I would like to respond to Lyn Gardner’s piece on what universities offer that drama schools can’t. I teach on one of several conservatoire programmes that complicate the opposition she sees between traditional drama school training and university drama school courses.
Guildhall director Orla O’Loughlin states: “The actor as artist is the direction of travel,” but for my colleagues and I, this is nothing new. Since its leadership under Complicité associate Catherine Alexander, the BA Acting (Collaborative and Devised Theatre) degree at the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama has had the actor as artist at the heart of its ethos.
For more than 10 years, our full-time, vocational training has combined psycho-physical acting technique with ensemble theatremaking and devising.
The faculty includes three active theatremakers, and we have artistic partnerships with Complicité, Inspector Sands, New Diorama, Theatre Peckham and Queen’s Theatre Hornchurch, contributing to their outreach programmes.
It is not only university courses that offer debate about theatre, along with various transferable skills. Good technical training itself involves interrogating and imagining worlds that are not our own. Performing Chekhov involves understanding serfdom and neo-feudalism; teaching Meyerhold means understanding the Russian Revolution and the Constructivist avant-garde; working on American plays means grappling with slavery, Reconstruction, and recurring civil rights movements; exploring Stanislavski and Michael Chekhov means grasping that they were artistically innovative yet politically reactionary.
Any contemporary actor training worth its salt must cultivate resourceful, critical and informed artist-collaborators, who know something of the world and those who came before them, but who also know their own minds and can create in their own voice.
University drama courses don’t have a monopoly on pioneering practice. For us, new devised work about human
trafficking, sound-led productions involving live sound-processing with European designers, Shakespeare productions that play with gender identity and polyphonic characterisation, anti-oppressive pedagogy, intimacy training and collaborative classes between actors and designers are all par for the course.
Our graduates go out into the world equipped with access to proven kinds of knowledge as well as the capacity to disrupt it. Inventive drama school programmes can and consistently do inspire the innovative and the groundbreaking.
Sinéad Rushe Theatre director and senior lecturer in acting and movement at Royal Central School of Speech and Drama
1960s’ West End had rave revues
Along with several of your correspondents, I saw Harry Secombe in Pickwick at the Saville Theatre in the early 1960s and, looking through my programme collection, I came across one for a production I had forgotten about.
In the late 1950s and early 1960s, West End theatre management seemed once again to have a liking for revues, probably because they were relatively cheap and easy to stage. Pieces of Eight had been at the Apollo in 1959, with Kenneth Williams and Fenella Fielding, followed by One Over the Eight (again with Williams) at the Duke of York’s in 1960, both containing sketches written by Peter Cook and the latter including some material by Harold Pinter. Four to the Bar, with Ian Wallace among the quartet, came to the Arts in 1961 and On the Brighter Side (a version of the popular television ‘song and sketch’ show, with Stanley Baxter and Betty Marsden) was at the Phoenix.
In 1961, not to be outdone, the Saville Theatre offered a revue entitled The Lord Chamberlain Regrets…, which featured Joan Sims, Ronnie Stevens, Millicent Martin and Aubrey Woods. It was an average-to-good show but, as a teenager, I remember feeling disappointed because its title did not live up to my expectations (those were the days when official stage censorship still existed, although it was nearing its end, as were traditional revues. Beyond the Fringe had provided theatre audiences with much stronger fare).
If I remember rightly, in one short sketch from The Lord Chamberlain Regrets… a monk stood on one side of the stage while a nun stood on the other. Then they sang: “If you were the only girl in the world and I were the only boy.” And when they reached the word “nothing”, there was an instant blackout, followed by laughter from the audience and applause. It’s strange what one remembers.
Of course, the sketch may not have been in that show at all. It could have been in One Over the Eight or in any of the other revues on offer at the time. In those days, the Lord Chamberlain’s office had much to regret.
We must nurture and retain talent
You write that the diversity of the drama student population has improved ‘only slightly’ from black, Asian and minority ethnic students making up 14% of the total intake in 2016 to 21.5% in 2019/20. But isn’t this an increase of 50%, which would imply quite good progress? Don’t these figures also reflect the ethnic make-up of the UK population, with 80% white British?
Is there more an issue with nurturing and retaining BAME talent, as suggested by Lyn Gardner?
Shows gear up to reopen
As I get bombarded by shows announcing reopening dates, I have this sense of déjà vu that the West End is merely recycling tired titles for the umpteenth time.
If new audiences are to be encouraged back to the West End, then it is time it offered fresh fare – not stuff that is redolent of Madame Tussaud.
I can’t wait. I had 12 shows cancelled last year – here’s hoping they can go ahead.