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St Mary’s, the uni-based drama school shaping successful self-starters

Performers at Drama St Mary’s

Studies at Drama St Mary’s, housed within the Twickenham-based university, are rooted in practice-based learning designed to prepare students for the rigours of professional acting while focusing on the ‘why, what and how’ of theatre

Twickenham isn’t just the hallowed home to English rugby. Long before sport staked a claim to the south-west London suburb’s identity, St Mary’s University was already established as a centre of educational excellence.

With a venerable history dating back to 1850, Drama St Mary’s recently launched as the drama school within a university and has been delivering vocational training in theatre skills since the 1960s. For would-be actors, playwrights, directors and technical staff, it provides a solid academic underpinning to courses designed to help students realise their potential in a well-resourced, creative and supportive environment.

Constantly evolving to meet the ever-changing needs of theatre, it has developed an approach to teaching that provides students with top-level training and preparation for a career in theatre.

Its three-year BA (hons) courses in acting and technical theatre provide an entry point into a career in the performing arts. For postgraduate students, two new, exciting MA courses in directing and London theatre will launch in January 2019 as Drama St Mary’s broadens its reach and relevance.

With studies rooted in practical, hands-on learning (only 10% of classes are academically weighted), it adds up, says head of drama Julie Spencer, to “a rigorous, practice-based approach to learning and honing skills and talents that encourages students to develop a critical perspective on themselves and the environment they hope to work in.”

In a nutshell, she adds, it’s about “the why, what and how of making theatre, the contribution theatre can make to society and the opening up of diverse voices within it”.

Located near the River Thames in the picturesque Strawberry Hill campus a 30-minute train journey away from the West End, students find themselves at the centre of a thriving university with close proximity to the UK’s most exciting theatre environment. As Spencer says: “Students benefit from being at the heart of university life and working in a beautiful setting knowing that the world is on their doorstep.”

With an annual intake of 80 new students (70 on the acting course divided into three classes and 10 on the technical theatre course), the school provides 30 hours of taught classes across 30 weeks in every aspect of performing, from character work to full productions.

Drama St Mary’s is home to its own 114-seat theatre and multi-purpose flexible studios with further access to a theatre venue and rehearsal facilities close to the Strawberry Hill campus. A core staff of tutors with substantial experience in the theatre profession and education is enhanced by visiting industry professionals providing valuable hands-on teaching and enabling students to begin building a network of contacts.

It’s a measure of the bonds Drama St Mary’s students make with visiting tutors that, earlier this year, a show that a company of recent graduates developed with movement director and senior lecturer in drama Kasia Zaremba-Byrne returned home from the Calgary Fringe Festival in Canada with an award.

Technical students learning hands-on skills at St Marys
Technical students learning hands-on skills at St Marys

Student companies also regularly participate in the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. Three of these companies were seen at the annual industry showcase in 2018 alone.

“We encourage students to take responsibility for their own careers, to be sufficiently equipped self-starters,” explains Spencer. “Our unique Project 10 programme in the final year of studies is designed to give students what they need to launch their careers after graduating, with advice on their CVs, forming companies, seeking funding, promotion and filing taxes.”

That notion of being a professional, of thinking of your career as a business rather than an aspiration, is taught from day one. So, too, the belief that theatre is an evolving art form. First-year students can expect traditional elements such as classes on Stanislavski, Chekhov, Brecht and breathing but will also be introduced to other disciplines, including Asian theatre and martial arts.

Inclusivity, Spencer insists, is key to Drama St Mary’s’ thinking. “The very fact that St Mary’s appointed me, a black woman, to be head of drama is a sign of the university being in an inclusive, contemporary and modern world.”

She adds: “We’re all about whatever it is that students can bring with them: their backgrounds, experiences, skills and talent. What we offer in return is a solid foundation in training that enables students to express their uniqueness and help them to develop a robust actor-training process to equip them for work in the profession. It’s about preparing their multifaceted selves for the real world.”

Newcomers to the technical theatre course can expect a similar approach: practical classes on sound, lighting and set design combined with the real-world experience of contributing to and crewing in-house productions. Placements also provide invaluable learning-by-doing experience in professional environments.

Drama St Mary’s is also a destination for postgraduate students. Two new MA courses in playwriting and London theatre (intended for would-be theatre critics, journalists and academics) begin in January 2019, joining its existing directing course in collaboration with the Orange Tree Theatre in Richmond, where it is based.

For senior lecturer Dr Michelle Paull, a shared philosophy unites those three propositions. “They’re all about how we engage with and critique the world around us, the world that theatre reflects and interacts with,” she says. “Theatre isn’t just about actors. Without playwrights, we’d have no theatre and new voices. New perspectives need to be encouraged.”

As with the BA courses, MA programmes benefit from professional engagement. In 2017, MA graduate Max Elton’s production of David Ireland’s The End of Hope transferred from the Orange Tree to London’s Soho Theatre.

Drama St Mary’s’ ambition for its students is succinctly summed up by Paull: “We’re hoping to produce theatre artists, journalists and researchers who will reflect the diversity and internationalism they come from, find their own place in the industry and make a mark. Drama St Mary’s is all about giving students options and opportunities in a setting that helps them succeed.”

stmarys.ac.uk/drama [1]