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CU Scarborough: Shaking up training with Stephen Joseph Theatre

Paul Elsam, lead acting tutor at CU Scarborough; Kay Fraser, acting associate pro-vice chancellor/head of academic studies for CU Scarborough; and Paul Robinson, artistic director of the Stephen Joseph Theatre. Photo: Tony Bartholomew Paul Elsam, lead acting tutor at CU Scarborough; Kay Fraser, acting associate pro-vice chancellor/head of academic studies for CU Scarborough; and Paul Robinson, artistic director of the Stephen Joseph Theatre. Photo: Tony Bartholomew

Moving away from purely text-based study, a pioneering partnership between Coventry University and the renowned Stephen Joseph Theatre will train students in new fields of performance including video games and vlogging

When the first intake of acting students arrives at CU Scarborough in September next year, they will find themselves in the vanguard of a new, radical and revolutionary drama course developed in close collaboration with a professional theatre company.

In a pioneering partnership between Coventry University and Scarborough’s Stephen Joseph Theatre, the three-year BA (hons) Acting course offers a fresh, contemporary, broad-based approach to performing in a fast-changing industry and promises greater accessibility to vocational training for applicants from under-represented backgrounds.

Paul Elsam

Uniquely, students will have access to the world-renowned theatre in-the-round, building invaluable relationships with staff in every onstage, backstage and managerial role while learning in the real-world environment of a professional working theatre.

“It’s an opportunity you simply won’t get in other drama courses,” says degree co-deviser and acting tutor, Paul Elsam.

He adds: “Scarborough has always been a place of innovation, led first by [director] Stephen Joseph and then [playwright] Alan Ayckbourn. Our course aims to provide students with a new approach to vocational training that will equip them to succeed in a fast-changing industry and take advantage of new opportunities.”

That translates into a curriculum that boldly shifts the emphasis away from merely text-based theatre to introducing students to emerging, lucrative outlets for actors including video gaming, vlogging and corporate role-playing, explains Elsam.

“The traditional focus on Shakespeare in drama schools doesn’t feel appropriate to the next generation of actors. Acting is not literature, it’s behaviour. And young actors need to be introduced to new ways of thinking about performance as well as being given a solid grounding in the basics of stagecraft.”

Evidence of Elsam’s thinking is the approach to the fundamentals of stagecraft. First-year students will work entirely in-the-round – “For me, immersive theatre is a small theatre in-the-round,” he declares – spending dedicated, six-week periods focusing on movement (influenced by the teachings of Rudolf Laban) and modules concentrating on ‘Voice, Speech and Silence’ and ‘Planning to Act’, including script analysis and character development.

With 80% of course work focused on learning by doing, all three years culminate in a major production, with third-year students sharing the stage with professional actors in the Stephen Joseph Theatre. The complementary academic content – with no exams or dissertation (another unique aspect) – is focused on producing what Elsam describes as “thinking actors, feeling actors, flexible and adaptable actors capable of coping with whatever new performing platforms emerge during their careers”.

With class sizes limited to 20 for 2019, the initial audition process (by self-filmed video) entirely free and fees substantially lower than the sector norm, the course is already attracting applications from around the UK.

“I want to attract students from different backgrounds, students who don’t feel traditional, text-based learning alone is for them, students whose first language may not even be English,” says Elsam.

In return, he says, the course aims to produce “actors who are expert in the full repertoire of thinking, feeling and communication and fully able to adapt to and take advantage of a constantly evolving industry. If ever there was a time to hear more voices, ordinary voices, with different stories to tell, it’s now.”


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