I visit a lot of drama schools. Next on my schedule is ALRA North in Wigan – winner of the 2013 Stage 100 Awards School of the Year.
One of the things I am told almost everywhere I go is that there is a strong emphasis on punctuality and student discipline. In several places students have told me – approvingly – that if they arrive more than five minutes late for a class they are excluded from it for that session and that if you do this too often there are further penalties. One school even says that the main door is closed five minutes after classes start so latecomers cannot even get onto the premises without ringing the bell and explaining themselves.
Try telling all this to university students studying academic subjects with their low number of contact hours and, often, casual approach to work. A drama student at Manchester School of Theatre (MMU) told me in amazed horror that when he popped back to his student flat for something he’d forgotten his student (but not of drama) flatmate was still in his pyjamas.
In higher education terms, drama and performing arts work seems to be in a disciplined world all of its own. So why doesn’t that attitude, especially towards punctuality, transfer into the industry?
I am becoming increasingly irritated by professional performances which fail to start at the advertised time. Of course there are exceptions but over and over I make a big effort (hurrying over my supper, perhaps) to be at the venue ten minutes before curtain up only to hang about for a show which goes up 20 or 25 minutes later, without apology. It happens all the time. Opening nights are the worst offenders but by no means the only ones.
Much of the theatre I see is in London. It’s an arrogant assumption for managements to assume that every member of their audiences is London-based meaning that finishing times are not important. Like thousands of other London theatre attenders I live well outside the capital and have an hour’s train journey home. I also have to travel from the theatre to the mainline railway station. A show finishing late, because it casually went up ten minutes late, can make a difference to which train I catch and sometimes keeps me out until well after midnight unnecessarily.
And I think this is definitely a training issue. Commendable emphasis on businesslike punctuality at college is all very well, but everyone involved in a show at any level has to understand that it matters there too. Of course there might – very occasionally – be a valid technical reason for a delay in which case the audience should be informed. I once attended a performance of A Midsummer Night’s Dream in which Titania sprained her ankle during the half and obviously it took time to strap her up and find ways of keeping her seated on stage. Otherwise 7.30 should mean 7.30 and not 7.45 – if we feel like it.