Do you know a budding thespian? If you’re searching for the best drama schools in the UK, Sally Jones explains why you should be considering an independent British school.
For those considering a career in the arts, finding a good drama teacher can be the key to launching a successful career.
King Edward VI High School for Girls, Birmingham
Although from a working class Scottish family with no theatrical background, Lindsay Duncan won a free place at King Edward VI High School for Girls, Birmingham, where one inspiring teacher set her on the path to stardom, spotting her talent and casting her in demanding roles including Antigone.
‘Kate Flint had an influence which informed the rest of my life,’ recalled Duncan.
‘If you’re lucky you meet one of those people, and I did. She taught English and she did it superbly. She inspired a love of language which I’ve carried with me ever since. She had passion and clarity and the desire to communicate that passion to us.’
Hollywood’s British success stories
The current crop of rising stars seems equally indebted to their alma maters with a distinguished roll call of British actors and Academy Award winners honing their theatrical skills at independent schools, among them Eddie Redmayne, Damian Lewis, Dominic West and Tom Hiddleston (Eton), Emma Watson (Dragon School), Laurence Fox and Benedict Cumberbatch (Harrow), Jude Law and Sam West (Alleyn’s School), Rebecca Hall (Roedean) and Robert Pattinson (Harrodian School).
A teenage Carey Mulligan (Woldingham) got her big break when she asked screenwriter Julian Fellowes for advice after a school lecture. He advised her to ‘marry a lawyer’ but his wife Emma Kitchener invited her to a dinner for aspiring actors where she met the casting agent through whom she successfully auditioned as Kitty for the film adaptation of Pride and Prejudice.
Is attending one of the best British independent drama schools an advantage?
Not everyone is convinced, however, that an independent school education is an advantage for a stage career. Amid claims from stars, including Dame Julie Walters, that acting careers are increasingly becoming the preserve of the rich, Benedict Cumberbatch’s drama teacher at Harrow, Martin Tyrell, believes that a public school background can work against aspiring actors.
‘They are being limited from playing certain parts by critics and audiences because of what their parents did for them at the age of 13. And that seems very unfair,’ Tyrell says.
Kate Ashcroft, executive director of the Oxford School of Drama, explained that with means-tested grants available to disadvantaged youngsters for their one and three-year vocational courses via the government’s Dance and Drama Awards Scheme, 78 per cent of her students come from state schools, over 40 per cent from households with below-average income.
‘There are plenty of promising young actors coming from less-advantaged backgrounds,’ she says ‘but it’s definitely easier for students from more affluent backgrounds to afford the risk of pursuing such a precarious profession as acting.
‘The strong tradition of teaching basic English grammar, poetry and reading skills in independent schools, which rather fell out of favour in the state sector, may also give independently-educated students an advantage.’
Does Britain have the best drama schools in the world?
Most major acting schools report a greater proportion of students coming from public schools than in higher education as a whole. This, plus the proliferation of period dramas from Downton Abbey to War Horse, requiring fine-featured aristocratic types speaking impeccable RP (received pronunciation), suggests no imminent shortage of roles for even the most plummy-voiced public school thesp.
To Mike Perry, Warwick School’s director of drama, the facilities and investment in theatre at many independent schools are as important in producing professional actors as the greater financial support that funds richer youngsters through drama school and during inevitable spells of unemployment.
Drama’s a major shop window for the school,’ he says, ‘and our parents get the value of it. They see the collaborative skills it fosters as helpful, whatever their children go on to do. They want them to be confident and good speakers but not purely focussed on individual achievement – team work, shared ideas and mutual support are equally crucial in the workplace.’
Warwick School boasts the professional standard 350-seat Bridge House Theatre with another 1,000-seat performance space in the pipeline, as well as the budget to mount major productions, it can buy in professional expertise from the nearby RSC at Stratford and recruit well-known directors and actors, including Jane Gurnett, as drama teachers.
Notable alumni include Ben Kingsley’s actor-sons Edmund and Ferdinand; the prolific Joshua McGuire, 27, whose recent film credits include Mr Turner, Cinderella and About Time; Charlie Hamblett, 22, who stars in Danny Boyle’s Babylon; Ralph Davis, 20, a veteran of several child roles at the RSC is now at RADA (Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, London). A current pupil, Hal Hewetson, 14, played Moses’ eldest son in Ridley Scott’s Exodus: Gods and Kings.
Ralph Davis’ actress mother Ginny, believes the school was crucial in launching her son’s acting career.
‘Warwick provided excellent training and great theatrical connections,’ she said. ‘The RSC casting director watched a school production and at 11 Ralph was cast as Arthur in King John then the Duke of York in Richard III at Stratford. Warwick taught him how to behave as a professional actor and gave him good roles.’
Independent schools & drama colleges UK & Shakespeare
‘The reason the RSC cast our boys is not about whether they use RP, but because they can speak aloud without affectation or self-consciousness,’ added Mike Perry.
