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Central and Webber Douglas to merge

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Two of Britain’s leading drama schools, Central School of Speech & Drama and the Webber Douglas Academy of Dramatic Art, are to merge during the next two years, creating the largest facility of its kind in the country.

Currently based in Kensington, Webber Douglas will move to Central’s Swiss Cottage home opposite Hampstead Theatre, where a new £6.5 million, four-storey studio and performance facility is being constructed. It will be completed in 2005 and will allow the two bodies to consolidate their work into a single building. Further plans include a cafe theatre and an additional venue to compliment the Embassy Theatre and its two existing studio spaces.

Central principal Gary Crossley will be the future head of the combined institutions while Webber Douglas principal Raphael Jago will oversee the transitionary two-year period and then will retire. He will have been with the organisation for 40 years.

Said Crossley: “It came about through dialogue that started 18 months ago. There was no direct approach as such, rather more a consideration by both parties that the world was changing among higher education institutes generally and what do we want to do about it. Through time, this led to the thought that perhaps we should work together. Then of course we got down to some details.”

While Crossley said he had no fears for Central’s survival had the merger not gone ahead, Jago admitted that it would have been hard for Webber Douglas to survive in the changing higher education climate.

The Webber Douglas principal said: “There has been development recently in the funding sector and the government wants to ensure that the best survive. If we miss this opportunity it might not be there in a year or two’s time. When I looked at these schools, there were a lot of complimentary qualities – put them together and you have got something very special and strong.”

In 2003, Central received 2,300 applications for its BA (Hons) Acting programme and this year is already showing signs that the number will have increased. While employment in the industry continues to be hard to find, staff at both schools believe that the demand should be accommodated so that “talent does not go to waste”. Money for the venture is coming from the Higher Education Funding Council for England. The combined school will eventually house around 770 students.

Crossley added: “The classical traditions of Central and its history of teaching, scholarship and training, along with the business currency of Webber Douglas, will provide for the kind of thorough educational know-how not replicated anywhere else. Higher education in England is entering a period where only the very best will survive”

Central and Webber Douglas were both founded in 1906 – Central at the Royal Albert Hall by Elsie Fogerty and George Benson, Webber Douglas in Paris by Jean de Reszke. The latter school was eventually brought to Britain in 1926 by Walter Johnson Douglas and Amherst Webber, becoming the Webber Douglas School of Singing and Dramatic Art.

Central moved to Swiss Cottage in 1956 and began awarding degrees in 1986, becoming a higher education institution in 1989. Its alumni include Laurence Olivier, Judi Dench, Vanessa Redgrave, Cameron Mackintosh, Harold Pinter and Zoe Wanamaker. Webber Douglas has produced actors including Sue Johnson, Anita Dobson, Angela Lansbury, Terence Stamp and Minnie Driver. It took on its modern title in 1965 on the appointment of Jago who, with Steven Berkoff, brought a new improvisational approach to training.

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