Dame Eileen Atkins, that great performer, is a forward-thinker. At 87 she remains open to changes in the world around her. Those changes have seen her established as “a grand lady of the British stage”, despite having started out in Tottenham as the tap-dancing “Baby Eileen”. More recently, she has become “an actor”, just like the lads.
Yet in her new memoir Will She Do?, Atkins takes a moment, amid the funny theatrical anecdotes, to mourn the loss of training in core acting skills at Britain’s leading drama schools. Aware that she may sound like a fuddy-duddy, she says: “I know the acting style has changed, but I am both sad and ashamed that actors are mic’d now, even in our smallest theatres. When did drama schools stop teaching students how to throw their voice to the back of the stalls and be natural at the same time? It is possible.”
A place at a London drama school is still the most sought-after route to a career on the stage, or in front of the camera, but in the last two years an earthquake has shaken even the most venerable institutions. It might be a generational clash, or a seismic shift brought about by the needs of the voracious entertainment industry. Whatever the cause, pressure to better reflect gender and race, and to prepare students for work on TV rather than in live theatre, has caused a string of crises.
To answer Atkins’s question about why stagecraft may have slipped down the priority list, drama schools have had many new problems to deal with while also trying to maintain Britain’s reputation as a centre of performing excellence.
Moves to become more sensitive to minorities, as well as to attract young people with ambitions for screen stardom, now threaten to push out conventional teaching, according to disgruntled staff. Students at prestigious schools such as Rada and Lamda, on the other hand, speak of feeling “out of place” while they wait for their teaching staff to catch up.
Last month, Sarah Frankcom stepped down as the director of Lamda, the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art, after only 18 months, amid a flurry of contested allegations. For some, Frankcom – well known for her innovative theatre work with Maxine Peake – was a blast of fresh air, blowing modern non-hierarchical ideas into a staid institution. She planned to produce work in collaboration with students and to slim down the teaching staff. For her opponents, she was throwing the baby out with the bathwater.
Meanwhile, in north London, students were in rebellion at Wac Arts, a charity designed to improve access to the stage, which has produced high-profile black talent such as Daniel Kaluuya, Sophie Okonedo and Michaela Coel. In April this year, former student Sheila Atim, who made her name in the Old Vic’s production of Girl From the North Country and appears in The Underground Railroad on Amazon Prime, wrote a strongly worded public letter. Concerned about allegations of bullying and racist attitudes, she feared it was no longer an “accessible, safe space for young people to train”.
Atim won support from many of the school’s illustrious former students, including Jamael Westman, who played Hamilton in the West End. Simon Callow also stepped down as patron, although the chair of trustees, Justina Cruickshank, offered assurances that the school has “zero tolerance” for racism or bullying.
At the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, perhaps the most famous drama school in the world, unhappy students had historic misdeeds in their sights. Last year, they demanded that the name of Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw be dropped from the theatre due to his views on eugenics. They also questioned the need to perform Restoration comedies, with their associations to British empire-building. Resignations from the board were tendered.
Over at Rada’s great rival, the Central School of Speech and Drama, there was no escape from reformist zeal for those at the top. The principal, Professor Gavin Henderson, retired early last summer after making much-regretted remarks about preferential admission for black candidates. “Quotas would reduce the quality of our student intake,” he had said, subsequently bringing forward his planned departure. “Our systems failed and I must take ultimate responsibility for that,” he said, accepting his comment had been racist. “I do not expect forgiveness or understanding, but I apologise from the bottom of my heart.” Commenting on her own thwarted plans to restructure Lamda, Frankcom told Lyn Gardner in the Stage: “If being a vandal is about ensuring equity and equality of experience, then I am happy to be called that … Just because something has been a certain way for a long time doesn’t make it immune from being questioned. In fact, it makes the need to be questioned more urgent.”
An internal inquiry at the school found failures in communication and leadership. It was a far cry from the proud moment when she took up the reins, flanked by Benedict Cumberbatch, a distinguished alumnus and the school’s current president. Frankcom’s old confederate Peake, whom she directed as Hamlet at Manchester Royal Exchange, was one of many to sign a letter in her support.
The problem is that some of Britain’s leading academies are now emblems of all that is most old-fashioned in entertainment: they are white, elitist and forbidding. Curriculum battles typically focus on traditional “craft”, like the Stanislavski techniques of the 1950s, versus the rise of student-led sessions and “workshopping”.
Among those urging caution are Rada teacher Annie Tyson and Robert Price at Lamda, who have argued that necessary changes need to be delivered carefully, while keeping hold of the key elements of stage training.
Producer and theatre owner Nica Burns, who brought a slew of new producers into her empty West End venues in the post-lockdown paralysis, also sees the need for change and for greater diversity, but she agrees with Eileen Atkins that stagecraft must not be sacrificed. “How you use your voice, your projection and enunciation, is still fundamental, as is the way you move.
“These are like the three Rs in education, the basis of everything,” Burns said this weekend. “There is possibly too much concentration on television acting now, and, while we are obviously grateful for all the new work that has come from the new drama on streaming services, working actors still need to be heard and understood.”
For drama students, it has been a confusing time. Forget the troubles brought about by the pandemic – the powerful cross-currents running through the staff rooms have required even more navigational skill. Ollie Madigan, a 19-year-old student at the long-established Rose Bruford drama school in Kent and a former pupil at The BRIT School in Croydon, has witnessed the speed of change. “I have definitely noticed how much more sensitive and progressive the classes are now,” he said, admitting that much innovation may have been driven by students and prospective students.
Madigan now has a teacher from an immigrant background, as well as one who identifies as non-binary and who asks students to announce their chosen pronouns each session, in case they change. “He believes we should feel we can evolve in every way.”
Madigan, who acts, writes and directs, has already performed his one-man show to acclaim in London. He believes drama schools are right to remember they are not simply helping students to get into an industry, but also to discover themselves. Weekly classes for him, he adds, are now a stimulating mix, with some Stanislavski “method” alongside modern puppetry and tuition in techniques that have been around since the 1600s.
Chronicling all this has been Alistair Smith, editor of the Stage, the entertainment industry journal. In a series of clarion-call leader articles he has made the case for establishing an industry body to monitor drama schools and set standards.
“There are many different issues in each institution, but our drama schools generally are now facing up to changes that have been overdue for around 20 or 30 years and having to do them all in one go, during a pandemic,” he said. “They are historically quite closed institutions, but there has already been some positive action. What we really need now, in an important sector that is certainly in crisis, is a new body that can oversee the whole sector.”
As Madigan observes, while it may be painful to lose some older traditions, the alternative might prove worse. Drama students like him, after all, are one of Britain’s few global success stories. “Change is always a scary thing, but not doing things that need to be done can be just as dangerous,” he said.