Bristol Old Vic Theatre School – the drama school striving for excellence with a family ethos
Eleanor Jackson is singing a witty, poignant number from Stephen Sondheim’s Sunday in the Park With George and she’s rivetingly good. I’m in one of the new studios in Bristol Old Vic Theatre School’s recently completed Link Building which unites the two, formerly detached, Georgian houses that form the school’s main campus. Jackson is a third-year student, and one of 12 finalists in the Stephen Sondheim Competition in London a couple of days after my visit. Students, staff and visitors like me are gathered to hear her quasi-dress rehearsal. The level of generous support, enthusiasm and positivity is palpable.
The school has only 24 to 28 acting students in each year and doesn’t run a plethora of performance courses, although it offers a wide range of technical theatre degrees. “We teach musical theatre as part of acting rather than running a separate course,” says the school’s artistic director, Jenny Stephens. She explains that the small size of the school creates the strong family-style environment that is so evident at Jackson’s mini-recital.
I ask Stephens and principal Paul Rummer how they work together – it’s unusual for a drama school to have a principal who isn’t also artistic director. “Well, I’m head of fun and sincerity while Paul does all the serious stuff,” quips Stephens.
Rummer adds: “I cannot direct plays nor act in them because my background is in stage management and technical theatre.” He taught, then headed, technical theatre at BOVTS, becoming associate principal before he was appointed principal in 2007.
“I’m the chief executive and I needed someone to ensure that the artistic policy is as good as it can possibly be. So we appointed Sue Wilson as the first artistic director and then Jenny replaced her in 2012.” Stephens directs plays herself (the next is Playhouse Creatures at Tobacco Factory Theatre) with students and manages the artistic side of things.
After the completion of the Link Building, Rummer and Stephens share an office (with Frances Macadam, their assistant). “We wanted to be side by side so that we can talk informally all the time and ensure that neither of us goes off on a separate track,” they tell me, almost in chorus. “We continually discuss students, policies, collaborations and much more,” says Stephens, adding that the third member of the managing triumvirate is finance director Simon Payne, who formerly had the same job at Theatre Royal Bath.
The working relationship between Stephens and Rummer is modelled on the way that, for instance, Gregory Doran and Catherine Mallyon run the Royal Shakespeare Company or James Brining and Robin Hawkes manage the West Yorkshire Playhouse. “That’s pretty much how it works,” says Stephens. “It’s a well-established industry pattern, although perhaps not usually in drama schools.”
Rummer continues: “My job is to make sure that everything runs smoothly, to manage the business side of the school and to work with the Conservatoire of Dance and Drama, the umbrella that links us with LAMDA, RADA and five dance schools. In effect the CDD, a confederate organisation, functions like a collegiate university and I spend a lot of time on CDD matters.” The week before our conversation, the CCD had been deemed “world-leading” in a Higher Education Funding Council for England review of institution-specific targeted allocation funding.
“At present, our degrees are validated by the University of the West of England,” says Rummer, “but CDD is pursuing taught degree awarding powers so that may change.”
Because of its position within CDD, BOVTS has recently decided, with RADA and LAMDA, to suspend its membership of Drama UK, the former Conference of Drama Schools. “It has become increasingly irrelevant to us,” says Rummer. “It’s a natural evolution for us to cut loose. We have plenty of scrutiny through CDD and don’t need any more.”
Under its new chief operating officer, Jason Clarke, the CCD presents many opportunities for student collaboration and skill sharing. “Take research, for example,” says Stephens. “All eight CDD members want to share embodied practice research. We want to know how to do our job better. How do you best support black and minority ethnic students with accent work, for example? How does falling, of which actors have to do a lot, physically affect the body and breath? It’s all very practical stuff.”
CDD members are also experimenting with the use of the latest technology to establish “virtual conservatoires”, Stephens explains. That means activities such as sharing specialist voice classes and synching activities in different places without time delays.
Meanwhile, back at BOVTS itself, we applaud Jackson warmly, giving her a standing ovation. Immediately after the performance, Stephens is chatting business with students. She seems to know them so well that they could be her own children. It’s that BOVTS family ethos unfolding before my eyes.
Bristol Old Vic Theatre School
Number of students: 160
Courses include: BA (hons) in professional acting, BA (hons) in professional stage management, postgraduate courses in theatre design, drama directing
Alumni include: Alex Jennings, Jeremy Irons. Stephanie Cole, Laura Carmichael
Key staff: Paul Rummer (principal), Jenny Stephens (artistic director), Paul Clarkson (head of acting courses), Jon Sherwood (head of stage management and theatre production courses)