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Red Thread. Make. Work

20 August 2012 | London Calling

'Are we training actors for a profession that no longer exists?'

Having taught and directed at UK Drama schools for many years, I began to wonder if we are doing quite enough to help our graduates make a living for themselves out there in the big wide world. I asked around and spoke to a range of ex-students and colleagues about this. The general consensus of opinion was that, although UK drama schools provide a perfectly adequate and - in some cases - wonderful training, little is being offered to help students actually make, produce, and sell their own work for themselves. Most seemed to feel that although mainstream training helps nurture and develop the student's talents, skills, and confidence: giving them a good understanding of technique and grounding in what it is an actor needs to act, the actor is often left, after three years of extensive and expensive training, beholden to producers, agents, directors, and casting agents to give them a job. But I wonder if, these days, that's enough. Are we letting our students down?

As Di Travis asked in a recent article for The Guardian, 'Are we training actors for a profession that no longer exists?' For many of us involved in both training actors and making professional theatre, the answer to that question is all too clear. It seems that actors are mostly being trained to fit into a corporatized and producer led industry. And with so many graduates and too few jobs available in the 'industry’ what chance do most of them really have of paying back their hefty student loans and making a living for themselves in their chosen career? And what chance do they really have of helping to shape and contribute to the future of British theatre? Unless an actor is snapped up after standing out in a final year showcase, he or she just has to sit it out and wait for the phone to ring. As we know, for most, it doesn’t. And many drift into others ways of earning a living. This seems an awful waste of creative talent and potential.

Having worked a lot throughout Europe over the years, I see how differently performing artists are taught in other countries. In most cases students are expected and encouraged to make their own work and to be confident and knowledgeable enough to produce and sell it once they have completed their training. Scuola Teatro Dimitri, in Switzerland and Ecole Jacques Lecoq, in Paris are two prime examples of schools offering this kind of education and support for their actors. Such schools are abroad and often too expensive for the British student to contemplate. Unlike other European countries it seems the UK has less understanding of and respect for the actor as artist and maker of theatre. Although recessionary cut backs in the arts don’t make it easy for artists anywhere, many European graduates are, at least, trained in the skills of theatre making and encouraged to be as pro-active and entrepreneurial as possible when it comes to selling their own work. Sadly, it seems, most British acting students are not trained in this way. Many are simply unaware of it as a means of developing a career and, indeed, an income.

Some UK drama schools offer short courses in devising and making. Central and Mountview among others. And LIPSA follows in the rich and strong tradition of Lecoq. And, of course, there are actors who set up and run their own companies out of frustration and lack of work they really want to do. But, without any specific and dedicated tuition, or guidance from Drama schools, such actors and companies have to work very hard to find out how to do it for themselves.

Given this lack of training in pro-active creative engagement, entrepreneurial thinking, and producing, some esteemed colleagues and I wondered if there is room for an independent theatre school that offers a strong, fundamental, and non-academic training in devising and theatre making. A school whose sole purpose it is to produce responsible and independent artists able to assert themselves in the theatre world, to develop a personal style and flourish in a competitive environment. And, crucially to make, produce and sell their own work. There is a wide and rich market for work made this way. As well as the obvious theatres and festivals, there are other marketplaces in the UK and abroad; universities, schools, pubs, clubs, the corporate sector, parks, libraries, and, indeed, the street - the actual market place itself! This is clearly a rich and vital form of theatre that makes a great deal of artistic and economic sense. But this is hardly ever mentioned or taught here in the UK as part of an actor’s training. In many respects this way is often much more rewarding and satisfying for the artists and audiences involved. It offers a sense of real worth, empowerment, and engagement - often lost to actors in the grander more corporate and commercial companies these days. Would it not now serve our students better to have the knowledge, training, and understanding to work inside and out of mainstream theatre? We think so.

And so, in January 2013, we open our doors to actors wanting to work this way. The work is taught by senior teachers from leading Drama schools and directors of theatre companies who recognise the wealth of talent, skill, and imagination that may otherwise be lost if our actors are not educated this way. And if there are any far-sighted ministers, professional, or philanthropists out there who would like to support and take up this idea, do bear us in mind. It’s not an easy road.

Surely our job is to arm actors wisely and well for the reality of the modern world, with a range of skills, techniques, disciplines, and strategies in both the performing and producing arts: to encourage young actors towards creative and artistic excellence so they can make a living at it. And not to feel they have to strive to be part of the fickle, corporate, celebratory fixated industry, wherein most are doomed to fail anyhow. Surely it’s time to rethink what we can offer. Isn’t it? And to welcome young actors into a supportive network of artists, makers and theatre practitioners in the UK and on the international stage: and, crucially, to offer an affordable, meaningful, and relevant training, with the actor not on the outside of their profession but, from the outset, firmly at the very centre of it.

[url=http://www.red-thread.org.uk/]http://www.red-thread.org.uk/[/url]

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