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Drama schools must look to the future

The winners of East 15 Acting School’s production awards. Photo: Andrew H Williams
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At a recent conference on screen acting training, there was a lot of talk about making students industry-ready. From self-taping to showreels, tutors were busy discussing what tools an actor needs to survive in the industry. But then the principal of Drama Centre London, Jonathan Martin, set down a provocation – should we really be training actors to be ready for the industry as it is today? Or should we be training actors who will challenge and reshape the industry (and the world) they graduate into?

Certainly, if you go back to the roots of Drama Centre, that challenge has always been there. Established in 1963 by a group of visionary students and by its three founding directors, John Blatchley, Christopher Fettes and Yat Malmgren, they had no desire to be ‘industry-ready’. Instead, they saw an industry they wanted to reshape. They wanted to radically alter the landscape. Drama Centre was created around the work of Malmgren, described by Drama Centre as “one of the great solo artists of European modern dance and the creator of the Laban-Malmgren system of character analysis”. The pioneering work of Malmgren remains at the core of Drama Centre’s approach and is taught across all of its higher education courses.

A student from the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland in Let the Bitch Burn. Photo: KK Dundas
A student from the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland in Let the Bitch Burn. Photo: KK Dundas

The foundation of Drama Centre as an institution that challenges the norms of the day is not unique. Many training institutes are founded on the principles that there is a better way of doing things, whether that be East 15 Acting School taking its lead from the pioneering work of Theatre Royal Stratford East, or more recent training companies such as the National Youth Theatre Rep Company, Fourth Monkey Theatre Company or the Birmingham Repertory Theatre’s Foundry. When someone sets up a course, it is often because they see a different, better way of doing things. Organisations such as the Musical Theatre Academy, founded by Annemarie Lewis Thomas, aren’t there to mirror the status quo – they want to do it better than the establishment.

All training institutions have a duty to be centres of research, not just the smaller start-ups challenging the norms. In fact, those schools that receive exceptional funding from the Higher Education Funding Council for England have arguably more of a duty than their colleagues in smaller organisations. Centres of higher education are as much about research as they are about training, and those with this funding stream need to be engaged in how the world could be, not just how the world is today.

At the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama, this commitment to research and a forward-thinking approach to training has long been in evidence, and can clearly be seen on its collaborative devised theatre course. The course is run by Catherine Alexander, who is also an associate of Complicite, and the ethos of the course is based on the work of the company. Speaking at the Higher Education and Professional Theatre Conference in 2015, Alexander said: “The definition [of Complicite] is the sense the participants are sharing in an act of wrongdoing – accomplices”.

She added: “As the course has evolved, it has become clearer what the ethos of the course is, and how often it runs in opposition to the industry. Now, I confess, I hate the term ‘industry’, and I don’t really know what ‘employability’ means… I don’t like students who are easily satisfied; I want sceptical, angry and passionate students. As soon as you are easily satisfied, the work you create suffers.”

While the course may not be focused on ‘employability’, that doesn’t mean students are not employable. Recent graduates have been seen at the National Theatre, the Royal Shakespeare Company, Shakespeare’s Globe and many regional theatres. They have also appeared in some of the biggest dramas on TV and in the cinema. By not being focused on the hoops graduates might need to jump through to be ‘industry-ready’, the CDT course at Central has automatically created more employable students. What director wouldn’t want to work with passionate, questioning, politically active actors and theatremakers?

The world we live in is going through one of the biggest transformations since the Industrial Revolution. Online, gig and sharing economies are rapidly replacing the relatively recent model of employment. Theatre, film and TV are not immune to these changes and it could be argued that recent legal battles over minimum wages for actors are not that different to the legal challenges companies such as Uber face. Creatively, we also see seismic shifts – phrases such as ‘theatremaker’, or ‘content creator’ (for screen) were rarely heard a few years ago. We now see an increasing division between the platforms work is given (a theatre, or a website such as Netflix) and the companies and individuals creating content. Training that allows for collaborations to develop and continue beyond the end of the course is embracing the changes to the world as a whole.

East 15, for example, has a fund to help these collaborations, as head of marketing Kevin Wyatt–Lown explains: “In the last academic year, some £40,000 of production awards were made to new companies created by both existing and past students. As well as supporting some 11 productions at the Edinburgh Fringe, these companies also took plays to the Brighton, Camden and New York fringe festivals.”

Such collaborations are also in evidence at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, particularly on its MA classical and contemporary text.

Head of the course Mark Saunders adds: “Yes, there is the standard industry showcase, but equally important are the collaborations with playwrights that occur through the year, and the space given to the students to do practice-led researches and develop their own ‘scratch’ performance projects. Seven of last year’s projects are going on to further development post-graduation, and it is often in these projects that the students find their true voices. In doing so, they will be able to offer something original, challenging and game-changing.”

Students from the course need to be ready for the world they will encounter on graduation, but they also need to be ready to challenge that world. The graduates who are today making work and engaged in discussion at the Battersea Arts Centre, or Camden People’s Theatre, are the people who will be running the National Theatre and the Royal Court in 20 years. It is no good simply expecting them to respond to the world as it is; they need to have a vision of the world as it could be.

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