The stage is set for Cinders' new role

November 29, 2002

The divide between drama schools and universities is still there but, Susan Elkin writes, each has an important part to play in the overall production.

Drama seems to have made a good job of reinventing itself as a crossover subject. And that's despite the traditional tension between drama schools and university drama departments - the sense that neither sort of establishment really seems to understand quite what goes on in the other.

Some of the changes are pragmatic. Drama schools were formerly a higher education Cinderella and desperately needed money from the Higher Education Funding Council for England. That, for many, meant accredited degree courses and mergers with universities.

For example, the E15 Acting School, which celebrates its 40th anniversary this year, became part of the University of Essex in 2000. There was a "dowry" of £1.3 million: £870,000 from Hefce plus £200,000 each from the two merging organisations and a £90,000 Foundation for Sports and the Arts grant. This means that E15, based in a historic house at Loughton, Essex, can expand. Like most drama schools, it was not able to develop while dependent on discretionary Local Education Authority grant funding for students and, more recently, on the limitations of ring-fenced Department for Education and Skills dance and drama award funding.

Today's E15 students and staff have access to a full range of university facilities, including good libraries. But "belonging" to Essex also commits students, despite the courses being vocational, to a substantial amount of theoretical and academic work.

So gone is the absolute divide when drama schools were full of luvvies pounding the boards as they trained while university drama departments were the province of desk-bound text analysers - if indeed it was ever quite like that. Today, the situation is more blurred and complicated because many successful theatre practitioners emerge from universities having done a lot of theoretical work. Others graduate in another subject and then opt for vocational postgraduate drama training. But that isn't the whole story, and the choices - for students at least - have never been more complex.

Tony Gash, who teaches drama at the University of East Anglia, comments:

"The distinction between the academic and practical sides of drama are somewhat artificial because the raison d'être of drama is to be a crossroads between different disciplines. And our aim is always to relate the theoretical, literary and historical aspects to performance."

Nonetheless, he admits that anyone training seriously for the stage needs regular voice work and tuition in movement and the Alexander Technique. "We can only give a taste of these things at UEA. It isn't as consistent as it would be at drama school."

And that stems from a different concept of teaching and learning. "The main difference between us and a university drama department is contact time," says Nicholas Moseley of the Italia Conti Academy of Theatre Arts, London, whose courses are validated by South Bank University. "The students are here for 25 hours a week, 36 weeks a year."

Sam le Noury, 20, a second-year stage management student at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts, agrees. "Anyone wanting to do this has to be prepared for hard work, long hours and a gruelling timetable," she says. "We're required here all day every day and often well into the evenings - unlike my friends in universities who tell me they often only have formal teaching for three hours a week."

There are no degree courses at Rada, so le Noury does not have to write essays, and written work isn't assessed - apart from a diary that each student is expected to keep as a record of work done. However, there are lots of shows, although none is open to the public until the third year.

"I would never have got that depth of practical experience and training in a university," she says. "Although I considered an English and drama course at Loughborough, I'm now certain that I made the right choice in coming here."

Although le Noury, who hopes to work in major West End theatres, is privately funded by her parents, many Rada students are on scholarships. And the academy now has conservatoire status, which means there is Hefce support so tuition fees are no higher than for university students. Until recently, students without scholarships or local education authority support had to pay the cost of training at Rada - £10,440 a year.

At the other end of the spectrum is the drama studies (European drama) course at the University of Sussex. Although performance is part of the course, the emphasis is firmly on theory. Performance skills are not assessed. "Examiners look for the ability to think about what you do and a real commitment to learning to understand processes," says Sandra Freeman, a spokeswoman for the drama department.

So why do students study drama if they don't want to be practitioners when they graduate?

"Actually we're very wary of accepting people if they want only to act," says Gavin Carver of the University of Kent's drama department. "The key thing about a good drama degree is that what it can offer reads like a list of everything employers are looking for. Drama teaches team-building, problem-solving, community involvement and project work. Drama graduates are highly employable and drama degrees are at the cutting edge of education provision."

