As she prepares to leave the Royal Exchange for LAMDA, Sarah Frankcom explains how the Manchester venue’s work with young people should inspire educational institutions to re-imagine themselves as creative communities
My past six years, as artistic director of the Royal Exchange Theatre in Manchester, have been the most exciting of my career to date. I’m really proud of all we’ve achieved, and the theatre that I’m leaving is very different from the one I joined. Artistic directorship is a huge honour. I’ve found it deeply rewarding and full of creative possibilities.
It has also demanded an awful lot of me and taken up all my life. There is a point when running a big organisation where you take stock about what you’ve achieved, and think about where you want to turn your energy to next.
I didn’t think I’d be leaving quite so soon, but the approach from LAMDA was too exciting to refuse. I certainly think that a lot of my learning in Manchester will shape my vision and ambitions for LAMDA. I used to be a drama teacher, and one of the things I’ve enjoyed most throughout my career is working with, and developing, young creatives.
At the Royal Exchange, our award-winning Young Company has been a huge inspiration to me. We now have more than 150 people every year embedded in the heart of the company. It’s been important for me to learn from watching them make work, as they are the both the artists and audiences of the future.
But as the Young Company has soared, so has the demand for creative places, and it’s clear that young people aren’t experiencing drama as part of their timetable and are coming to us for their first experience. There is a crisis in arts education. The aftermath of EBacc – the English Baccalaureate with its focus on subjects perceived as ‘core’ – is that arts provision in many schools has all but disappeared. Although there are still some amazingly dedicated drama teachers, they are under-resourced and under pressure.
When I left teaching, it felt as if most headteachers wanted the performing arts to be an integral part of a school’s offer, because they understood they could be the place where the widest range of young people could raise their confidence to engage with the rest of the curriculum. I think that is no longer the case.
LAMDA has a strong record of scholarship and bursaries and a dynamic access and participation team, but the current model for engaging under-represented groups can only take us so far. There’s an urgent need to find new ways to demonstrate career opportunities within the creative skills sector to young people before they leave school.
‘There’s an urgent need to find new ways to demonstrate career opportunities within the creative skills sector to young people’
There’s a real sense that if LAMDA truly wants to be a national organisation, we will need to look at more radical and flexible ways to build pathways into our programme. Living outside London should not put you at a disadvantage from access to world-class training if you want it. The first thing I will look at is a fundamental change to our approach to auditions to ensure we deliver a fairer and more equitable experience for all those who apply. More attention will need to be given to deepening our partnerships and collaborations with schools, further education colleges and apprenticeship programmes across the country.
Also, it isn’t easy to access training if you’re over 30. It feels like our notion of when people are ready to train, and what the value of life experience brings, needs to be reappraised.
My journey at the Royal Exchange has given me a unique experience in dismantling some of the historical structures and attitudes that get in the way of making change. Our mission was to create bold work that was representative of the people in our city. We re-imagined the ‘regional producing theatre’ model as a creative community: a home for artists and audiences creating collaborations and making art with professionals and non-professionals on an equal basis.
I think a drama school needs to be another kind of creative community. It needs to be as much of a creative home for professional artists as for developing artists. I’m interested in how we might become more aligned with the creative skills sector and have a deeper impact on the industry in the training we deliver and the work we make.
I want to look at how some of the component experiences of our courses could be rethought in order for them to be relevant to the industry. There’s a real danger that actor training is only valued as a success if that graduate is still acting after five years. When I look at the cohort of students that have joined the school this autumn I also see the producers, administrators, writers, dramaturgs, educators, facilitators, creative entrepreneurs and games designers of the future.
‘A drama school needs to be as much of a creative home for professional artists as for developing artists’
It’s an exciting time to join the LAMDA team. It feels like the sector is looking toward innovation with some key new appointments like Orla O’Loughlin at Guildhall School of Music and Drama and Julie Spencer at ArtsEd. I’m interested in how the sector may better work together. Of course there are already industry forums, but there’s something about starting new conversations on key issues such as tackling decolonisation, re-imagining the repertoire, delivering strategic outreach and better understanding the mental health experience of drama students that could spark real action and sustained change.
As for me, why leave now? I suspect the time when artistic directorship was the culmination of a career as a director is over. If we are serious about widening representation in the leadership of our cultural organisations, the roles need to pass earlier to next-generation artists. I’m glad my legacy is reflected in my successors. I’m so excited about the future there with Bryony Shanahan and Roy Alexander Weise, two brilliant artists and human beings who will provide visionary leadership.
My role as director of LAMDA will allow me to make my own work outside the school. The board of trustees wanted the building to be led by a working director and its future vision to be shaped by an artist. Outside, I will continue my creative partnership with Maxine Peake (we are currently developing two very different projects: a musical and large scale site-specific piece). I can’t tell you how much I’m looking forward to getting started.
Light Falls runs at Manchester’s Royal Exchange Theatre until November 16