It was what he carefully calls the “literature of theatre” that triggered George Peck’s lifelong commitment to drama. Speaking with characteristic, reasoned thoughtfulness, he says: “I suppose I was about 16 or 17 when I realised that the fiction that was inspiring me was a vicarious, enclosed world. In theatre, it’s different. It’s a living language and that fascinates me.”
So he went to the University of Oxford (“I was lucky enough to go…” he says with gentle modesty) to read English. While there, he worked as an actor with director Yvonne Mitchell, and their play transferred to the West End. “We did lots of Shakespeare and classics at Oxford, but it was a bit narrow. My real training came afterwards when I did two seasons in repertory.”
The only day he had off was Christmas Day, and the company staged everything from Hamlet to Guys and Dolls and Alan Ayckbourn. “I realised how unprepared I was for this work. It was deeply frustrating and I began to realise that there were people in Oxford in need of the sort of training I could now perhaps think of offering,” recalls Peck.
So he trained as a director through Arts Council England’s directors scheme in the firm conviction that “the director’s role is to bring out the best in the actors, not to have the best ideas”.
Meanwhile, he began teaching students privately in Oxford. By 1986, he was able to start the embryonic Oxford School of Drama with just nine students in inadequate, temporary premises in the city centre.
“Obviously I wanted a proper, permanent base,” he remembers with a chuckle. “But anywhere in the city centre was either in use by the university or being snatched up by language schools, and trying to get change-of-use permission for former industrial buildings proved almost impossible.”
Then he saw Sansomes Farm Studios near Woodstock, which then belonged to a Marxist cooperative. “It was utterly ridiculous. There was no way I could afford it and the price kept rising, anyway,” he says. But he was egged on by impoverished elderly actor Joan Tyrrell – who’d become part-eccentric patron, part-infuriating, semi-dependent – and the accountant father of a student. In the end, it was an informal version of crowdfunding that made the purchase possible. “A student had just inherited £11,000 and offered to lend it to me. Someone else had been offered a £5,000 loan as an incentive to take out a new credit card. Somehow, we amassed the deposit and bought it,” says Peck.
Oxford School of Drama was thus born in its unusual, rural location in 1987 and has thrived there ever since. Today, it’s a registered charity. “It means that I own the premises, but not the school,” says Peck, who lives on site with his partner, Kate Ashcroft, OSD’s very efficient executive director, and their two teenage children.
“We’ve always been very focused with a very specific ethos,” says Peck, chatting to me in the Soho Theatre bar 29 years later, now with a string of top-notch Ofsted reports under his belt. “We don’t run a musical theatre course, for instance, and we keep our numbers very low.”
What was your first job? Assistant to the director at the Nottingham Festival.
What do you wish someone had told you when you were starting out? That it’s okay to fail. (I probably was, but I just didn’t listen.)
Who or what was your biggest influence? My teachers at school and university, who taught me so much, and the tutors here at the Oxford School of Drama, who are a constant source of inspiration.
What’s your best advice for auditions? Choose wisely and be honest.
If you hadn’t founded a drama school, what would you have done? Who knows.
Do you have any theatrical superstitions or rituals? Yes, I never allow students in rehearsal to speak the final line of the play. The work can never be complete until the audience is present and playing its part. It’s good to remind the students of this.
OSD runs three courses. It recruits 18 or 19 people to its three-year course each year. Then there’s the one-year postgraduate course whose students tend, on average, to be a little older. The school also runs an annual six-month (September to March) foundation course. The total number of students on roll at any one time is always in double, rather than treble, figures, and there are no plans for expansion.
The school now has an on-site “internal” theatre, where students show work to each other, and other nicely presented working spaces. Students live in the surrounding area and the school’s green policy provides bus transport. Some walk from Woodstock.
Graduate shows are staged in Oxford or London. Flashes by Isley Lynn (part of the school’s commitment to new writing) was staged at Soho Theatre last month, for example.
“The key criteria for a good school is high-calibre teaching, at least 30 hours a week of tuition, strong leadership and good student outcomes. Vision has to be focused on these things, rather than on empire-building,” declares Peck. The school’s alumni include Charity Wakefield, Andrew Gower, Penelope Skinner, Lee Boardman and Claire Foy.
So how do students decide which drama schools to apply for? “The best students – and of course those are the ones we want – do a lot of very careful research and that has nothing to do with accreditation,” says Peck, who pulled OSD out of Drama UK last year alongside RADA, LAMDA, Guildhall School of Music and Drama, Royal Conservatoire of Scotland and Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama. Speaking before Drama UK was disbanded, he says he is increasingly convinced that accreditation and the concept of a “group voice” is irrelevant. “We still get the applications we need,” he says, “but we no longer have to pay a £6,000 membership fee and extra for an accreditation inspection by the principals of three other schools.”
Peck frequently mentions the inspirational teachers he works with – and he still does a lot of teaching himself – asserting firmly that a school can only ever be as good as its teachers. “Drama training is about a lot more than training actors,” he says. “It means training the spirit,” he explains, adding that the late Iris Murdoch, philosopher and novelist, was a great supporter of the school and deeply interested in the value of art.
For Peck (and Murdoch), there are two sorts of actors. The first group sees training as a journey into personal ambition, which is both limited and limiting. The second seeks the process of a journey during which you lose something of yourself in order to discover someone else – and that’s what Peck and his colleagues try to help students to do at OSD. “It’s the essence of good training,” he says.
Born: Nottingham, year undisclosed
Training: Uppingham School; MA in English literature, University of Oxford; Arts Council directors scheme
Career: Artistic director, Royal Touring Theatre, Northampton; founded Oxford School of Drama in 1987
Awards: OSD achieved Ofsted Grade 1 ‘Outstanding’ in all areas in 2005, 2007, 2011 and 2015, OSD was awarded Beacon Status for outstanding achievement in education in 2006