Thursday, 12 February 2015


Exams are performances. They are little more than elaborate little plays.

Think about it. Exams come with rehearsals -- frequently known as tests. The multiple exams periods (e.g. term two, mocks, externals) correspond well with taking a show on tour and performing at a variety of different venues. That each exam period has multiple exams is a perfect, or at least natural, analogy for having multiple performances of a given play within a season. Exam preparation also resembles, reasonably closely, the processes that an actor might undertake whilst learning lines or getting to grips with their character. Blocking = practising exam structure (for instance, TEER or SEX paragraphs). Teachers are directors and supervisors stage managers; both of whom make sure everything works smoothly. Fellow pupils are other actors up for the same awards or competing to achieve recognition. The audience is more complex because the chief observer of what happens in the exam is, in fact, its maker. There's also the marker and the exam taker's family and friends... their conception of their future self is also an important, metaphorical, audience member.

This holds true on other levels as well. Psychologically, exams and plays are both daunting only to the unprepared. Stage fright doesn't exist. Poor preparation does. In some sense, plays exist to capture some semblance of reality and explore it (hence why analysts might talk of reality and unreality in discussing plays). Exams are like this too. They're firstly there to assess what their takers know and understand... every other aspect of an exam is secondary to this aim. However, exams do this through unreality. As a thing, an exam is an incredibly contrived situation. This is like akin to a playwright's having total control over the world of a play. It's not real (even if Prince George never quite understands this in Blackadder the Third), but that doesn't mean that it can't say something meaningful about reality. Is that not the same as an exam?

Thinking of exams as performances brings, I feel, an interesting light to The History Boys. Irwin spends the entire play/film trying to teach his pupils how to play the game. This was revolutionary for the boys in the story. In the past, the standard approach of schools was to ignore such things as exam technique. Instead, their focus was entirely on learning or memorisation of facts or whatever else was required. Things like flair just didn't seem to be something that was needed. The History Boys is set in the eighties not because this is where this paradigm was overturned but because it's when the central problem to be resolved ceased to exist. In that sense, Irwin's ideas could be too early or too late when compared with reality but the point is that they're true. And when you think of exams as performances, you see this better than if you consider exams as games. Success in a game, after all, is all about what the likes of Dakin and co. were doing. The first thing you do is know what you need to do. The second thing you do is get as efficient at doing that as possible. While it's true that a lot of the greats bring something else (for instance, Usain Bolt is a character), solid efficiency is enough and, frankly, frequently better. But, for an actor, it's not enough to be efficient. You can't just be incredibly truthful. You have to bring a sense of vitality to your performance as well. And that, ultimately, is Irwin's message. Truth isn't what stands out. Everyone knows the truth and writes about that. You need to bring something that rises above that (usually achieved by having a non-conventional take on things).

In short, exams are performances. They are made great as much by style as they are by substance.

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