13 Tall Truths. Truth 1: What is the point of drama school?

For the next five weeks I am going to be on tour. My previous experience of touring mostly involves a full company of actors, a lot of gin and a notable lack of responsibility. When I made a one woman show about the often paralysing complexities of my relationship with my estranged father, I clearly didn't think about how it would affect my tour-life. Namely, no other actors, no gin and masses of responsibility.

In response to my inevitable lack of hangovers, in-jokes and green room microwave queues (a sad and singular bonus) I've decided to write a blog. And because my show is about lies, the blog will be about truths. Thirteen truths to be exact. In each of the thirteen places I'm visiting I will tell one truth that I wouldn't usually tell. It might be small - prepare yourself for an inevitable story about a returned Flat White that is 'clearly a latte' - or big. Number one, that's this one, is big. 

For five years I have worked as an acting tutor on the Foundation course at Guildford School Of Acting. I love GSA. I trained there and a fair amount of that training was truly excellent.

I started teaching at the school when the Foundation course began, in 2011. The course was designed to give a one year foundational training to students who either felt they weren’t ready for a BA course or who hadn’t succeeded in gaining a place on one. By this point, the school had changed a lot from my old stomping ground. Absorbed into a university, with a custom-designed building, it was tinged with a corporate, academic feel. A good friend and fellow alumni of mine pointed out that at this stage they got rid of our much beloved Cathy's Cafe (cling-film wrapped egg roll for £1.10? Yes please!) for a Starbucks. This encapsulates how that move felt to most ex-students and, I'm sure, some teachers. Despite my unease with the university/drama school juxtaposition, I felt that it was the same school. With the same heart. And the Foundation course epitomised that. Sitting slightly outside of university parameters (we did not have to fulfil set criteria in the way that the BA courses did), we responded to the students' needs. It became clear early on that none of us were interested in treating the course as a way to merely get students into drama school. How could any of us morally work like that? Taking students' money and giving no training, no craft, in return? Offering only the empty promise of a drama school place? It seemed ludicrous and against our beliefs as teachers. So we taught acting. Detail. Listening. Playing. Craft. And it worked.

Most of our students went on to prestigious drama schools - the statistics are incredible, actually. I won’t get into that here, especially as I’ve already said it was never our primary focus. Perhaps ex-students will comment with their feelings about the course below, but I can say I have seen young people truly become themselves during this training. I have seen some riddled with anxiety and insecurity grow strong and playful; some, who believed themselves to be the greatest thing since Tom Hardy, develop humility and an ability to listen. In short, I’ve seen the most positive changes in young people that I’ve ever witnessed take place, because of this course.

We knew that each of the individuals we met was passionate about the work and we believed that something was stopping them from stepping into it wholeheartedly. The Foundation course we created allowed them the space, support and challenges needed to discover what was blocking them, engage with it and move on. We didn’t shy away from conversations around emotional connection, attitude and work ethic – we ran headlong into them - and that is why our students achieved what they achieved.
The reason I am writing this, and if you're still with me you must be wondering by now, is that I have just found out that I will not be returning to teach on the Foundation course this year. Neither will some of my extremely gifted colleagues. There really is no need to go into the ins and outs of my or their employment here, suffice to say the course is being changed dramatically and that is beyond our control.

I cannot speak for GSA, but I hear they plan to cut back contact hours dramatically, by one third in fact. I hear that soon they will be reducing the entire course to only one term of study. Most notably, I hear that the focus of the course moving forward is singular: to get students onto a BA drama school course. And, with my experience of this work, I know that it will be impossible to provide the same level of training and personal development once those changes are in place.

When asking the question of what a Foundation course should be, I have to confront the bigger question of what drama school training is at present in the UK.

I don’t believe drama schools are the be all and end all – far from it. Increasingly, I long for the day when they have become totally benign and purposeless, the day when RADA doesn’t equal work. The day when the cream truly rises to the top and we are all judged on our work, not where we did spinal rolls for three years. But they do exist and they have the potential to play an even more significant role in our industry. The people they train and the manner in which they train them is the primary source by which the shape, diversity and processes of work within the industry can be affected. Gone are the days when we should blindly be teaching students to carry a portfolio of monologues around with them, get an agent and sit dutifully by a phone, we know that. The provocations given over recent years by industry professionals - Sean Holmes and Secret Theatre being a prime example - are an opportunity for us all to challenge the way we engage with our work at a time when funding and support is at an all time low. UK drama school training has to evolve if UK theatre is going to evolve. And I’m not convinced that the increased involvement of universities will allow that. The involvement universities now often have is a natural and necessary response to a decrease in government support. What does not appear to be happening in conjunction with that, though, is a true understanding of how drama school training differs from university education.

I have already watched my students become more white and more privileged over the last five years, thanks to government cuts. Recently, I have spent days marking written work, being forced to mark students down who are disciplined, joyful actors, but don’t have the skills to write an essay. Now, to watch a tiny corner of passion, power and creativity be squeezed out of what feels like an increasingly corporate environment, is heart-breaking. 

So, I'm speaking about this honestly, which is a thing I would never normally do. I cannot presume to know why these decisions are being made. I can and will only assume that these decisions are being made with the belief they will benefit the students, with their best interests at heart. I just cannot see how taking away something so good, can ever be anything but bad. And it was good. And I'm proud to have been part of it. GSA Foundation course 2012-2017, I salute you.