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Letters of the week

Charles Dance. Photo: Shutterstock Charles Dance. Photo: Shutterstock
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Background no longer an issue

Charles Dance’s comments about “opportunities dwindling for state-educated actors” is a refrain other leading British stage personalities have echoed in the pages of The Stage and other national newspapers. However, there is not one drama conservatoire in the UK that would support this out-of-date contention.

At Rose Bruford College of Theatre and Performance, for instance, over 90% of our students come from state schools, and an ever increasing number come to us via social mobility and targeted outreach activity around the UK. I don’t think we have any representative students or alumni who we can say have been public school-educated; certainly not a star and typical RBC alumnus such as Gary Oldman.

Yet wonderful actors should not be defamed because they went to Eton (which has excellent theatre training). Talent shines through no matter where you were educated, whether it be Dance, educated at a Plymouth technical school, or Eddie Redmayne, somewhere ‘privileged’.

Contemporary drama training prizes diversity over privilege. The question of ‘class’ is never even asked nowadays.

Michael Earley
Rose Bruford College

Don’t forget the Theatre Record

Thomas Hescott’s otherwise excellent article on archiving theatre contains one curious omission.

“One of the most consistent records we have comes from journalists… one of the first places you look will be the critics’ responses,” he writes at the very beginnning of his piece.

It’s worth pointing out this place is Theatre Record, which for the last 35 years has been gathering the reviews and sending them every fortnight to the National Theatre, the Stratford archive, The Stage and the Victoria and Albert Museum Performance Collections, and critics, scholars and researchers all over the world. As Hescott doubtless knows, the reviews of Blasted appear on page 38ff of the 1995 volume.

Ian Herbert
Founding editor
Theatre Record

Stage managers are social too

The Stage Management Association heartily concur with Rob Halliday about the social dimension of our jobs, but perhaps we might correct his misinformed comments about stage management in this regard?

As a professional group dedicated to teamwork, SMA stage managers regularly get together socially. We have held two socials in the past month, our annual awards (with the Association of British Theatre Technicians) is a major social event (as are our conferences) and every year since 2013, we (with Equity) have been promoting our monthly SM Brunches – where stage management get together to network, meet colleagues, listen to professional development talks, and, er… eat and drink.

May I invite Halliday to attend any of these events this year? He is very welcome to come and see how social we are, and even bring along a few solitary lighting colleagues if he wishes.

Andy Rowley
Stage Management Association
London SE1

Why wasn’t it Rose’s turn?

Why was the transmission of Gypsy from the Savoy Theatre shown on BBC4 on December 28? It was the best item on television over the Christmas period. Why wasn’t it shown on Christmas Day on BBC1? Presumably the BBC could ask for lower fees for items that were shown on BBC4. It was a disgrace.

Everyone involved in Gypsy deserved an accolade, especially the person who created the montage over the overture, which set the scene for a performance by an amazing cast led by Imelda Staunton. The way the BBC treated this wonderful team confirms my belief that the television licence (tax) should be abolished.

Thank goodness for Downton Abbey. Perhaps ITV might like to take up the position of standard-bearer in the future. Its equally wonderful transmission of The Sound of Music Live proves this, apart from the compulsory advert breaks.

Alan Osman

Phil Willmott is right

Phil Willmott is right (Let’s be proud of fringe theatre again, January 15, 2016). It is time that we became proud of ‘fringe theatre’ again. However instead of looking back to the past and what it used to be, it would be refreshing to look at what it has become. It would also be pertinent to look at the positives instead of the negatives.

Firstly, his assertion that there is a difference between Off West End and fringe theatre needs some clarification. London Theatre Guide explains that ‘Generally, London theatres are divided into West End, Fringe – some fringe are also known as Off West End.’ The Off West End Theatre Awards do not make any distinction between the two (virtually all London pub theatres are on their list). However, there is a distinction for companies who have a limited run and for fringe festivals. These are usually considered to be entry level but this does not necessarily infer that they are inferior.

Willmott is right, we do need responsible reviewers, but he claims that we do not have enough reviewers. He also says that ‘the star rating system, which we all know is awful’ is leading to ‘snap evaluations for ticket buyers based on a graphic and not a considered reading of the review’. Yet this system currently works well in fringe theatre. Having worked at Drayton Arms Theatre, it quickly became apparent that people had not heard of this beautiful theatre. Getting reviewers along was one step in the direction of putting the theatre on the map. If the production merits reviews of four and five stars we can be confident that the production is worthy of our attention. It attracts attention but we must assume we have an intelligent reader.

Fortunately, there are many new websites and magazines who are reviewing fringe theatre; PubTheatres1, London Theatre 1, Female Arts Magazine to name a few and many bloggers who review theatre. Some do not subscribe to the star rating system. Instead they provide an emerging artists’ first cogent feedback on which to build confidence, or give quotable lines for their publicity. Not all shows are able to attract the likes of “Time Out, the Evening Standard and The Guardian” as Willmott suggests was possible in his day, but this is partly because so many fringe theatres have popped up all over London. At the last count I have a list of 26 pub theatres with many more pubs hosting occasional shows as well as a plethora of other off West End theatres. They do not have to “be dependent on how mainstream they can afford to appear” as Willmott suggests because many reviewers want to see relevant theatre and be a part of discovering new talent.

Willmott is right, the industry is oversubscribed but this is the case in every industry. Let us not assume that theatre cannot sustain so many newcomers. Neither should we assume that “in London at present, if you’re an unknown company with no track record, your only hope of consumer press coverage is if you can afford to hire an expensive Off-West End venue”. There are many excellent new theatres offering low cost hire or box office splits which has enabled determined young companies and emerging theatre professionals to get some experience. Through innovative programming these theatres are attracting press attention and critical acclaim. Amongst others, London’s newest fringe theatre Theatre N16 at the Bedford pub in Balham is a gateway for artists and the one-year-old Bread and Roses Theatre in Clapham champions diversity and rights.

Willmott is right that fringe theatre should not be a “pejorative term” but it is a shock to read that he says “as it’s regarded now”. Being on the fringe does not guarantee “shoddy, second rate, amateurish” theatre as he suggests, but rather is “edgy, dangerous and exciting alternative to the commercial work in the West End” just as it was in his day. These emerging artists are often willing to take risks and are passionate about exploring issues.

There are many excellent young theatre companies pushing the boundaries and bringing difficult subjects out in the open. Even those productions which do not have the polish that more experienced companies bring, have their finger on the pulse; from these small beginnings some outstanding artists emerge. Everybody starts somewhere and in the fringe sector, have no fear, we are nurturing the next Alan Rickman or Ben Kingsley.

Let us not forget that the likes of King’s Head Theatre were instrumental in helping Rickman and Kingsley launch their careers and they are doing exactly the same brilliant work today with a major difference. Unlike in Willmott’s day, they have a commitment to paying their actors. The idea is catching on with the encouragement of Equity low pay no pay, which is sensitive to the needs of fringe theatre. It is one of the ways in which fringe theatres are becoming more competitive and artists getting on the first rung are being given hope that they will soon earn a living wage.

Willmott asks “who’d want a London Fringe award for, say, acting now?” The truth is that they are cherished because they are affirmations of talent and influential in developing careers.

Heather Jeffery
Editor, London Pub Theatres

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