Old characters in search of life on new stage

March 2, 2007

When the Birmingham School of Acting became part of the University of Central England in October 2006, it moved from a dilapidated building to an ultramodern new centre, and its staff automatically became academics.

The tutors, many of whom are practising or former actors, have begun to look at how to become more academic by, say, counting performance as research.

Alex Taylor, head of voice and course director of the acting BA, said:

"There's no requirement to be involved in traditional research, but we would like to do more through practice. It would be useful to explore that more."

But the tutors and the school - which was founded in 1936 - have not changed their approach to teaching: it is still led by performance and acting rather than theory. The tutors give students vocational training rather than academic theories.

Stephen Simms, the school director, is a Shakespearean actor and alumnus of the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art. He is doing a PhD that explores the training of actors to perform Shakespeare.

"We can be adventurous with our teaching now. We are one of the top drama schools in the UK, and we have the facilities to match the quality of our training," he said. "BSA retains the benefits of being a specialist vocational drama school, but now it can provide the advantages available to students at a major university."

Not only does the merger with UCE mean specialist studios with sprung floors, acoustic panelling and intelligent air conditioning, but the school can also collaborate with other parts of the university.

UCE's Technology Innovation Centre, housed in Birmingham's Millennium Point, has the potential for running new collaborative courses such as musical theatre. "People learn about film, TV, recording and sound. It gives us the opportunity to work with another faculty," Mr Simms said.

David Vann, course director for part-time programmes, said: "We've spent the past ten years making do, but since we've been incorporated into the university, and they have brought on board the finance, we have spaces designed for purpose. It's wonderful. You don't have to adjust your teaching to the space, the space is adapted to the teaching. It's a perfect learning environment."

Louise Shephard, head of singing, agrees: "The impact on students is staggering. The clarity of voices and the voicework we can do with the adjustable acoustic panels is fantastic."

Keith Barlow, the school's director of physical skills, said the new premises had "fired up" students. "The sprung floors mean there's much less potential for injury, so you can challenge the students a lot more."

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