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Susan Elkin: Drama UK needs to sort out its priorities fast

RADA Studios. Photo: John M RADA studios; RADA, is part of the Conservatoire for Dance and Drama which has left Drama UK. Photo: John M
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Drama UK is in a pickle. I had a 90-minute meeting with chief executive Ian Kellgren and membership coordinator Jude Tisdall just before Christmas. Neither makes any secret of how difficult life is just now, and there was a lot of rueful talk about “pursuing new ways of doing things”, and being “open to ideas from anyone who wants to discuss them with us”.

The problem, as The Stage reported in December, is that Drama UK has shrunk dramatically. When it was formed in 2012 from a merger of Conference of Drama Schools and National Council for Drama Training, it accredited specific courses in 21 schools, including the most famous and respected, such as RADA, LAMDA and Royal Conservatoire of Scotland.

The crisis – and that’s probably not too strong a word – relates to numbers and losses. Of the original 21 schools, only 13 remain in the club as fully accredited schools. RADA, LAMDA, Bristol Old Vic, the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama, Oxford School of Drama and Cygnet Training Theatre have all left.

Since 2012, there have been various policy changes and developments. There is now, for example, a second tier of “recognised schools”, which is not – however hard Drama UK tries – a term properly understood by potential students, who often confuse ‘recognised’ with ‘accredited’.

A shift from accredited courses to accredited schools moreover, has further muddied the waters and made it harder for the inexperienced to be clear about the difference between, for example, a foundation course and a foundation degree, or a diploma and a degree course.

When I mention the eight departures to Kellgren, he says quickly: “Oh, Scotland and Wales are now back in.” It transpires that Royal Conservatoire of Scotland and Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama have expressed a wish to remain associated with Drama UK. So they are paying a specially negotiated, much lower membership fee and are not accredited. That’s yet another tier of association to confuse the issue further for anyone trying to make sense of how they should access training. And I’d hardly call it being “in” in the sense that the other 13 are.

Money, of course, is a key part of the problem. Fully accredited members are charged a £6,000 joining fee and £6,500 a year thereafter. Small schools cannot afford this for what many of them have told me they see as a mere “marketing tool”. And every time a school quits, Drama UK’s income drops and with it the scope of what it can achieve.

Kellgren makes no secret of the fact this is partly why he and his colleagues have actively pursued the establishment of the Drama UK “brand” in China. “It’s a fine thing to do for many reasons,” says Kellgren. “But yes, it’s also a useful income generator.” No doubt the same is true of all those ‘recognised’ schools within the UK, some of which are light years away from offering real vocational training and industry-ready graduates.

One activity Kellgren and Tisdall set great store by is research. Drama UK would like to be in a position to commission more of this because it underpins the organisation’s advocacy work. Drama UK’s website summarises this as the lobbying of “key influencers so that they understand the importance of high-quality drama training to the UK both culturally and economically.” But it costs money, a commodity Drama UK has ever less of.

When RADA, LAMDA and Bristol Old Vic “suspended” their membership (that’s not the same as leaving, apparently) in September, Kellgren asked the remaining schools for their views on the future. He found a high level of commitment among the 13 to the continuance of Drama UK and to working together as a group for the benefit of students and training. That’s fine, but what about the smaller ones for which that £6,500 is a potential stumbling block?

“Yes, differential, size-related fees is one of the many things we’re prepared to look at,” says Kellgren, adding that in fact there isn’t any proposal that he and those who work with him aren’t prepared to discuss and consider. He throws the ball back at me and asks me what I’d do in his position. So I make a few suggestions, such as a complete revamp of the fees structure, much clearer information and a lot of unravelling. He tells me I’ve earned my lunch and I leave him and Tisdall to mull things over.

Of course, I wish Drama UK well but I can see 2016 being a tough make-or-break year in which it has to decide what its real purpose is and then to make its raison d’etre very clear to everyone in the industry. I also suspect there may be more departures – sorry, suspensions – this year. The smaller an organisation becomes, the less incentive there is for staying in it.

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