During the last week or two I’ve been thinking hard and talking to recipients and providers about why drama, and other performing arts training, really matters. Sure sign that The Stage’s annual Drama Tuition supplement is coming up. Look out for it in next week’s issue (out Thursday, February 10).
The trouble is, these days, that the waters are muddied by X Factor type performers who appear to come from nowhere and simply be able to hold an audience by instinct or knack. Or that’s what the audience is led to think, or wants to think. In fact, of course, this stereotype is almost always false because most winners have done considerable training. Danielle Hope, for example, who is 18 and about to open as Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Dorothy, having won TV’s Over The Rainbow, has starred in a whole string of school musicals at her Cheshire school as well as taking part in a professional production of We Will Rock You. She has studied dance privately for years and done A levels in dance and drama at school as well as a BTec National. Untrained she certainly isn’t, although she hasn’t yet done an intensive college course.
“The trouble is,” says Ian Kellgren, Director of NCDT and a very experienced theatre director, “that some people can walk straight into the industry — but it will probably only be a one-off because the person is the right age, build, ethnicity or whatever for that particular role. To sustain a career, you need a complex set of skills and you get that only from training.” He tells me that he has sometimes been expected to work with ‘actors’ who cannot fill an auditorium with sound or work with text. “There is an indisputable difference between a trained actor and an untrained one,” he asserts.
Kirsty Malone, RSMD graduate who has just finished a Dundee Rep tour of Sweney Todd, agrees. “I did a year’s post-graduate training after having done a music degree in London and it was a brilliant way of getting equipped for all aspects of the industry,” she says. She mentions discipline, development of stamina, teamwork and, like Kellgren, refers to that metaphorical toolbox several times.
Sam Pay, quite independently, told me something very similar. He’s a 29 year old graduate of ALRA’s three-year acting BA Hons who did a degree in English and Drama at University of Kent first. He says of the ALRA training “Well, it’s very practical and there’s a lot of emphasis on the really basic things like being punctual and learning your lines - plenty about professionalism. They encouraged me to pick up musical instruments I’d played in the past too such as piano and trumpet. And I started using an accordion too. And the tuition is, in a sense, a series of springboards - a lot of contacts which has led, directly or indirectly, to work since I graduated.”
So there’s another argument in favour of training. Working with tutors, many of whom are also active in the industry, and with the visiting teaching staff good drama schools import to do occasional sessions, is a good way of establishing professional contacts and that all too elusive toe on the ladder once the training is over.
It’s hard, in fact, to see how anyone - in cost cutting governments or anywhere else - can think that training isn’t the bedrock of the performing arts industries. You wouldn’t expect to play as a professional football without training. And you have to train for five years to qualify as even the most junior of doctors. Teachers are expected be trained. So are lawyers. The skills required for performing arts are different, obviously, but no less complex than any of these.
On a completely different note, please do consider voting for John Wright for a green People’s Plaque in Islington. Wright, with his wife Lyndie, founded little Angel Theatre Theatre in the borough 50 years ago this year. An exquisite puppet theatre, it has provided wonder, theatrical magic and learning for children ever since. He died in 1991 and should, in my view, be commemorated.