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Susan Elkin: Do we really need to train more theatre directors?

Paul Miller, artistic director of the Orange Tree Theatre which is offering an MA in collaboration with St Mary's University. Photo: Richard Davenport
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The pathways to directing are many and various. Some fine directors – Gregory Doran and Daniel Evans, for instance – train and work as actors before making the transition, learning along the way. The move need not be absolute. Evans, currently in the limelight for his production of Show Boat, which has transferred from Sheffield to the West End, recently told The Stage that he is still up for acting jobs if the role is right.

Most directors these days undertake some kind of formal training – typically either an MA at a drama school or university or a placement such as the Regional Young Directors Training Scheme, which I reported on last month. The higher education opportunities have mushroomed because so many people are interested in directing. Mountview, LAMDA, Bristol Old Vic Theatre School, Drama Centre London and Lir Academy in Dublin all offer one, as do the Universities of Kent, East London, Essex and Birmingham. This isn’t a definitive list – dozens of American and European universities run postgraduate courses in directing. I’m not making recommendations, but drawing attention to the wealth of choice. So, are we training too many directors as well as actors?

I’ve been talking to Paul Miller, artistic director of Richmond’s Orange Tree Theatre. The venue has an illustrious history in director training having run an in-house placement scheme for more than 30 years. “Three of the country’s artistic directors trained here so the Orange Tree has certainly been getting something right,” he says, going on to list Dominic Hill at the Glasgow’s Citizens Theatre, Timothy Sheader at the Open Air Theatre Regent’s Park and Sean Holmes at the Lyric Hammersmith.

From this September, the Orange Tree is doing things differently, by offering an MA – one year full-time or two years part-time, in collaboration with St Mary’s University, Twickenham. It aims to combine the best of both worlds. You learn the practical stuff via a placement in a working theatre, while the academic background is taught at the university.

“We’ve collaborated with St Mary’s in the past,” explains Miller. “Their rather academic MA in directing has been on hold for the past two years and now we’re working with them to provide theatre-based practical training, which will culminate with each participant directing a showcase play here at the Orange Tree in summer 2017.” He argues that the Orange Tree is an ideal venue for this work because it’s configured in the round. Creating theatre in such a space requires more challenging and fruitful engagement with the audience than might be the case in an end-on theatre.

When a new course is set up, I’m always fascinated to know what sort of students are expected to apply, because at the outset it is inevitably something of a stab in the dark. Miller insists there is total open-mindedness, though he seems to set more store by “appropriate experience” than formal undergraduate qualifications. That should mean a welcome range of ages. There are no age restrictions, so candidates will have had time to earn the £7,500 fee or the security to take out a career development loan.

Miller and his colleagues are seeking four to six participants in the first year (“so that we can offer a bespoke experience”) with the possibility of expanding in the future. Applications are open now and all the details are on the St Mary’s website.

It would be interesting to know just how many new directors are graduating from the many specialist courses, degrees and schemes every year and how many of them go on to find relevant work opportunities. I fear the employment market may be close to saturation point if not already pretty soggy. bit.ly/StMarys-MA-directing

A refreshing change from showcases

I have been trying to get to more drama school shows this year because they are so much better at revealing talent and ability than the weary showcase, which is arguably beyond its sell-by date.

I have been impressed by the range of shows in drama schools recently, such as Beauty and the Beast (Arts Ed), This is Not a Drill (Central), Something Old Something New (the MTA) and The Revenger’s Tragedy (Fourth Monkey). They range across devised, experimental, musical and classical genres – and much more. Among others, I have Jane Eyre (Mountview) and King Lear (Bristol Old Vic Theatre School) coming up soon.

The programming must be a hugely creative and enjoyable exercise. For me, it’s a new source of pleasure and a rather sidelined aspect of the industry. Student shows may not be the West End – of course they’re not – but they are well worth seeing and not just if you’re a parent, casting director or agent.

Read more from Susan Elkin

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