15 December 2023

In defence of drama school

By Dr Adrian Hilton

In 1577, the puritanical preacher Thomas White said that the plague was God’s judgment on the depravities of theatre: ‘The cause of plague is sin,’ he thundered, ‘and the cause of sin are plays: therefore the cause of plagues are plays.’

And so all the theatres were shut down. It was God’s will.

Ben Lawrence in the Telegraph (‘Don’t do it, Lily Allen – our drama schools aren’t fit for purpose’) is equally certain that drama schools are hotbeds of depravity and sexual abuse, and while he doesn’t go quite as far as the Rev’d Thomas White, he does demand fundamental reformation: ‘Acting is a craft, and I believe that drama schools need to forget all the psychological nonsense and instead just concentrate on the technical side. This means no breaking down of previous personalities, no tricksy exercises that expose the student’s vulnerabilities, and definitely no ‘rape masks’.

It is easy to make a case against drama schools based on a condensed list of allegations of inappropriate conduct over a number of years. An investigation by the website Deadline found many troubling allegations, including a black student being called the n-word and ‘mask work’ used to disguise sexual assault. These should be disciplinary matters and institutional deficiencies addressed (or disreputable tutors sacked). But I could compile a similar dossier of abuses and systematic failings in British universities, and nobody would reasonably say it justified purging the entire sector of the foundations of academic discovery. Racism or sexual harassment in drama schools is bad enough, but universities have seen 319 suicides in recent years – 14 of them in one university alone. 

The collective response has been to inculcate student wellbeing and mental health support as a foundational ethos, which is now yielding the necessary change in culture. The same latitude ought to be extended to drama schools. While the court of social media might convict and condemn, most theatre directors and educators understand that artistic straitjackets should be avoided: the objective must be the creation of great art, and any socio-ethical responsibility towards a specific community must be subsumed to that. 

To train as an actor is to make oneself vulnerable: it is psychologically, physically, emotionally and spiritually demanding, simply because artistic creativity and exploration are like stripping naked. There is very often – of necessity – a sense of guilt, self-loathing or sin in the process (not least because audiences want to smell the stench of shame). Such is human nature, and the actor’s vocation, as Hamlet put it, is to hold a mirror up to it ‘to show virtue her feature, scorn her own image, and the very age and body of the time his form and pressure’.

Certainly, some in positions of power may choose to exploit and abuse the vulnerabilities revealed – and theatre is indeed prone to the coercion of the ‘casting couch’ – but the bullies should be made to face their own depravities, inadequacies and insecurities, not be used as an excuse for actors not to cross traumatic boundaries of creative exploration, or to prevent them from taking artistic risks.

Some drama training is now utterly devoid of emotional reality. It has become so sterile and insulated – for ‘health and safety’ and ‘inclusion’ purposes – that it barely helps young actors to learn the craft of acting, let alone equips them to work independently in the theatrical profession. Many drama teachers are also now reluctant to critique students’ work for fear of causing distress, with all the contiguous allegations of bullying, discrimination or ‘hate’.

But you can’t excise the ‘psychological nonsense’ from drama training without reducing it to stamping and shouting, or ‘indicating’, as the late, great proponent of Stanislavski’s ‘Method’ Doreen Cannon would say. ‘I don’t believe you!’ she’d bark at her students (of which I was one), goading them, in the words of Simon Callow, ‘to combustion point’. Her dramatic pedagogy would probably now be considered a form of psychological abuse, and it’s the sort of extreme emotional exercise Ben Lawrence seems to think should be eradicated. The power of projection, as well as the ability to command a stage and to move well, should be the main focus points of drama schools’, he writes, as though graduating with a BA (Hons) in hand gestures and vocal inflections is all you need for a career on the stage.

‘Think of all those performers’, he continues, ‘– Ian McKellen, Derek Jacobi, Emma Thompson, Matt Smith – who never went to drama school, but have become some of the most acclaimed actors of their respective generations.’

Well, up to a point. McKellen learned his craft at Cambridge University (appearing in 23 plays over three years), then into regional repertory theatre, which in those days was a ‘drama school’ for so many aspiring actors. Jacobi had an identical training at Cambridge and grounding in regional rep. Thompson is the daughter of actress Phyllida Law and actor-director Eric Thompson: ‘I have a definite feeling of inheriting space. And power,’ she said in 1995. Smith studied Drama at the University of East Anglia, and thence to an apprenticeship with the National Youth Theatre.

Plucking a few famous names from the air who happened not to study at a drama school is not only hostage to a host of educational and biographical variables, but ignores the fact that some of history’s legends of the stage – Olivier, Gielgud, Ashcroft, Guinness, Hopkins, Jackson, Dench, etc., etc. – all did. Clearly, drama schools serve a purpose, especially given the decline of local theatre.

By reducing it merely to its ‘technical’ aspects, Ben Lawrence implies there’s no more art to acting than there is to juggling. Of course the technical is important, and always has been: Hamlet famously advised the Players not to ‘saw the air too much’ with their hands, or ‘split the ears of the groundlings’. But acting can no more be reduced to projection and gesticulation than journalism can be reduced to spelling and grammar, or musical composition to scales and arpeggios. 

Stanislavski’s ‘Method’ isn’t ‘psychological nonsense’, but a cognitive, emotional and analytical process of observing, discovering, and believably recreating moments of studied truth, without which there is simply no dramatic authenticity or artistic integrity. And then the deadly ‘safe space’ of self-preservation usurps the daring ‘empty space’ of unconscious self-discovery. And instead of glimpsing divine inspiration, we squint at plastic mediocrity.

Great moments of theatre consist of great moments of acting. As Stanislavski wrote in My Life in Art: ‘The only king and ruler of the stage is the talented actor.’ And that talent, he said, is an inner, active art; a complex spiritual work which, more often than not, demands intense and even traumatic vocational nurturing, which has been handed down from generation to generation: ‘This is the sphere of living tradition.’

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Dr Adrian Hilton is Honorary Research Fellow at the Vinson Centre, University of Buckingham, Buckingham.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.