Love & Scandal, Bristol Old Vic Theatre School – a journey

(Jenny (centre) in rehearsal for The Madame Macadam Travelling Theatre. Photo by Craig Fuller)

Love & Scandal – well, that got you reading. Actually, it’s the name of the café where Steven Kavuma and I met to talk about The Diversity School Initiative and about the various developments at Bristol Old Vic Theatre School. From my point of view it felt like an energised and fruitful conversation and at the end he asked me to write this blog.

On a personal level, I was a kid from inner-city Bradford who lived behind the co-op on a cobbled street (not a posh thing back then) and played on the railway lines. My brothers have all stayed in Yorkshire and work in very untheatrical jobs (electricians, mechanics etc). I don’ think I’d met anyone from a private school until I went to university. When I was young I remember the very distinct feeling that there was a party happening somewhere in the country but that nobody had given me a map, let alone an invite. The need to make Bristol Old Vic Theatre School, and the drama industry in general, accessible and inclusive is something I feel deeply in my bones.

The school has become increasing inclusive over the last few years – we now have equal numbers of men and women on the acting courses and we are just starting to develop a connection with Diversecity to explore ways of actors with disabilities might access training. Probably the most obvious way in which the school has developed its inclusivity is in the number BAME students on the acting courses. Looking across the three years’ worth of students 19 of the 70 students (so 27%) are of BAME heritage. The big things that all of our students have in common, so the area in which there is no diversity, is their huge talent, fantastic potential and a great commitment to work.

So, having increased the range of students (in terms of heritage, and socio-economic background) the next challenge has been to keep up with them. They have been champing at the bit to expand the repertoire of work that we do and ensure a cultural relevance to everyone’s training. Classics remain incredibly important – although we do have to take on board what this means; who defines what ‘classic’ is. We also have to ensure that students have relevant accent training in voice and this can be quite specialist when, for instance, only two or three students are of South-East Asian heritage. Being far from London and specialist teachers increases the challenge – but Skype classes provides at least part of the solution.

We set up a Diversity Working Group within the school and a few things have come out of that. This is open to staff, students – and very importantly this includes our many technical students as well as acting ones. Firstly, there is a women’s group (Nasty Women, as they call themselves) who meet to talk about the various pressures on women in the drama industry. The other major initiative was a student-led text project identifying specifically cultural relevant writers and texts for them to work on. They chose to name the project UNLOCKED.

Jyuddah Muzahura was the coordinator for UNLOCKED, ably supported by many other students (including Ray Sesay and Bradley Banton); they identified 16 scenes from plays by writers of various backgrounds and a range of heritages appropriate to students in the school. The school employed directors Ng Choon Ping , Nancy Medina, Lorna Laidlaw and Tanuja Amarasuriya to work with the students.

The presentation of these scenes took place on a Sunday in July to a packed studio theatre and was wonderful. The students’ engagement with the material, and the talent that felt unlocked by the project was inspirational. The next challenge with this text project is to embed the approach more thoroughly into the core of the curriculum. The key is specific cultural relevance and also ownership of the project by the students.

The students recognise that we are on a journey, and that they are the very centre of that. The next challenges that we need to rise to are ensuring inclusivity throughout the organization – including council of management, staff and practitioners we work with. Our firmly held belief is that we are enabling students to be the best version of themselves that they can possibly be – projects like UNLOCKED play a crucial part in this.

Some feedback from students on:

I got to tackle issues within a play that I would never normally feel comfortable approaching because of my background and ethnicity, but together with these actors and collaborators we were able to look at the issues in a safe space and were invited to be brave in interpreting and realising very powerful material.

I felt honoured and proud to have been a part of Unlocked. The enthusiasm of the organisers inspired those involved to really invest in the project. We were encouraged to research and discuss the plays with fellow actors, allowing us to connect to the material and subject matter. These works are both relevant and important to us all. They comment on the political climate and provide a platform for POC voices. I would be delighted if the diversity project could become an annual event and for such plays to be studied in lessons.

It was an inspiring opportunity that I would love others to experience!

#dramaschool #acting #diversity

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