We’re at the business end of the academic year and that means most days for both students and staff are pretty full on!
For our third year students the week starts with group tutorials at 9am and a chance to plan through the week ahead and discuss the dissertations which are due in next month. Most of the cohort are close to completion and eager that staff should read through the revisions and redrafts completed over the weekend.
At 10am the tutorials come to an end and the third years move off for the first practical sessions of the week.
The Applied Theatre students meet up with Keith Palmer, the CEO of The Comedy School, who have a ten year track record of using stand up comedy as a rehabilitative tool. The group are organising a conference after Easter exploring the uses of Drama in helping ex-offenders back into work and spend the morning devising the workshops that they’ll offer to the delegates. It’s a busy time for these students, ten days after the conference they’re flying out to Durban to work with trainee teachers in looking at the ways in which Drama can be used to in sex education with a particular focus on gender assertiveness and HIV/AIDS prevention.
Matthew Hahn, who leads the trip, has a growing reputation in South Africa based partly on his play The Robben Island Bible, which tells the fascinating story of the influence Shakespeare’s plays had on Nelson Mandela and the other political prisoners during their captivity.
After South Africa Matt will jet off to Washington DC to direct an American version of the play. This morning he’s on the phone in his office talking through the casting with the producer. The work began as rehearsed reading with the great South African actor John Kani on stage at the Richmond Theatre and co-produced by Drama St Mary’s. It’s very exciting to watch its evolution.
Meanwhile the Theatre Arts students, under the watchful eye of Trevor Walker, have a morning working with a professional photographer sorting out their head shots in preparation for their fast approaching showcase event at the Soho Theatre in May. Duologues are rehearsed in the corners of the room as each young actor waits their turn.
Next door Kasia Zaremba Byrne, our director of Physical Theatre, leads her students through a warm up, before a first full run through of their short self-devised shows which open at Jackson’s Lane Theatre in Highgate next Monday. It’s a critical moment as the students know that Kasia won’t be slow to point out any problems with the pieces; but there’s great excitement as well a sense that the work is nearly there.
Elsewhere in the building things are just as hectic. I start my teaching week with a lecture to the first years on Shakespeare’s The Tempest. We look at the contextual history of the work as well as considering how different directors have chosen to depict Prospero, Caliban and Ariel and end up in a fascinating discussion about the play’s apparent lack of plot. Although the aim of our degree programmes is to train young actors for the profession, all of us on the staff believe that the practical work students undertake needs underpinning with a sound knowledge of theatre theory and history. It’s vital our students know how to read and understand plays.
For the second years this semester has been all about working on shows. Theatre Arts are currently in our main theatre, fitting up for a production of Lorca’s Yerma, directed by Katie Henry. Our vocal coach Patsy Burn leads a singing call to get the week started, whilst backstage in the workshop the technical crew begin the final stages of the set build, which will transfer into the space later in the week.
In Studio 2 Applied Theatre are working on a site-specific piece, which is going to be performed on an island in the Thames towards the end of April. Chris Baldwin, who’s leading the project, works mostly abroad in Poland and Spain. He’s been away for a fortnight co-ordinating a festival of culture in Wroclaw and is eager to see what progress has been made on his return. Tina Bicat, our senior technician, sits in to make sure the new material can work logistically. The main problem is to do with rowing an audience of potentially over a hundred out safely?
Physical Theatre too are working hard, on a production of Nikolai Gogol’s The Government Inspector, which will follow Yerma into the theatre. They still have a couple of weeks before they come off book so this morning director Anna Healey runs a focused session on ensemble playing.
At lunch the students pile into the refectory, full of stories form the morning’s rehearsals and keen to find out how the other companies are getting on. The box office, run by the third year students, opens up.
The Yerma posters have come back from reprographics so the company finish their lunch early and spread out across campus to pin them to the noticeboards.
I have a brief catch up with our production manager Alistair Milne who tells me that he’s had an email from third year Tim, currently on placement at the opulent Burgtheatr in Vienna. Al tells me that Tim’s first job on arrival was to mic up the Austrian President when he came to give a lecture at the venue last week. Not a bad first gig!
In the afternoon the students return to rehearsals and I have some time looking at schedules for next year with our administrators Jess and Lou. We try and plan at least a year ahead and anticipate changes early. Today, though, we finalise the technical schedule for the MA festival of devised and directed work, which will play for two weeks at the Tristan Bates Theatre in Covent Garden this summer. From the studio below we can hear the first years running through their vocal exercises with Patsy. We focus a great deal on technic here, especially with our first years. If we instil good practice early then hopefully they’ll be equipped with the necessary skills to support them through their three years here and , more crucially, beyond when they begin to look for work.
We’ve got an interview day on Friday and so Lou takes Kasia and I through the applicants. There’s a healthy competition to get onto our courses and so it’s really important to try and learn as much as we can about each student who applies.
By 5pm classes are over. Trevor pops his head round the door to report back on the afternoon’s collaborative provision meeting. We’re hoping to reach a franchise agreement with a Performing Arts academy in Hong Kong. Among the several benefits the partnership would potentially enable our students to access work placement opportunities in their growing culture sector. The agreement is a little way off but Trevor seems upbeat about our chances of making something happen.
Tonight we’re hosting the wonderful Cardboard Citizens who are bringing their touring show, Glasshouse, written by wunderkind performance poet Kate Tempest, to the theatre.
Al meets the van and aids the get in whilst Jess makes sure the company have all that they need.
Cardboard Citizens are the country’s leading forum theatre company and their work, inspired by the practice of Brazilian theatre director Augusto Boal, offers the audience the opportunity to swap in for the protagonist and change the course of the action.
Kate’s play, focusing on the troubled relationship between an eighteen year old girl and her step father is brilliantly constructed and it doesn’t take long for the students to take over, offering different ideas and strategies for how a brighter future might exist for the family.
Afterwards the actors are persuaded over to the SU bar for a quick pint, which gives the students a chance to quiz them about their practice. These lively discussions push on towards closing time and are only brought to an end when the stage manager reminds the company that they’ve still got to get the set back to East London. We cheerfully wave them off before making our own weary ways home.
But we’ll all be back bright and early to begin again tomorrow.