As well as developing a handful of actors, all drama university departments produce graduates ripe for the media-related professions. "Others, of course, end up as, say, postgraduate management trainees in retail companies and that is fine too," Carver says.

So there may be some cross-fertilisation, but is academic work - however much or little you do - really the best way to train practitioners? Rada, the Oxbridge of drama schools, doesn't seem to think so. It offers single-minded practical training. On the other hand, universities may fear being accused of dumbing down if they spend much of their already limited contact time on "practical" work.

Curtain rises on practice-based research

What makes practice? When is it research? How can it be documented? These questions formed part of a heated email exchange between members of the Standing Conference of University Drama Departments over past weeks.

This summer, I led a four-week workshop that sought to enter the turbulent waters of practice-based research by investigating rehearsal processes in early 19th-century illegitimate theatre. Over the past two years I have been working with Jacky Bratton, research professor of theatre and cultural history, on a project about Jane Scott, writer of more than 50 romantic melodramas and burlettas, actress/ manager and trainer of other performers and founder of the Sans Pareil theatre (later the Adelphi) on the Strand.

With manuscript plays garnered from the lord chamberlain's collection, a company of professional performers and a phalanx of historians of dance, combat, mime and music, we embarked on the high-risk undertaking of rehearsing and showing to our colleagues the work Scott's company did in the 1815-16 season. Our main aims were to test practice as a historical tool and to challenge largely reductive attitudes to 19th-century popular performance.

The members of the company were selected for their professional diversity - classically trained actors, dancers, physical theatre performers and Sarah Greene, an actress/TV presenter who played the parts Scott wrote for herself. The walls of Royal Holloway's Boilerhouse theatre space were covered with maps of London, illustrations of theatres and their stages, penny-plain characters in costume, playbills and Scott's rules and regulations for company behaviour - fines for "sky-larking", cooking in the dressing rooms and missing rehearsal were among the long list of misdemeanours.

With movement trainer Dick McCaw and dance historian Giannandrea Poelio, we explored the possible links between more modern actor training exercises and melodrama's engagement with the performer's body. We also worked on central motifs in 19th-century melodramatic dramaturgy, such as tableau work. The message of each piece had to be clear: being obvious was a discovery - a vital expressive notion we have lost in postmodern drama. I was struck by the intensity of emotion in the tableaux and by the interplay between the serious and the comic.

To explore the bodily movement of 19th-century performers, we donned corsets and empire-line dresses; shirts, cravats and tight waistcoats. It became obvious why movement above shoulder level was rarely used. We learnt period versions of ancient gestures that were very easy to understand - revenge, murder, fear, love. Each player created their own character's "basket" of gestures. From walking through selected scenes, we found that the interplay of interscored music (music that works between the lines, punctuating the moment), gesture, movement and text was far from the simplistic thing represented in traditional theatre histories. We moved between learning songs, staging fights and creating comic "business", and marvelled at the versatility of our ancestors and their ability to work in four languages: text, music, movement and gesture.

On the final day of the project, we showed selected scenes and one full piece cut to the bone to an audience that included Joan Littlewood.

The project has aroused interest outside the UK. The North American Society for the Study of Romanticism, which we met with in Ontario in August, was intrigued by this approach to theatre history.

The debate surrounding whether practice-based research can enrich and expand our understanding continues. I believe that our project shows that practice-based approaches to theatre history can enlarge our understanding of today's theatre practice, especially in largely undocumented areas such as women's theatre history and popular performance. The academic viability of the revival was founded on conventional research, but the vigour with which Scott's plays were returned from the page to the stage could come only from professional performers.

Gilli Bush-Bailey
The author is a lecturer in drama and theatre at Royal Holloway, University of London, and was principal investigator on the Arts and Humanities Research Board-funded Innovations Research Project. Nineteenth-Century Theatre plans an issue devoted to the project in summer 2003.


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