How buildings and facilities might inform your choice of drama school
Though the quality of teaching is a vital foundation for training, the standard facilities is a key factor in preparing for professional life. Susan Elkin profiles several schools that are upping their game with state-of-the-art amenities
Drama schools are in the middle of a building bonanza. LAMDA recently opened its £28.2 million extension, Mountview Academy of Theatre Arts is planning to move into a £28.3 million building in Peckham next year and the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama hopes its £16.7 million extension will be finished by September 2018.
Arts Educational Schools, having opened its Andrew Lloyd Webber theatre in 2013, is now planning a £16-18 million radical refurbishment of the rest of its building. And RADA’s Richard Attenborough Campaign aims to raise £20 million to develop its Chenies Street site to create RADA’s first ever on-site accommodation, an enhanced library and archive, and a new 250-seat theatre.
How does this benefit students? It is usually argued that the quality of the teaching matters more than the buildings where the training takes place, but the two are related.
“It was a useful experience for students to work in different theatres across London while we were theatre-less,” says Rob Young, head of technical theatre at LAMDA. “But it’s much more efficient to have everything under one roof. For a start, there’s much greater staff presence and no time is wasted travelling. It means more scope for help, support and assessment and we can, and do, dip in and out of rehearsals too.”
Gavin Henderson, principal of Central, agrees. “We’ve been spread all over London for years, including the studios at Bankside we have taken for five interim years. It’s time to consolidate on one site and we need another performance space,” he says, adding that the new 10-storey building (two below ground) lies behind the main Eton Avenue site and “plugs into it”. It includes five double-height studios that will enhance “existing good practice and make timetabling much more coherent”. Additional technical theatre provision will take the pressure off existing workshops and allow more continuity for students.
Neither Central nor LAMDA has plans to increase undergraduate student numbers on its main course, although there will be scope to expand short courses, part-time provision, summer schools and the like. “Our main concern is to meet the training needs of the students we already have,” says Henderson.
Sarah Preece, Mountview’s executive director and joint chief executive, talks warmly of how new, well-designed buildings can enhance learning for wider communities too.
“At our new site in Peckham – with big glass windows into our technical theatre workshops along Peckham Hill Street – we plan to develop a community academy using our core skills, including technical theatre, to teach local people of all ages. We’ll be a community asset and Southwark Borough Council, an enlightened local authority, has helped us secure an 80% finance deal, similar to a mortgage, which we’ll be able to clear in 35 years.”
Preece regards the building as “a showcase for Mountview’s work” and says that everything about it will benefit core students. “As 70% of West End shows have Mountview graduates in, we already have fantastic industry links.”
There is a strong sense that Mountview students deserve better than the cramped unit that was ‘temporary’ when it opened 35 years ago. Located on an industrial site behind a supermarket in Wood Green, its technical workshops and rehearsal space are spread across four other buildings, with no on-site theatre space. “We are currently paying rent to five different landlords. The release of that money will pay off our loan,” Preece explains.
All three projects include the creation of at least one new theatre space for trainee students to learn and work in – as well as providing local theatrical entertainment for the ticket-buying surrounding community.
“Our new theatre has enhanced student learning in many ways and it has had a big influence on teaching,” says Arts Ed principal Chris Hocking. “We already had a studio theatre but, as well as doing ‘small-scale’, students need to be able to work with a proscenium, balcony and very large playing space. That’s what they will often have to face when they start professional work. It’s an integral part of training both for actors and for musical-theatre performers.”
Our new theatre has enhanced student learning and has had a big influence on teaching
Hocking continues: “Now that we have our own on-site, professional-standard theatre, it means we can rehearse on stage more without time constraints. And students have access to good dressing rooms, bathrooms, showers and so on. We don’t run a technical theatre course so our theatres are professionally stage-managed and that too is good, supportive training for our performance students. We believe that we offer world-class training and that the facilities we use must reflect that.”
Young relishes not having to share with unrelated organisations. “We can now put a mark down on the floor of a rehearsal room and know it will still be there tomorrow,” he says. “We’re no longer in a church hall that will be booked out to the WI and the Beavers before we’re next in it. It saves a great deal of time.”
LAMDA’s new building includes the 200-seat Sainsbury Theatre, 120-seat Carne Studio Theatre and many carefully integrated teaching spaces, soundproofed from the busy A4 and the Piccadilly and District lines outside. Young says: “We have new technical department offices so that lighting, sound and appropriate IT can be connected with every other room in the building. You can sit, for example, in lighting and hear what’s
happening on stage.”
On the other hand, it’s no good exclusively exposing students to the very latest equipment and methodology because they may find much less sophisticated hardware in some of the theatres they later work in. “We carefully teach them how to dismantle 15-year old lanterns because they need that too,” says Young.
Preece talks of “hybridity”, adding that Mountview’s new building will have all the “right tech” but also plenty of basics. “We aim to provide what they might have to work with within the industry,” she says. “State-of-the-art is not always the most useful approach for training.”
New buildings can enhance the quality of the teaching that lies at the heart of good, vocational performing arts training. While they are costly, at their best, they give students realistic, flexible training experiences leading to industry readiness in return for their fees.