In this article, experienced Theatre Studies tutor Matthew Dann, addresses some common questions and concerns around A Level Theatre Studies, including, the advantages of studying Theatre Studies at A Level, the best subject combinations, and the relevance of the subject for future studies or careers. He also explores the key components of the A Level Theatre Studies curriculum and discusses effective revision techniques and his tips for getting a top grade in the subject.
I have never studied Theatre Studies before; will I be at a disadvantage?
It is not essential to have studied Drama or Theatre Studies at GCSE in order to choose it for A Level. Of greater importance is that you have a genuine interest in live theatre. You may, for example, have acted in school productions of plays or musicals, or have explored the technical side of theatre, such as lighting or set design, through a local drama group or club. GCSE Drama will give you a grounding in some of the skills needed for A Level study, such as how to work collaboratively to create a piece of theatre and how to analyse an extract from a given play. However, the skills gained from studying English Literature, Art and Design or Modern Languages, for example, would all stand you in good stead for Theatre Studies.
There are perhaps more important questions to ask yourself before committing to this subject at A Level: do you have an interest in live theatre and are you curious about the practical processes involved in its creation? Are you keen to take on a subject that demands a wide reading of plays and texts on theory? Are you organised and disciplined enough to manage a substantial coursework component, requiring collaboration with your fellow students? Long perceived as a so-called ‘soft’ option at A Level, Theatre Studies is in fact a rigorous course of study, testing a wide variety of skills and demanding fastidious attention to the specification in order to achieve the highest marks. It is by no means an easy choice. The reward, however, is a stimulating, varied and enriching programme, which has the added benefit of preparing you well for a number of future careers or for further study.
Which A Levels go well with Theatre Studies?
Essay-based subjects such as English Literature, History and Politics pair well with A Level Drama or Theatre Studies. There are a number of university courses that combine Drama with other subjects, such as English, so studying these subjects together at A Level can broaden your opportunities. History and Politics also make an interesting pairing with Drama: understanding a wide range of historical and political contexts can help to develop your sense of the place and time within which a particular play was written. Consider, for instance, the influence of McCarthyism in the USA on Arthur Miller’s 1953 play, The Crucible; or, at the turn of the 17th century, how the death of Queen Elizabeth I and accession of King James I marked a turning point in the career and writing of William Shakespeare. Studying any of these subjects together will deepen your understanding and appreciation.
Don’t feel however that you can only study Humanities subjects or Languages alongside Drama or Theatre Studies. The contrasting skills tested by this subject in comparison to Maths or Science can make for an attractive combination, both for prospective university applications and for giving oneself a rich and varied course of academic study over two years.
A final consideration when choosing your A Level subjects is to look carefully at the coursework requirements. Drama and Theatre Studies are typically weighted 60% in favour of coursework. Therefore, if you choose other coursework-heavy subjects you will have to manage your time carefully to ensure you can balance the requirements of all of your subjects. This is an attractive option to some students, as it means not all the pressure of your results rests on a concentrated period of examinations at the end of the year. However, it does require discipline and forethought to ensure that you manage your coursework load effectively.
Do I need to study A Level Theatre Studies to take Drama or Theatre Studies at university or to go to drama school?
It is not necessary to have studied Drama or Theatre Studies in order to go to drama school, or, in most cases, to study the subject at university. Many universities require certain grades at GCSE or A Level, but often do not specify Drama or Theatre Studies as a required subject. In some cases, they state that an essay-based subject, such as English Literature, History or Politics, is needed at A Level in order to apply.
In the case of drama schools, rarely, if ever, do they require particular grades or qualifications. This is especially the case if you are looking to train as an actor or director; in stage management; or in a technical theatre role. RADA, for example, are instead curious about your “interests and experiences” and look at your “potential, creativity and curiosity”. LAMDA is similarly disinterested in grades and qualifications, and instead want to see that you are “passionate about developing your talent and learning new skills”. They emphasise the collaborative nature of their courses, and therefore want to see a “readiness to work hard” and “capability to work as part of a group”. The most important preparation for applying for this kind of vocational training is to hone your particular practice. If you want to train as an actor but have never done any acting at school or in youth theatre, you might find it a big step-up to begin this kind of full-time training.
Even though drama schools and universities do not usually require an A Level in Drama or Theatre Studies, the skills gained from studying this subject are still valuable for both of these pursuits. The ability to think creatively, to problem-solve, to work collaboratively, to interpret and derive meaning from a text: all of these acquired skills will serve you well in a course of further study, whether a vocational course or an academic degree.
Whichever course you are interested in, make sure you check the entry criteria carefully. All the information is available via the websites of the individual schools and universities, so take your time and do your research thoroughly. Drama and Theatre Studies is an incredibly valuable A Level, both in complement to other subjects and as a grounding for further study of theatre and the arts.
How do you get an A* in A Level Theatre Studies?
A-Level Drama and Theatre Studies is typically split into two sections: practical coursework and an exam component. It is important to prepare for both. A good starting point is to familiarise yourself with the specification for your particular exam board. You can also access past papers, mark schemes and examiner reports via the exam board websites. It is important to be proactive and seek out these materials yourself, not merely rely on teachers to provide them.
As well as acquainting yourself with the specification, you should prepare to go beyond the scope of the syllabus to achieve the highest marks in A Level Theatre Studies. The ability to analyse live theatre and think creatively from the point of view of an actor, director or designer is a crucial part of the course. It is therefore important that you go to see as much live theatre as you can and take detailed notes on the various elements of production.
The more familiar you are with different styles of theatre and with the varied approaches of practitioners, the more expansive your theatrical vocabulary will become. As well as helping you to develop your technical knowledge, it will help you to think creatively and draw on myriad examples to shape both your coursework and your examination essays. Typical exam questions require you to inhabit the perspective of a performer, director, or designer, and to justify your creative choices with detailed, practical examples. You will need to analyse scenes from plays and understand which questions to ask of a text in order to translate it practically on stage. The best way to hone these skills is through an ongoing process of observation, reflection, and practice.
What is the best way to revise for an A Level Theatre Studies exam?
In the build-up to the exam, you need to organise the notes you have taken throughout the course. Gather together everything you have written about the productions you have seen and the texts you have studied. The exam typically consists of one section focusing on a response to live theatre and another section focusing on a studied text. Once you have gathered your notes together and divided them into these two broad categories, you can reproduce them in a more digestible form. Some students prefer note cards, others like to use diagrams or colour-code their existing notes. Having been through GCSEs, you should have some idea of which method of revision works best for you.
Once you have organised your notes and recomposed them for effective revision, the next step is to practice writing essays. Use your notes alongside past papers and pay close attention to the mark schemes provided by the exam boards (the links to some of these can be found below). Exam technique is incredibly important for A Level Theatre Studies, which is why it is important to use these resources when you first begin practicing. Once you become more familiar with the technique, you can dispense with these resources and eventually with your notes.
I highly recommend making use of recorded live streams of theatre productions, which are now widely available online. The National Theatre, Shakespeare’s Globe, and the Royal Shakespeare Company, to name a few, all have filmed versions of their productions. Revisiting theatre productions that you may have seen live via a recording is a brilliant method of revision. Even if the production you plan to write about isn’t available online, watching other productions and taking the time to analyse choices made by the performer, director or designer is an invaluable exercise.
Where can I find A Level Theatre Studies past papers?
Past papers are available on the exam board websites. Here are some links to materials provided by AQA and Pearson Edexcel:
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