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Susan Elkin: Stage school training… in Switzerland

Susan Elkin talking to students at Simpky Theatre, Geneva. Photo: Alistair Dyer Susan Elkin talking to students at Simply Theatre, Geneva. Photo: Alistair Dyer
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Last Sunday I spoke to 40 teenagers and quite a few of their parents about performing arts work options. Of course I’ve done this many times before. The unusual thing about this event, where I shared the platform with director Sue Dunderdale and BECTU’s Kate Elliott, was that it was in Geneva.

Simply Theatre – which organised So You Want to work in Theatre? (title borrowed from my 2013 book) – is a part time English language stage school founded 10 years ago in Geneva by husband and wife team Tom Grafton and Jenna Melling. Today it teaches 700 children ranging from pre-schoolers to teenagers and employs 10 full-time and 15 part-time staff including workshop leaders brought over from the UK. A second, much newer, branch in Zurich has 80 pupils and is growing.

Many of the students are the multilingual children of British parents living and working in Switzerland. Others are from French, German or Swiss families whose children are fluent in English. There is, we found as we talked to them and answered their questions, a lot of interest in vocational performing arts training in the UK.

Simply Theatre has clean modern, quite stylish premises with a distinctly Swiss flavour. That includes light airy studios and a foyer/reception area in sparkling primary colours.

The piece de resistance is an 80-seat theatre with substantial triangular playing area. This is where we gave our presentations on Sunday. It’s also where student shows, for which students have to audition, are staged. Nine young people were rehearsing The Canterbury Tales, directed by Nick Mills, last weekend. Pinocchio, Oh What a Lovely War and Bugsy Malone are coming up too.

Simply Theatre is a training organisation but it also acts as a presenting house and brings in professional shows for which tickets are publicly available for the benefit of its own students and the local community. Forthcoming pro shows include Sharon D Clarke Live and Unplugged this weekend and a week of Blunderbus with Duck in a Truck. It’s all planned on an eclectic something-for-everyone basis.

The school, which really does seem to be a flourishing, self-sufficient business has enjoyed a fair amount of success in sending students on to schools such as Mountview, Italia Conti and GSA for performance training and to Royal Central School of Speech and Drama and Bath Spa university for technical training.

Next year Simply Theatre is planning to launch a full time foundation course so that some of its students can get the pre-vocational training they need while continuing to live at home – a cheaper option than doing such a course in the UK for most students.

At present, all the work is entirely funded through student fees, ticket sales and other sources of revenue such as subletting some of the upstairs rooms. It cannot, therefore, be socially inclusive. “But we’re working on ways and means,” Mills told me. “The arts are well funded in Switzerland but it isn’t easy for us to tap into that money given our non-Swiss status. But we’ll get there.”

I arrived at Simply Theatre last Sunday, contracted to do a job and really unsure what to expect. In the event I was pretty impressed with the quality of the work and the students – serious, intelligent, committed – were a joy to meet and talk to.

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