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Drama School Training: Only for Rich Kids?

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Recently I was invited to the theatre by a friend. There's nothing unusual in that. I tend to spend most evenings at the theatre, watching friends, reviewing, for sheer pleasure, or if I'm very lucky, performing.

What was unusual was the sheer ineptitude of the performance. A meandering, witless direction stripped the work of any drama, interest or artistry. The actors spoke their lines in a monotone with little comprehension of their meaning, scene changes were laborious and largely pointless, the most basic understanding of stagecraft was missing and the work whimpered to a close some three hours later. How disheartening and dispiriting for the actors, who were trying their hardest, to be playing to a soporific, half-empty house.

What it lacked in energy and competence, however, it more than made up for in production values. The set, costumes, publicity, even the rather prestigious venue couldn't have come cheap. Someone, somewhere was pouring money into this. The lack of a producer's credit in the programme made the entire evening felt like a self-funded exercise in vanity.

So, it's with some concern that I read the news this week that our most prestigious drama schools will be among the third of UK universities who will, from 2012, be charging the maximum yearly tuition fee allowed by the government. World renowned schools such as LAMDA, Central, LIPA, Bristol Old Vic, RADA and Guildhall, along with other affiliate schools of the Conservatoire for Dance & Drama will all be raising their fees.

For entry in 2011, Undergraduate fees at Conservatoire affiliate schools are £3,375, with some students eligible for the maximum bursary of £1000. In 2012, entry will be £9,000. It remains to be seen what the maximum bursary might be, but it is already clear that this increase will almost certainly make many talented applicants think twice before applying.

Leading theatre actor and director, Samuel West, has suggested that drama schools will now train only "talented rich students and untalented rich students." West, who himself never trained at a drama school, has been a vocal advocate for assisting students with the cost of fees. In an interview with www.whatsonstage.com in 2001 he posited that mandatory tuition and maintenance grants should be given to students studying at accredited drama schools.

Nobody wants to see talented applicants financially excluded from drama school training, and The Office of Fair Access announced on Tuesday 12th July that those institutions charging above £6,000 per year would also boost their spending on access. Sir Graeme Davies, Director of Fair Access, said "it is absolutely essential that the sector works together and pulls out all the stops to communicate the financial support available so that no one is put off applying to university for financial reasons." Among other measures announced were outreach measure, financial assistance, bursaries and scholarships.

Although fortunate enough to have had my fees paid by my parents, I nonetheless couldn't fail to be aware of the enormous pressure some of my peers were under, holding down two, sometimes three jobs, while struggling to keep up with their studies. Access to drama training cannot become the preserve of the privileged few. An equilibrium must be maintained where talent, not worth, is the primary means test. What is at stake, the future of the arts in the UK, is far too precious. With access restricted to those with means, we run the danger of, like my trip to the theatre, creating art, not for art's sake, but for ego's sake.