Campus close-up: Royal Central School of Speech and Drama, University of London

Theatre practice and a funded research base make Central more oversubscribed than Oxbridge

March 27, 2014

Whatever challenges the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama faces, trying to fill its places is not one of them.

“On our acting courses,” explained principal Gavin Henderson, “we have more than 100 applicants for each place. Ucas statistics show we get the highest number of applicants per place of any university in the country – we’re well ahead of all the Russell Group, even Oxford and Cambridge.” So what is the secret of its appeal (apart from the glittering list of alumni from Dame Judi Dench to Dawn French, and Lord Olivier to Rupert Everett)?

The school is built around what is now the Embassy Theatre in north-west London’s Swiss Cottage, which has long been famous for its innovative and politically engaged work. Backstage, there is a traditional but now very rare example of a full-size gantry for painting scenery known as a paint frame. Professor Henderson stressed “the sheer breadth of what we deliver in terms of theatre practice…A student who is designing sets will have a good deal of their work made and actually put on stage.”

The 12 undergraduate options in theatre practice include not only scenic construction, stage design, lighting and costume, but performance art and even a unique BA in puppetry. The acting courses, meanwhile, are divided into three strands: straight acting; musical theatre; and collaborative and devised theatre. Companies spearheading the striking growth of immersive and site-specific theatre such as Punchdrunk and Shunt include many Central alumni.

About a third of Central’s 1,000 students are postgraduates, the largest proportion in its sector, and they include all sorts, from established actors seeking to refresh their skills to recent graduates who always wanted to work in the theatre but whose parents told them to get a “proper degree” first. Becoming part of the University of London in 2005 also gave the school the right to award PhDs. The first, on the position of the clown in contemporary society, was completed about three years ago and about 40 more are now ongoing.

Yet even more than this, Professor Henderson said, “we are unique in the conservatoire sector in having a research profile as well. There are only small unfunded pockets of research elsewhere; as of the 2008 research assessment exercise, we were the only drama conservatoire to get funding.” Since most of the people teaching at Central are also theatre professionals, their research tends to be practice-based rather than historical, producing work rather than just analysing it, although there is a notable strand looking at gender issues in performance.

Although Central has no desire to expand its total number of students, the school does have plans for more workshop space and a new small courtyard theatre at the back, with a gallery giving access to cameras, facilitating better training for broadcasting and film. Looking further ahead, it hopes to build a little tower block with sleeping accommodation for perhaps 200 students, once they have overcome the constraint that much of London’s gas supply runs right across the site.

The current student intake breaks down to roughly 60 per cent British, 20 per cent from elsewhere in the European Union and 20 per cent non-EU. Professor Henderson seems reasonably happy with this, noting that, although many North Americans would like to study acting at Central, “we can’t over-recruit there. They don’t want to come here thinking they will get a quintessential European experience and then find themselves in a room full of Americans!”

Yet he remains alert to the possibility of international partnerships: “We have done quite a lot of work in India and are often asked to establish some form of theatre training. Even though Bollywood is the biggest film industry in the world, and there’s now also Tollywood [producing more experimental ‘arthouse’ films from the Tollygunge district of Calcutta], there’s virtually no training for it.”

The school has also begun auditioning in Santiago, Chile, particularly for its BA in drama, applied theatre and education. This attracts students, Professor Henderson said, “interested in how you can apply theatre in a wider social context. That’s something that isn’t really happening in South America, so they are coming here to learn about it…What’s exciting is that they bring their own culture and their own vibrancy and they shake things up – though I’m not saying we’re dull.”

matthew.reisz@tsleducation.com

In numbers

12 undergraduate options in theatre practice

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