The plight of some major drama schools

Philip Hedley,  5 April 2018

Philip Hedley CBE, Director Emeritus Theatre Royal Stratford East (1979-2004) and Theatre Consultant, shares his thoughts about how the merging of universities and drama schools has impacted the industry.

Theatre training has different needs to other university subjects
Theatre training has different needs to other university subjects

In the run-up to our 2018 National Conference, we are running a series of think-pieces by sector leaders about key issues affecting our creative industries and the future of the workforce. 

At the end of the last century some major drama schools were forced into shotgun marriages with various universities in order that their students could qualify for government grants.  Promises were made, some of which, with changes of those in charge, were broken.

Perhaps the most damaging examples of this process came when drama schools gave up their own premises to share a new building.  

The training of actors demands larger and quieter spaces for groups of no more than 20

Often the university administrators of the new building just didn't seem to accept, for example, that the training of groups of no more than 20 actors demands larger and quieter spaces than is required for giving a lecture to several hundred students of economics.  

Unsurprisingly administrators have little understanding of the physical breadth and the emotional depth involved in the training of actors. 

To make matters worse drama school boards seem tempted these days to appoint principals with entrepreneurial and business skills.  They may never have been in a rehearsal room, and they may well not be equipped to defend with knowledge and passion the special needs of actor training.

Auxiliary acting courses

Apart from increasing the size of classes another way to increase income is, of course, to invent new courses.  Most drama schools now have a foundation course and an MA Acting Course.  

These have been followed by such titles as International, Community, Immersive, Physical and Stage Combat.  These course names often have the word ‘Acting’ attached, which reinforces the impression that they are of equal importance to the main BA Acting Course.  This helps to fill vacancies in the auxiliary courses by deflecting students away from the easy-to-fill main course.

Students in auxiliary courses are often given the impression they will have the same opportunity as the students on the main BA Acting Course to be seen in showcases by acting agents and casting directors, who in fact are now so overwhelmed by the huge number of invitations they receive from a plethora of courses that they restrict  themselves to attending only the showcase of school’s main acting course.

Universities and drama schools meant to be operating as partners need marriage guidance to get a full understanding of each other's problems. 

We need a review of theatre training

There needs to be a radical review of the circumstances in which drama schools, some of them very distinguished ones, are compelled to operate.  Universities and drama schools meant to be operating as partners need marriage guidance to get a full understanding of each other's problems.

They need to face some brutal facts together, such as that a three-year course to train an actor in a style that is the envy of the world probably costs nearly twice as much as the current fee of £27,000 for a three-year course.

It is an industry in which Britain has long excelled, bringing great rewards to the country in prestige and profit, but some of the drama schools on which this success is founded are under threat from lack of money and from having to compromise on the values that made them great.

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