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Should drama schools widen what they teach?

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Last week’s The Stage (July 4 2013) published the result of a piece of research by casting director Jane Deitch for Drama UK. The thrust of it was that vocational drama schools could do more to prepare their graduates for work, especially in the development of film and TV acting skills.

Well yes, drama schools are traditionally focused on live theatre. Today much of the work is in TV and film. Some schools have yet to catch up although the tide is beginning to turn. Many are introducing film and TV modules. Jane Harrison, principal of Arts Educational Schools London www.artsed.co.uk told me two years ago that she regarded the two media – stage and screen – as different languages. “And I want our students to be fluent in both French and Spanish as it were” she said. Since then I’ve seen a programme of showcase films made by Arts Ed students and pretty good they were too.

From this autumn, the Musical Theatre Academy, winner of The Stage 100 Awards School of the Year in 2012, is to split the acting dimension of its very successful and respected music theatre course 50/50 between stage and screen. We all know that there are some actors – Sheridan Smith, Ian McKellen, Daniel Radcliffe, Judi Dench et al – who seem to be able to move comfortably between live theatre and camera work, but there are many more who need training and support to achieve that so these changes are welcome news.

But while we’re on the subject of drama schools preparing students for the Real World of Work, I think there are other things they could do too. Young actors with full clean driving licences mention this on their CVs and I’m often asked by students how important being able to drive is. Given that many young actors start their careers in all-hands-to-the-pump small touring companies my answer is always “Very – get it sorted as soon as possible. It could be the difference, all other things being equal, between getting a job or not when there’s a company van to be driven round the country.” So why don’t drama schools broker deals with local driving lesson companies to encourage the students to learn and get them reduced price lessons?

I also hear a lot – but still not enough – about the importance of teaching business management skills to performing arts students every one of whom will have, to an extent, to manage his or her own time, money, taxes and resources. Drama schools should be doing everything possible to develop such knowledge as well as showing students how to develop their own work and sell it – as the best, and most forward looking, schools are already doing.

Then there’s health – mental and physical. It’s a tough life to be doing eight shows a week. The energy and stamina required has to be developed and sustained which means all those “boring” things such as sensible food, exercise and proper sleep. Arguably it’s even tougher to remain mentally strong and professionally active when work is not forthcoming and 40 years in a call centre seems to be beckoning. Most of the drama school students I meet – although of course there are some (very) honourable exceptions – are in schools which seem to take all this for granted and don’t spend enough time on it. Theoretical access to a counsellor who has, potentially, hundreds of students on his or her books is, frankly, just not enough.

I also worry that drama schools are still not doing enough to train their students in working with organisations which make shows accessible to people with impairments. I’ve said this before but make no apology for repeating it. Every student should leave drama school comfortable with – indeed, enthusiastic about – signed performances, captioned shows, touch tours, audio description, autism friendly shows and so on. One or two schools – notably LAMDA – are doing this very well. The majority are not.

So come on, drama schools. You usually have these students for three years. Make the most – the most – of it. Good as much of the work you do is, you could do more.

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