When the pandemic hit in March 2020, the Bridge Theatre Training Company not only adapted quickly, but increased its offering to students, ensuring that no one was left behind by a tumultuous year.
As many schools turned to remote teaching to complete their courses, the Bridge always kept in mind the importance of providing the highest quality face-to-face training for students. “When lockdown hit in March, we ended our spring term early,” says joint artistic director Mark Akrill. “We owed our students 11-and-a-half weeks of teaching. After a month of online classes in August, we went back to live teaching in September, and kept our students on alongside the new intake through to December. Rather than 11 weeks, they ended up having 20 weeks of teaching.”
Mark explains that there are some aspects of the course that cannot be done easily online, such as the combat training, for which the Bridge is renowned. And, on top of the world-class training, last year’s graduates were still able to have an end-of-year showcase at London’s Criterion Theatre. When the government announced (the day before) that audiences would not be allowed, the Bridge team made sure the performance was filmed so that the recording could be sent out to agents and casting directors.
As graduate Mitesh Rajput points out: “They gave us everything that was promised, including the stage combat exam, the showcase in a West End theatre and the contemporary show.”
This year, students will have a 17-week live term, running in an extended form from April to July, rather than a shorter term involving online lessons. “It’s all about giving our students the preparation they need,” Mark says. Graduate Francesca Alfano feels lucky to have been able to finish the postgraduate course with live training. She says: "I have to thank the Bridge for that. Not all drama school graduates in 2020 have had this chance.”
The past year has also been a learning opportunity for the Bridge team. The Bridge has always been about creating a community, but Mark is more aware than ever of how important it is to keep in touch with students during holidays. Recently, staff members have been organising workshops, catch-ups and socials with students. “Even in normal times, that’s when people can start to feel isolated. We want them to know that we’re here for them.”
That sense of community is fundamental to the Bridge’s ethos. Mark and joint artistic director Judith Pollard set up the Bridge 27 years ago, motivated by the desire to offer an affordable alternative to mainstream drama schools, and to create a company of actors that learned and worked together.
Based in Camden, an artistic hub in the heart of London and a stone’s throw from the West End, the school’s size ranges from 35 to 50 students at any one time. That small size means there is a close focus on the individual, and on fostering a tight-knit collective.
“It’s a company,” says Mark. “We’re very proud of that fact – and that’s become massively important during the pandemic, because people have become more dependent on each other. We keep in touch with graduates for many years. We’re always there for people afterwards. Students might come back to us to prepare an audition or to check contracts or to get support and advice of all kinds. Sometimes they come back to work for us, too, as actors, stage managers and teachers. So many of them remain part of the family.”
Mark and Judith were also driven to set up the Bridge by the fact that drama schools were often prohibitively expensive. Their aim was simple: to make high-quality actor training accessible to all, to produce actors from a mix of social and cultural backgrounds and to ensure that your background doesn’t determine your future. That ethos runs through every aspect of training at the Bridge, with free auditions, low course fees, and no upper age limit for applicants. Scholarships and awards are also available.
“Our attitude is that it’s never too late,” Mark explains. “Our students have been taxi drivers, lawyers, nurses and chefs. One of our recent graduates used to be a consultant psychiatrist. Whatever life and career people have had, if they are thinking about a change in direction, we say ‘yes it’s possible, it’s not too late’ and we give them the support they need. We don’t want people ever to think ‘acting is not for me’. Why should you edit yourself out of the story?”
Having a diversity of ages, backgrounds and experiences not only enriches the Bridge company, making for a more fulfilling course, but also enriches the film, radio, TV and theatre industries, and guarantees their future.
And while the future may look uncertain at the moment, what’s clear to Mark and Judith is that the Bridge is open for business, and that their team will make sure students are equipped for whatever comes their way. “We want to prepare students for that new world, to say it’s changing, and to say that this isn’t a threat – this is an opportunity. We make sure our students are adaptable and flexible. We know that online auditions and self-tapes are here to stay. We make sure students have the essential skills for the digital age,” says Mark.
Preparing students for the realities of the industry – and readying them for the changes and opportunities it may offer – is central to the Bridge’s approach. Students learn about classical and contemporary work, stage combat techniques, melodrama, clown and study the history of performance. "But on top of all these things," Mark adds, "what matters is that they also understand the industry. True to our name, we bridge the gap between training and working.”
As graduate Mahala Roberts explains: “The training they give is individualised, compassionate and caring. I felt so valued by them and I learnt so much. The Bridge makes every effort to prepare you with skills for life in the real world of the industry.”
The school offers two routes: a two-year professional acting course and a one-year postgraduate/post-experience acting course for people who either already have a degree or for those who have drama experience, whether amateur or semi-professional. Both courses include career guidance, preparation for the industry, and a West End showcase in front of agents, directors and casting directors.
Bridge graduates now work across film, television, theatre and radio. Their credits include Game of Thrones, Skins, It’s a Sin, Vera, Coronation Street, Casualty, Hollyoaks and more, as well as countless productions with companies such as the Royal Shakespeare Company, Shakespeare’s Globe, and the National Theatre. “I got everything I wanted from the Bridge,” says graduate Tim Boden. “Professional training, an agent and an opportunity to change my life.”
As graduate Marcin Mudyn puts it succinctly: “Thank you for everything. You are simply the best.”