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RADA’s Edward Kemp: ‘Today’s students demand dynamism and flexibility’

Edward Kemp. Photo: supplied Edward Kemp

Edward Kemp talks almost continually about students. The conversation moves from the training itself to student finances, showcases, getting work and much more. But we come back again and again to students and their needs, which immediately refutes any perception that behind the hallowed portals of RADA anyone has lost sight of the core business. He uses the word ‘dynamic’ a lot too.

“Whatever any of us may want, or would prefer, to do, things will change,” Kemp says. “Eighteen-year-olds are different now from how they were when any of us was at that age. They know different things. And the profession they’re going into has changed too. So we have to be dynamic and flexible in order to meet their needs.”

That’s why, for instance, RADA, credited with inventing the now-standard drama school showcase, known in the school’s sociolect as ‘the Tree’ after founder Herbert Beerbohm Tree, will apply a “substantial rethink” to it within the next couple of years. “We now teach self-taping because, even for London jobs, that is now what is sometimes required instead of a traditional audition. Things are changing fast and the showcase begins to seem pretty old-fashioned,” Kemp says, adding that they’ve already changed the formerly wasteful way in which third-year student headshots are done to save individuals money and to provide a more useful outcome.

RADA Gower Street Entrance. Photo: Tristram Kenton.
RADA Gower Street Entrance. Photo: Tristram Kenton.

Kemp, linen-shirted and fluidly articulate, has been at RADA since 2007. “I started as artistic director alongside Jeremy Newton as managing director. The split role was a new way of working after the retirement of principal Nicholas Barter, a bit like the National Theatre or Royal Shakespeare Company. It didn’t work though – not because we were the wrong people but because the idea was fundamentally flawed– and after a year Jeremy moved on.”

In the end, Kemp took on the whole job as director from 2008 – “A much bigger baby than the one I’d signed up for” – with a consolidated and strengthened senior management team of seven, including Linda Garforth as finance director and Lucy Skilbeck as head of acting to parallel Neil Fraser as director of technical training.

“Before this, I’d only ever ‘managed’ about half a person. But suddenly I have 150 staff working for me, 50 of them full-time,” he says. But you sense it isn’t really a problem for this man who exudes confident competence. “Some of the parttimers – utterly brilliant and crucial to RADA and its students – actually do very few hours here so convening meetings can be a bit of a challenge,” he concedes.

When he arrived at RADA, aged 42, Kemp already had a long career of writing, translating and dramaturgy behind him, and because he still freelances, his finger remains firmly on the industry pulse. I detect a lifelong commitment to performance when he tells me that he was a choral scholar in Worcester (and is clearly delighted to see music coming out in his son, aged 13, and daughter, 11). He then went on to cut his theatrical teeth with the National Youth Theatre.

Q&A“I wrote my first play, The Iron and the Oak, when I was 15,” he says. It won him the most promising playwright award in the Texaco/NYT playwriting competition and was then performed in the first season of Chichester Festival Theatre Tent. His next two plays, Counterparts and A Proper Place, also won prizes in the Texaco competition. The latter was staged by NYT. An English language and literature degree at Oxford soon meant a lot of acting and directing while there, including two plays of his own.

Then came the professional world, initially in the form of a dramaturg job with NYT before Kemp was off to Chichester as assistant director working with, among others, Joanna Lumley and June Whitfield, punctuated with a spell with Anthony Quayle’s Compass Theatre.

His CV reads like a gazeteer of the most theatrically significant names of the time. By 1991, he was at the National Theatre as staff director working with directors such as Steven Pimlott, Richard Eyre and Nicholas Hytner. A meeting there with actor Toby Jones led to the formation of the company The Table Show, which has strong links with Battersea Arts Centre. Then came a stint at the RSC working as dramaturg on The Mysteries with Katie Mitchell. And threaded through all of this is a long list of plays and operas he has directed, written and/or translated.

No wonder he can see training from all points of view. “Take the vexed question of leaving drama school early because you have a work offer,” he says, adding that this is an issue he has discussed a lot with his Conservatoire for Dance and Drama colleagues, Paul Rummer of Bristol Old Vic Theatre School and Joanna Read of LAMDA. Kemp has been CDD principal since November 2014, and regards the potential it provides for airing and sharing as invaluable.

“Some students are absolutely ready to go part-way through the third year,” says Kemp. “I was more than happy to release Jessica Raine, for example, in my first year here because she was completely ready. On the other hand, some students get an offer and want to go but it isn’t right for them. We can see they need that final term. It’s too soon and can seriously hold a career back later. I’ve seen it both as a teacher and from the industry end too.”

He is also concerned, like most drama school leaders, about diversity, although RADA has a pretty reasonable record. “We’re running at about 20% BAME students on our acting course,” he says. “We give about £100,000 a year in bursaries and scholarships, largely thanks to Dickie Attenborough, who did everything possible to build up that fund when he was president, and nearly half our students have ‘sponsored’ [free] midday meals.”

For the poorest students, however, even with maximum grants the cost of living in central London is pulling out of reach. That is partly why RADA has bought the Drill Hall, now renamed RADA Studios in Chenies Street, just over the road and next to other properties RADA already occupies.

Michael Kemp Further Reading“We shall refurbish the theatre and the studios so that everything is state-of-the-art and do some knocking through so that this listed building becomes an integral part of our fabric,” says Kemp.

Most importantly perhaps, the £13 million scheme – draft plans are already with Camden Borough Council – will provide affordable accommodation for 60 or 70 students.

RADA already has three theatres. Does it really need another one? Kemp grins and admits that at first he and his colleagues asked themselves the same question. “We run shedloads of short courses which can now be moved in-house so that we shan’t need to hire premises all over London, and those will use the new theatre,” he says. “Then there’s the RADA Festival, which runs in the summer after the end of term and allows our alumni to bring in staged work of all sorts. More space will mean we can expand that. The theatre in Chenies Street will also mean another training space for our technical students who service every RADA show, including the RADA Festival.”

And that brings us neatly to RADA’s next big internal project. The technical theatre department is very strong – numbers are level with acting. “But we’re simply not getting applicants from BAME backgrounds, so we’re working with various people to bring this about,” says Kemp. “It’s a big piece of work right across Conservatoire for Dance and Drama.”

Busy man, then. But he makes it look effortless.

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