – in a very small way, within our community – to bring back live theatre. The show – the Scholars’ Production of Decky Does a Bronco – went on.
The audience’s applause was heartfelt – for the pupils’ excellent performances and their Herculean efforts to bring the play to life. It was, however, the outpouring of alumni support for the play, for live theatre, and for the importance and place of the Arts in education, that will leave an incredibly important and indelible mark on us all. The numerous messages were read out and displayed to the actors and audiences ahead of each performance. All of the messages reflected the same meaning, adeptly summarised by award-winning Actor Greg Hicks (OO, 71), that theatre “is an antidote to how blind we all can be to the depth of the world around us… and an antidote to all sickness, physical and spiritual.”
Acclaimed Director and Writer Thomas Hescott (OO, 96) wrote that “theatre isn’t a luxury, it can be a means of survival”. He described how, during his time at Oakham he “always had a desire to learn, but being dyslexic meant I often struggled with academia. The place where I had a voice was in that theatre. I was in countless productions, I worked backstage on productions, it was where I directed my first ever show. That theatre, and the people in it gave me self-worth – it was where I was heard.”
He continued, “for some people, getting on school shows will probably be very far down the list of priorities. A luxury that we don’t really need.” His message then eloquently impressed upon the actors and audience the importance and value of the creative arts. “Even before the pandemic hit, a war was being waged on humanities subjects by politicians (this is despite the creative industries contributing more than £111bn to the UK economy in 2018). There has been a very divisive argument that STEM subjects were somehow more important, more grown up. It’s the wrong argument to have. The arts and sciences are essentially trying to answer the same questions; we just approach it from different angles. We are not at war with each other – we need each other. The best scientists understand the importance of stories to convey ideas whilst the best artists are transfixed by the wonder of science.”
“Maybe some of the students performing tonight will become actors,” added Thomas. “Or maybe they’ll go off and pursue one of the countless jobs where technology and art collide – such as the games industry which is full of storytellers, or virtual reality which is doing ground-breaking things with technology and with story. Or maybe they will pursue a scientific life where the experience of standing on stage, of telling a story, of creating a convincing narrative and unlocking complex ideas for a general public will be invaluable.”
These wider benefits of performance are something I have always impressed upon Oakhamians. That regardless of what, specifically, they go on to pursue, the skills they will have acquired whilst on stage will translate and transfer into their chosen career. That is why it has been so very important to keep Drama alive during lockdown – through the many hours of virtual Drama and LAMDA lessons.
Equally importantly though, are the benefits of enjoying live theatre. Of escaping the every day and enveloping oneself in another world. If there has ever been a time for what Greg Hicks described as “an antidote to all sickness, physical and spiritual”, it is now, at the end of the most difficult year for all. Which is why opening up our Theatre to pupils and staff to enjoy the performance was critical. It has been wonderful to hear our Alumni praise our efforts. I’m delighted that Richard Hope, thinks we are “remarkable”, that Katie Hall was “smiling from ear to ear” at the news, and that Thomas Hescott is “so proud” that we have “in the midst of a pandemic which is driving people into isolation found a way of bringing people together”.
Of course, our production of Decky Does a Bronco was merely school theatre, but we have tried, during this difficult time, in our small way, to hold the torch alight for the theatre industry – for the actors and the audiences – at a time when so many other venues are simply not able to open their doors.