Casting directors are increasingly demanding a diversity of skills from graduates. Susan Elkin talks to heads of courses at a selection of leading institutions to find out what it takes to become more than a triple threat
Actor-musician Stephanie Rutherford has just completed a year-long international tour of The Sign of Four with Blackeyed Theatre. “Music has always been my entrée into everything else,” she says. In the show, she played trombone and other brass instruments, violin (which she took up in her late teens to meet a need on a specific show) and some percussion as a means of telling the story. She has also worked extensively with Oily Cart and Bamboozle on shows for very young children or those with learning difficulties.
Having grown up in Leeds, in what she calls the “competitive Brassed-Off world” of bands in orchestras, Rutherford trained on the actor-musician course at Rose Bruford College in London where everything gradually fell into place. “I’m dyslexic and was terrified of Shakespeare so I went to see the voice teacher who told me to see it as a piece of music with rhythm, melody and musical shape. Suddenly it all clicked.”
Rutherford is a good example of how a good actor-musician course can develop integrated, versatile – and very employable – performers.
The well-established Rose Bruford course, led by Jeremy Harrison, is one of several actor-musician degree courses. Other options include Guildford School of Acting, which launched its course in 2015, and offerings at the University of West London and Mountview. Leeds College of Music is starting an actor-musician programme in September 2020.
So, what are these courses looking for in applicants? Sally Ann Gritton, director of Academic Affairs and head of undergraduate performance at Mountview, explains: “They need to be open-hearted and ready to learn and, because we take only 16 students each year, a collaborative spirit is essential.” She also mentions versatility and flexibility, the ability to improvise and positive energy.
Nicholas Scrivens, programme leader for the BA Actor-Musician course at GSA, agrees. “The main quality we look for is openness to trying new things. The course prides itself on working across all genres – musicals, plays, new writing and more. The greatest thing about actor-musicianship work is how broad the spectrum is.”
Many of these courses also offer abundant scope for developing skills through optional related activities. For example, at the University of West London, where the actor-musician BA is led by Richard Link, students might participate in a range of ensembles including the Camerata orchestra, a jazz vocal ensemble and the Musical Theatre Society.
Musical requirements are generally flexible. As long as you can demonstrate that you can do it, certificates don’t usually matter too much. “At Mountview, we look for a good level of skill on one instrument, which can be grades-led or self-taught,” says Gritton.
GSA aims to develop proficiency on at least three instruments by the end of the course. It does not require specific grades, but it does seek a high level of playing, sight reading and musical knowledge equivalent roughly to Associated Board of Royal Schools of Music grade 8 practical and grade 5 theory.
The forthcoming course at Leeds College of Music hopes to recruit student musicians with all kinds of instruments and influences, including – unusually – producers of electronic music, rap artists and beatboxers.
‘Actor-musicianship training enhances performance from the audition onwards’ Nicholas Scrivens, GSA
“I think actor-musicianship training enhances performance from the audition onwards,” says Scrivens. “Our course is designed in three very specific stages: technical skills in the first year – acting, singing and dance movement along with music. The second year stretches that, often by casting them out of their comfort zone, and the third year consolidates it all through rehearsal and public performance.”
It is the integration of wide-ranging skills that really marks these performers out. “For example, dance and singing is integrated with instruments and performances, featuring characters using instruments as part of the theatrical convention and not just as a band to accompany others,” says Gritton.
Actor-musicians like Stephanie Rutherford appeal to casting directors because they’re so multi-skilled. Gritton mentions Mountview alumni Michael Jeremiah (Motown the Musical) and Rachel Hammond (Much Ado About Nothing, Northern Broadsides) as further examples. And, new as the GSA course is, Scrivens cites graduates Hanna Khogali (Rags at Manchester’s Hope Mill Theatre and Broken Wings at the Other Palace, London) and Lara Lewis (May in The Hired Man tour).
The training opens up other possibilities too. “The thing I am most proud of,” says Scrivens, “is the work that students are beginning to create together with new companies, writing partnerships and bands. The course is becoming a real creative hub where graduation is just the start of exploring what they can do together”
Mountview actor-musicians, 100% of whom are routinely signed up to agents each year, go on to a range of work including plays, musicals and workshops of new writing. “Our graduates also gig when they aren’t on shows by forming bands or performing solo,” says Gritton. “And they have the added advantage of being able to offer music tuition for additional income.”