Taking student shows to the professional stage
In May 2016, a show called If is due to run for two and a half weeks at the 1,200-seat Royal Court, Liverpool. It’s a professional piece, but the interesting thing is that it’s by former students of the Liverpool Institute for Performing Arts, whose curriculum strongly encourages them to develop their own work in an entrepreneurial way. It’s had two runs at Edinburgh with LIPA support and is now coming home to roost in the city of its birth. This is not, by any means, the first time LIPA has helped and encouraged its students and recent graduates in this way.
Drama schools seem to be waking up to the idea that training students, seeing them signed to an agent, then waving them goodbye is not enough. More and more of them are, like LIPA, actively enabling student work to have a professional life after its creators have graduated.
Don’t Run, an 11-hander musical about a man dealing with terminal cancer and the reactions of his family, enjoyed a short run at Waterloo East Theatre last month. It began as a piece of coursework on the MA in musical theatre course at Guildford School of Acting, part of the University of Surrey. “One of the modules on our one-year course was professional development, part of which is a devised project,” explains Ruben Kuppens, one of the cast, explaining that they used the book How Musicals Work, written by course leader Julian Woolford, as their starting point.
“We presented it at GSA earlier this year in the usual way, after several weeks of development work,” says another cast member Pjotr Greenwood. “Then we heard that Waterloo East was interested in getting it in for a short run, which meant a lot more work in further development of the book and songs – with more freedom. We built the length up from 60 minutes to two hours with interval too.” And while they were doing that, GSA was helping by providing rehearsal space and liaising with Waterloo East – which has run several previous GSA-engendered shows.
“GSA also supported us by printing posters and promoting the show,” says Kuppens. “But everything else we basically did ourselves. We split the jobs such as production, publicity and so on among the 11 of us.”
They brought in Samuel Harjanne, a recent graduate from a different GSA course (MA in creative practices and direction) to direct. “I think it’s a great opportunity when students are required to create a show on their own during a course,” he says. “And once they’ve done it, it is fantastic that the school offers opportunities and connections to make more out of projects once the course is finished. It would have been a great shame to leave such a good text as Don’t Run inside the walls of GSA.”
East 15 makes a formal policy of developing student shows into professional work.
“Our BA acting and contemporary theatre course is traditionally the leading source of students taking shows to Edinburgh,” says East 15 spokesman Kevin Wyatt-Lown. “In their graduate year, students from this course are supported in staging their annual debut festival at our on-site Corbett Theatre. Plays staged here are written, directed and performed by the students themselves. From these, new plays for the Edinburgh Fringe are drawn.” He adds that a collaboration with Kings Head Theatre, Islington allows one play to transfer there as the winner of the Stella Wilkie Award.
It’s all about getting your first professional credit. For the 11 GSA students, Don’t Run was their debut work after graduation. Daniel Fox is full of praise for the support he received from East 15 for his first play after graduation from the acting and contemporary theatre course in 2011. “The Observatory needed financial support for the Edinburgh Fringe, and East 15 helped me to secure £6,000 via the CDS/Scottish Daily Mail Edinburgh award, without which we simply wouldn’t have been able to go,” he says, adding that East 15 offers a unique sense of community that extends way beyond graduation. Many of the actors and practitioners Fox still works with are fellow East 15 alumni.
Fourth Monkey, founded by Steve Green in 2009, does things slightly differently because it’s a repertory training company rather than a drama school. Nonetheless, there are various projects to ease actors from unpaid student status into the role of professional – that is paid – actors. Last year, for example, it mounted a professional tour for a five-hander version of The Elephant Man for which it secured Arts Council England funding. The show employed five of its alumni, plus a Fourth Monkey-trained production manager – all were paid Equity rates on a 35-venue, seven-month tour.
“Next year, if we get the ACE funding, we’re planning a co-production with Marlowe Theatre in Canterbury. It will be a three-month classical play rep season employing eight of our alumni actors plus a production assistant and production manager,” says Green.
Among other projects leading directly to the support and employment of alumni, Green mentions The Battle of Waterloo, which is in its research and development phase with a three-week run at Brockley Jack Theatre planned for November 2016, followed by a 2017 tour. “The piece was student written as part of a module in our two-year rep programme, which is designed to support students in the development of their own work,” he says, adding that Fourth Monkey supports the writer with a £15,000 bursary in cash and kind. The Battle of Waterloo will employ eight alumni: four actors, a writer, assistant director, producer and production manager.
So, it can be done – and it’s happening in plenty of training environments. Not only are schools, as Samuel Harjanne puts it, “facilitating the creation of shows” but in many cases they’re also doing all they can to enable the novice practitioners involved to run with these projects beyond college in enterprising ways. It’s all a very far cry from graduating, getting an agent and then waiting for the phone to ring. And arguably it gives these trainees the best of both worlds. Yes, of course there are classes in the relatively cloistered safety of the schools but they’re also getting really practical support in creating, producing and marketing that show. And that might mean feet on professional boards and modest (probably) payment sooner rather than later.
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