An Open Response to: Drama Schools Boss Sean McNamara on the Changing Face of Conservatoire Education

As students continue their occupation of GSA management offices, Cathryn Fenton describes the feeling of GSA students by replying to a recent interview with Sean McNamara published in Backstage UK.

On Wednesday 22nd May students at the University of Surrey went into occupation in the Nodus Centre in protest of the closure of the BA Dance and BA Theatre and Performance course. The same day an interview with Sean McNamara, the head of GSA, was published by Backstage UK.

In the interview McNamara shares his perspective of the changing landscape of conservatoires and arts education. However, between the lines, details the consistent erasure and devaluing of the BA Theatre and Performance programme and department at GSA. This is our response.

The article opens with comments about the student action taken at Central School of Speech and Drama against racism and criticisms of RADA for their audition processes. Ironic then, that this interview was published during a 24hr occupation from students at GSA. What follows in the article is a series of reflections from McNamara about the current state of drama schools within the UK, what is omitted is detailing of the systemic problems within GSA.

In the article, McNamara is asked the difference between conservatoire courses and academic university theatre programmes. In his response, McNamara blatantly ignores the fact the GSA sits within a University, having merged with the University of Surrey in 2009. He goes on to describe the difference as:

‘It’s the relationship with the industry, the graduate destinations, the standard of people teaching or directing. Even on a basic level, it’s opening a theatre programme and looking where actors and production teams have trained.’

This comment directly says that the standard of people teaching on ‘drama courses’, such as BA Theatre and Performance, is lower than at a conservatoire such as GSA. Not only does this completely erase and degrade the work of staff within GSA – it is, quite frankly, dismissive, rude and ill-informed. Academics who teach on courses such as BA Theatre and Performance are world leading in their respective fields, our department alone homes experts in Immersive Theatre, Performance Philosophy, Scenography, Trauma and Tragedy in Theatre and Performance, Animals in Theatre, the Performance of Place and Global Shakespeare. The department is also host to the Centre of Performance Philosophy, a new and exciting research centre dedicated to interdisciplinary field of thought, creative practice and scholarship. Not only this, but McNamara directly erases the destinations and careers of BA Theatre and Performance alumni. From this response it is clear that GSA management do not value academic programmes. It is interesting then, that these very courses have been targeted by cuts.

In the interview, McNamara goes on to comment on GSA’s commitment to supporting students’ mental health, having recently trained staff in mental health first aid with Mental Health England. For students and staff involved with the BA Theatre and Performance course, GSA management’s apparent concern for mental health feels an empty gesture. Since the announcement of the closure students have been left feeling uncertain about the future of their education or staff for their employment, leading to anxiety and a decline in mental health for many. The University’s Centre for Wellbeing has more Theatre and Performance students in attendance than any course. Despite the school’s apparent ‘best efforts’ to promote their concerns of mental health, the school has offered no support or reassurance for students – which has led to the occupation.

Finally, Sean reflects on the diversity and equality in the industry, noting that GSA has an ‘obligation to do more’. On this note, I would implore GSA management to engage with the work of BA Theatre and Performance students, and the academic staff who are researching and working on projects to improve just that. The merge of academic programmes into GSA could have put the school at the forefront of that very initiative; a school of practical and vocational training alongside rigorous academic enquiry is, to me, an exciting prospect. However, GSA seems to want to move further into line with the ‘standard’ of conservatoires in the Federation of Drama Schools. On this note, I assert: you cannot make progress by stepping backward.

Cathryn Fenton is a final year Theatre and Performance student at the University of Surrey.

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