Drama cuts raise fears of final curtain

Underfunding threatens viability of Scotland's theatre, warn top thespians. Olga Wojtas reports

May 22, 2008

The leaders of Scotland's acting community are warning the Government that drama teaching is in "meltdown" because of underfunding.

Only two higher education institutions north of the border - the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama and Queen Margaret University - run conservatoire courses to train drama practitioners.

But Queen Margaret has just announced that it is axeing its two courses, one in acting and performance, the other in theatre production. It currently subsidises conservatoire teaching with £1 million a year from its turnover of £30 million. At the same time, the Royal Scottish Academy is contemplating compulsory redundancies because of a £600,000 budget shortfall.

Each full-time undergraduate music student brings in £13,730 a year under the Scottish Funding Council's "conservatoire music" subject grouping, while drama students, who come under "creative arts and hospitality", bring in £7,225.

The SFC is reviewing its teaching funding methodology and will look at what institutions are spending against what they receive. But there will be no changes before the 2009-10 funding allocations.

Actress and writer Gerda Stevenson, who starred in the Mel Gibson film Braveheart, said: "If the Scottish Government does not act swiftly, we will have no professionals training in this art form within Scotland and the viability of the National Theatre of Scotland will be seriously undermined."

The majority of actors and theatre production crew employed north of the border had trained at the two institutions, she said.

Gerry Mulgrew, one of Scotland's foremost directors, said: "The QM closure and the crisis at RSAMD represent a serious attack on the work done over many years to professionalise the study and practice of theatre performance, stage management and related and necessary activities. There is extreme disquiet in the drama community."

Some academics speculate that the two announcements have been co-ordinated in a bid to force more cash out of the SFC.

But Queen Margaret, whose alumni include actors such as Ashley Jensen, star of US television show Ugly Betty, and Kevin McKidd, insisted that while underfunding was an important issue, it was not the sole reason why the courses were axed.

Queen Margaret won full university status a year ago and has apparently found tensions between the requirements of the National Council for Drama Training, which accredits courses, and its institutional strategy.

A joint message to staff from Anthony Cohen, the principal, and David Dunn, the dean of the School of Drama and Creative Industries, says: "Over several years, it has become increasingly apparent that the intense, craft-based approach to the learning of a conservatory is at odds pedagogically with any other discipline taught in universities."

The school's five-year plan from 2007 describes national council accreditation as a barrier to greater emphasis on "reflective self-learning", encouraging premature specialisation.

Theatre production, which takes 18 students each year, will not have another intake; current students will be able to graduate but their degree will not be accredited. The next intake of 12 students to the acting and performance course will be the last.

The university stressed that it was not axeing drama as a discipline. A spokesperson told Times Higher Education that it was fully committed to teaching drama and theatre.

But Mr Mulgrew said: "The irony is, although I believe in theatre having its academic study side, if there are no trained actors any more, there will shortly be nothing much to study."

olga.wojtas@tsleducation.com.

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