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Backstage: Why LAMDA’s £28 million extension is making jaws drop

Principal Joanna Read and her pupils test one of the studio’s semi-sprung floors. Photo: Richard Hubert Smith Principal Joanna Read and her pupils test one of the studio’s semi-sprung floors. Photo: Richard Hubert Smith
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The future looks bright with the opening of LAMDA’s £28 million extension, which has trebled the school’s floor space. Paul Hoggart is shown around

No one seems more thrilled by LAMDA’s £28.2 million extension than Rob Young, the venerable conservatoire’s head of technical education. As he shows us around the place, his enthusiasm is palpable. “It’s like walking on a springy mattress,” he says of the tension-wire grid, where lighting can be rigged high above the new 200-seat Sainsbury Theatre. “We have to work on people’s fear of heights sometimes, but it’s good fun.”

Looking down one can see his point. The drop to the stage below is vertiginous. “The lights are a mix of LED and -tungsten,” he explains. “We need to train students in everything: lots of old equipment and lots of new equipment, so they will have a good understanding of everything they’re going to come across when they enter the industry.” The same principle is applied in sound training, he says, where students learn to use both analogue and digital systems.

A few feet further along the walkway, the full 15-metre drop of the flytower becomes apparent. “It’s a conventional grid,” he explains, “six or seven metres high, so that the elements of a set can be completely out of the audience’s view. We have power, but our main fly system is counterweight because 95% of theatres will be counterweight.”

LAMDA Additions include the 200-seat Sainsbury Theatre. Photo: Richard Hubert Smith
Additions include the 200-seat Sainsbury Theatre. Photo: Richard Hubert Smith

To make the point he pulls lightly on a rope and the wall of a period American house (part of the set for a production of Stephen Sondheim’s Assassins) floats effortlessly up from the floor of the stage. “It’s a jaw-dropping moment when we bring potential students up here.”

If Young is delighted that he and his students finally have a proper theatre of their own to work in, some of LAMDA’s alumni might reasonably feel a little jealous.

“The most significant thing is that everything’s here,” says Rory Kinnear, who graduated from LAMDA in 2001. One of a galaxy of star alumni, he is due to play Karl Marx at London’s new Bridge Theatre, followed by Macbeth at the National next year. “When I was here they were struggling for space and didn’t have places to put us, so we spent half our time on the Tube. There was the working men’s club in Stamford Brook, the Diorama Theatre in Great Portland Street and a functioning convent off High Street Kensington where we would be fencing with our broadswords as elderly nuns were passing by – giving notes.”

“Of course, I’m bitterly jealous,” says Paterson Joseph, who attended in the late 1980s. “We had to literally walk across the Talgarth Road holding hands in order to survive. We were -playing with splinters in our feet from scuzzy church halls. There was some romance and glamour to that, but it didn’t say, ‘We love you. We respect the work that you do’. This space is far and above what we had. Spaces for performance need to feel sacred, that what you’re doing couldn’t happen anywhere else. That’s why you need to build somewhere as special as this.”

Ex-pupil Rory Kinnear working with a LAMDA student. Photo: Richard Hubert Smith
Ex-pupil Rory Kinnear working with a LAMDA student. Photo: Richard Hubert Smith

As principal Joanna Read explains, the new extension has trebled the floor space of the school, though the original one-third, the quaint, if ageing arts and crafts-style building, is still very much in use. Apart from the Sainsbury Theatre, the 120-seat Carne Studio Theatre has been added, along with a dozen large training and rehearsal studios, fully equipped digital screen and audio suites and, for the first time, a dedicated library. Construction has taken a little over two years.

For lead architect Niall McLaughlin, the challenges were enormous. “The site is wedged between a busy railway and a motorway, bookended by a regional power hub,” he explains. “There are very different kinds of noise from both sides.”

The solution has been to float one end of the new building on massive rubber blocks. Like skyscrapers in earthquake zones? “It’s a completely different wavelength,” McLaughlin says, “but the principle of isolation is the same. In my house if I go down to the lower areas I can actually hear the Tube trains, because the whole ground is shaking. In a building like this you would notice it, so effectively not to have a rigid connection between the building and the ground means you stop that.”

This floated zone extends from the Sainsbury Theatre at one end, past the smaller new Carne Studio Theatre, explains Tim Allen-Booth, who has run the project on a day-to-day basis. “The edit suites on the second floor, the TV studio and the sound studio are all in this isolated part of the building.”

From the theatre bar you can glance from the six busy lanes of the Talgarth Road on one side to the Piccadilly Line on the other. “It’s a very small space to fit a lot in,” says Allen-Booth. “It’s only a metre from the boundary at the rear of the -building and about two metres from the boundary at the front. Literally every square inch of land was used.”

The light, airy Manny and Brigitta Davidson Foyer. Photo: Richard Hubert Smith

The Sainsbury Theatre occupies the width of one end and has to be serviced by what Allen-Booth describes as “a huge goods lift” into the backstage area. Concrete blocks give the building a look of what McLaughlin calls “urban grit”, though the three storeys of studio spaces and administrative rooms are arranged around a central aisle lit from above, creating a light, airy effect.

For Young, the new accommodation means an expansion in the scope of his courses. “We are slowly increasing what we deliver,” he says. “The core training has always been rooted in stage management, lighting, sound and construction, but we’re changing the name of the course this year to ‘production and technical arts, stage and screen’ so we can encompass projection because there’s great opportunity in the industry to work in that area. And we’re starting to introduce students to the world of film and television. Some students are already working with actors on television productions, as assistant directors, floor managers and production managers.”

By coincidence, on the same day as LAMDA’s press launch, RADA hosted an event for the Diversity School Initiative, designed to promote the recruitment of students from minority groups into drama training. In a recent survey LAMDA did rather better than most of the more famous conservatoires with more than 20% of students from BAME backgrounds.

Read explains that they have been at pains to widen the net of recruitment with LAMDA Pathways, holding -interviews in several regional centres. But there is also a sense that is not where the real battle lies. LAMDA chairman Shaun Woodward explains their desire to expand the scholarship scheme, but points out that the real problem is debt. “Students could be walking out of drama schools with £60,000, £70,000, £80,000, even £90,000 of debt.”

As a member of an ethnic minority from a working-class family, Joseph was able to train only because he received grants from the long-defunct Inner London Education -Authority. He is both angry and regretful about the -disappearance of these grants, along with many youth theatres and the stripping of creative arts from the school curriculum. All of this he sees as holding back diversity in drama recruitment.

Kinnear talks about “the indefinable LAMDA spirit” and recalls “the most fun and greatest two years of my life”. The new facilities seem to offer the chance to make that experience even greater for acting and technical students alike. Making that training a realistic prospect for students from a diverse range of backgrounds, however, could prove a thornier challenge, for reasons many of which are beyond the academy’s control.


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