Open letter to Sean McNamara, head of Guildford School Of Acting

On 25th September 2017, I wrote a blog about the decision taken by Guildford School Of Acting to completely restructure and re-staff the Foundation course, one week before the new cohort of students arrived.

As a founding member of the Foundation course staff, I had played an integral role in developing and teaching the course content over the five years I worked there. I was, understandably, shocked to lose my job (with absolutely no notification from the school, I might add), but I’m a working writer and actor, it wasn’t my only source of income. My concern was for the course. I loved that course. I believed in it and I know how much good it was doing for the students who trained on it.

The Stage decided to write an article about my blog and posed a number of questions to the school, which were answered by Sean McNamara (head of school). I was not satisfied by his responses and so decided to request a more detailed, honest explanation.

Below is an open letter to Sean McNamara. Over the last few months I have been gathering statements from ex-students who also wish to receive a full, honest explanation of what has happened to the course.

I have not included their statements here. There are 81 of them and they run on over many, many pages. Suffice to say, their statements are strong, often moving, testimonies to the quality and care offered by our course. All of the statements talk about the ‘dedication’, ‘love’,  ‘professionalism’ and ‘personal care’ of the tutors, many students saying that no teachers on their BA courses have given the same support they received from us. They talk about the benefits of having working industry professionals as teachers and how inspired they have been to make their own work. They talk about how much the course helped them to grow as individuals and begin to acknowledge and shift personal and professional blocks. For me, some of the most inspiring stories are from those students who haven’t ended up working in theatre at all. From fitness instructors to student psychiatrists, the course has helped people truly understand what they want out of life and that’s something I personally am very proud to have facilitated.

I am posting the letter here and sending it, in full, to Sean. This is not an attack on GSA, but rather a challenge for responsibility to be taken as to how and why such a huge decision can be made with seemingly little thought for the impact it will have on students.

 

Dear Sean,

This is an open letter, which I have already published online.

In Autumn of last year, as you know, I wrote a blogpost regarding my concerns for the changes being made to the Guildford School Of Acting Foundation course. The Stage newspaper ran an article on what I had written and you responded to specific questions posed to you by them. I, and many others, are dissatisfied with your responses. This is why I am writing to you now.

You told The Stage that Guildford School Of Acting had:

“decided to appoint two specialists to oversee and lead the programmes this year”

rather than keeping on:

“employed temporary contractors to deliver elements of the programme”

The point I wish to make here, is that myself and the other core Foundation course tutors, were by far the most experienced and therefore specialist teachers for this course at that time. You decided not to replace us with Foundation course specialists, but with (unquestionably) experienced teachers, who do not specialise in this very specific area of teaching.

You also stated that:

“We’re really excited about the new academic year across all of our courses and, in particular, the new direction in which we have decided to take our foundation course.”

thus admitting (which, of course, you could not dispute) that it would be taking a new direction.

My question to you, is why? Why did you decide to replace the teaching staff and content of a uniquely strong course? One which should have been celebrated by GSA, rather than disassembled.

The Foundation course that we created was important and special. Since 2011, we honed the content to respond directly to the needs of the individuals who enrolled on it. The course structure and standard of teaching were both excellent, we worked incredibly hard to ensure that that was the case. Working with Foundation students is very different to working with BA students. We took the specificity of that task incredibly seriously and handled it with a huge amount of love and care. In short, I cannot understand how the decision you made was made with the students’ best interests at heart, especially as it was made one week before the new cohort commenced their training.

I do not know if the decision was taken for financial reasons or pressures from the university, but I do think you have a responsibility to be honest about the thinking behind it. This course has played an incredibly important part in my life and the lives of a great many others who have been influenced and shaped by it and we would like an answer.

I should make it clear that I write to you not as an embittered ex-employee, but as someone with a deep passion and care for the craft of acting training. By the time I lost my job, I did not need the job at GSA to financially sustain me. I worked there because I loved it. I travelled four hours a day to work long hours with the students, because I knew that what we were doing was special, vital and therefore deeply rewarding to be a part of.

Below, you will find statements from 81 people who were, at some point, involved in the course. These are predominantly ex-students. Some of their statements focus on the idea that the course has become a way to ‘get students into drama school’, an idea taken from The Stage article and my previous blogpost. It is worth stating that I have no knowledge of the current ethos of the course and neither do the students. I would not wish to govern what they have chosen to write about here and some of it may be inaccurate in reference, but every one of these statements comes from a place of love, disappointment and deep sadness at what has occurred. 

I urge you to read these, as the students have taken time to write them for you, and to respond to our question: why did you completely restructure a course that was doing such excellent work?

Yours sincerely,

Katie Bonna