‘That gives directors lots of options as to how a scene is played. Casting directors understand that here, our young actors are confident and presentable young men unfazed by people’s expectations and prepared to do a professional job.’
Alleyn’s School, Dulwich, founded by Shakespeare’s contemporary, actor and manager Edward Alleyn, partly from the proceeds of illicit bear-baiting, also has strong theatrical traditions and superb facilities.
The National Youth Theatre was founded there and star alumni include Jude Law, Sam West and Nancy Carroll.
Bedales Prep School
Which is an important point. The benefits of good drama provision reach beyond students eyeing up a stage career. Simon Kingsley-Pallant, head of drama at Bedales Prep School, Dunhurst, stages numerous original productions involving most of the school, and says these often bring out hidden depths and create unexpected stars.
‘Our head of music Ben Harlan and I wrote and staged a brand new musical, Tales from Moomin Valley,’ he recalled.
‘We built our own stage inside a marquee with a black and white set designed to look like a snowy Finnish valley, so costumes stood out against it. You use kids’ and audiences’ imaginations, not lots of elaborate scene changes and the results can be jaw-dropping. One boy who has a chaotic, whirlwind life and is often at odds with his surroundings, is completely transformed on stage; acquiring an extraordinary peace and grace.’
Several former pupils are up-and-coming actors: Jamie Campbell-Bower, Jack Finch, Barnaby Sax and, most recently, the model Cara Delevigne. She was a good dancer at school and acted in school productions and landed a big film role in The Face of an Angel.
Notting Hill Prep
Notting Hill Prep is similarly inventive and all-inclusive, and recognises the opportunity to build on teamwork and confidence. ‘We start early, with four-year-olds doing assemblies, always with a musical element,’ explains headmistress Jane Cameron.
‘They take part in unorthodox nativity plays. This time the angel got the message wrong and they went to Buffalo, Barcelona and Brazil before ending up in Bethlehem, with cowboys, four famous footballers, and a donkey with flu, Donkey Hoatay (Don Quixote, geddit?). The children love the jokes and the teamwork.
‘We’ve written our own productions including one based on Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are and recently staged Bugsy Malone with a huge cast including three Bugsies and three Tallulahs, so everyone had the chance to shine. When our children are interviewed by senior schools in Years 6 or 8, the feedback is invariably that they’re confident and articulate because of our culture of encouraging them to communicate, perform and express themselves.’
David Hitchen, head of drama at Cranleigh Prep, Surrey, is similarly inventive, most recently producing an interesting adaptation of The Happy Prince. He agrees that poise and confidence are the main benefits. ‘If the children can stand up straight and look someone in the eye, as well as being able to gather their thoughts and speak to them clearly,’ he says, ‘I feel I have done a good job.’
At Hurtwood House, a co-ed boarding sixth-form college, teachers are praised by the Good Schools Guide as ‘mainly West End or media professionals at the top of their game’.
The school seeks to shock, amaze and challenge its students, not only through work within the course, but through exposure to a range of other theatre experiences and extra-curricular activities.
The in-house productions are impressive to say the least and Hurtwood House have even co-produced Edinburgh fringe productions.
Drama schools speaking up
Many schools, including Cranleigh, Moreton Hall near Oswestry, St Mary’s Calne in Wiltshire and the prep school All Hallows in Somerset, boost their pupils’ speaking and performance skills with LAMDA (London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art) and English speaking board exams and appearances at drama festivals.
All Hallows also includes drama in its Saturday enrichment programme and the Year 6s and 7s get involved in every aspect of major productions including acting, programme and set design, make-up and even advertising.
At Moreton Hall every girl is taught spoken English at different stages of her school career, with impressive results.
‘At our annual lunch for our Moreton Enterprises student-run businesses, we had Lord Digby Jones and 300 business guests at school,’ said marketing director Alexandra Hankinson, ‘and three girls had to present their business plans for the year. They showed phenomenal poise, clarity and confidence thanks to their speech training and this ability to speak confidently to people from all backgrounds runs through the whole school.’
At its best, drama can even be cathartic. The highly academic King Edward’s School in Birmingham stage professional-level classic dramas and musicals with mixed casts at their state-of-the-art Ruddock Performing Arts Center, but a recent ultra-modern play hit a particular chord with the girls weeks before GCSEs.
‘Girls can lack confidence in different ways,’ explains KEHS’ head of drama, Hannah Proops, an Old Edwardian who trained as a set designer and worked as a top puppeteer.
‘This is a narcissistic, selfie-obsessed generation and everyone’s life on social media is totally edited, which can destroy self-esteem, so in drama lessons we explore the gulf between the social media idyll and what real life is like, we look at challenging topics like bullying and neurosis that girls find hard to discuss directly.’
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Other drama schools and universities of note: Guildhall School of Music & Drama, London, The Drama Centre, The London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art (LAMDA), Manchester Metropolitan University School of Theatre