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Susan Elkin: In praise of the variety of approaches for drama school shows

Bristol Old Vic Theatre School's Julius Caesar. Photo: Graham Burke Bristol Old Vic Theatre School's Julius Caesar. Photo: Graham Burke
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Drama school students are in shows. Lots of them. And of course they need as many people as possible to see them. It’s how student actors first get noticed and is very important for the launching of careers. So where should these shows be staged for maximum exposure given that these young actors also need practice in meeting the public?

There are several solutions but I’m not sure that any of them is totally satisfactory on its own. First there’s the in-school theatre such as the new Andrew Lloyd Webber Theatre at Arts Educational Schools, London, the Richard Burton Theatre at the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama and the lovely new Milton Court spaces which the Guildhall School of Music and Drama now has. Of course, there are lots of other examples. I think of it as the here-are-our-shows-come-and-get-them approach.

It is a strategy born of the need to take shows to agents and castings directors

Then there are the schools which don’t have a suitable on-site space so they have no choice but to use other theatres. Oxford School of Drama, for instance, stages shows in several different theatres in Oxford. Sidcup-based Rose Bruford brings work to Stratford Circus. And Drama Studio London does some of its shows at the Tristan Bates Theatre in Covent Garden. I could go on. As a strategy it is partly – but not entirely – born of the necessity of taking shows to central locations where those all important agents, casting directors and other industry professionals will find them easily.

And some student shows tour – really tour – by which I mean a whole succession of venues. Bristol Old Vic Theatre School, for example, mounts a spring tour of a Shakespeare play and takes it out to schools. This year it did two versions of Julius Caesar, one with an all female cast and the other all male and visited 28 schools. That strikes me as a rather brilliant double whammy. Children who may not see much get some high quality live theatre and the students get valuable experience of working in potentially difficult spaces which means they learn the art of flexibility – welcome to the real world of touring theatre.

In an ideal world students should experience all of this and more during their training. They learn a lot from working in more than one theatre although there’s also something to be said for the state-of-the-art technical provision in the newest in-college theatres which really puts an extra edge on training for technical students.

Some student theatres build a loyal audience among local residents

There’s another aspect to this too. Colleges which have their own theatres can often build a loyal audience among local residents. That means fuller houses which benefits both the experience of the students and the box office takings of the school. Royal Central School of Speech and Drama’s Embassy Theatre attracts a lot of Swiss Cottage dwellers who regard it as their theatre – to such an extent that one elderly lady recently bequeathed RCSSD a substantial sum of money, presumably as a token of her enthusiasm. LAMDA is hoping to establish itself partly as a community hub when its new theatre opens next year.

I hope that, as the people who run drama school training continue to look for better ways of working, they do everything they can to broaden students’ performing experience and that must surely include – one way or another – a multiplicity of venues and as much variety as possible.

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