On the job theatre training  

A new initiative offering on the job theatre training for aspiring young actors is starting in January. Susan Elkin found out more and advises you take a closer look.

Teachers – even seasoned drama and English specialists – often struggle to give the right advice to students determined to work in theatre. Parents (and, usually, headteachers and governors) tend to be hung up on universities and degrees. But for a talented teenager who really wants to perform, or just as importantly, become some sort of theatre technician, a university course is unlikely to deliver the practical training she or he needs.

Proper vocational training – in, for instance, the best 20 or 30 drama schools – involves a minimum of 30 hours a week of tuition and you won’t find that in most universities. Quite rightly universities have a greater emphasis on academic aspects and independent learning. Although there is probably some practical work in the mix it’s a different sort of course.

Some teachers advise students to do a university degree and then go to drama school and of course there are some who do. It is, however a very expensive option because, eventually, there are two lots of higher education to pay for.

Enter an interesting alternative training opportunity which teachers and students might do well to consider. The Rep Company starts next January and will offer intensive performance-based training for 6 months based in the High Wycombe area, using various venues across Bucks and Berks. This is a quasi pilot. The plan is then to continue it as a one year scheme from September 2018.

The Rep Company’s mission is to teach teamwork and show participants, through experience, how professional shows work. Everything will be performance based and the company’s rep season will include a farce, a pantomime, a Shakespeare (probably open air or site specific or both), an Agatha Christie, a musical, a devised piece and a radio play.

The aim is to recruit a mixed company of school leavers and drama school graduates. It might also appeal to actors, who have taken time out perhaps for family reasons, looking to get their skills back up to scratch. There has also been interest from some much older people which will make casting more realistic and, of course, the wider the diversity the more everyone can learn from everyone else.

The Rep Company is an adjunct of the famous Jackie Palmer Stage School (JPSS) whose former students include James Corden and Eddie Redmayne and many other performing arts successes along with hundreds who have gained confidence, had fun and then taken their skills into other professions.

Founded in 1971 by the eponymous Jackie Palmer (who died last year aged 95) and her daughter Marylyn, the school has occupied various premises in and around High Wycombe. Today it has spacious, immaculately converted studios in a former motorcycle showroom. Also on site, and part of the enterprise, is local radio station Wycombe Sound. Marylyn continues as principal and her husband/colleague Chris Phillips runs the radio station with the help of 100 volunteers.

JPSS offers part-time classes in dance, drama and singing for school age children. There are also two full-time courses – a BTech for post 16s and a “gap year” course. The school has a flourishing agency too.

Now Marylyn has teamed up with dynamic children’s casting director Jo Hawes for this new venture. The two women have known each other, and been friends, since they met at Theatre Royal Windsor when Jo, now 57, “was 15 and Marylyn, err, wasn’t”.

“Students leaving school or even graduating from drama school often know a lot about acting but, in my experience, they have little idea how to function effectively as part of a team putting on a show” says Marylyn firmly. She has strong views about making yourself easy to work with and not behaving prima-donnishly if you want to succeed in the performing arts world.

Jo concurs. “If you can’t be part of a team then you’re in the wrong industry”.

“And they need to learn that at the end of the show everyone has to help clear up, for example”, says Marylyn who tells me that she once saw Judi Dench cheerfully sweeping the stage, thereby setting quite an example to everyone else involved in the show.

Because Jo and Marylyn are planning to bring in professional directors and teachers there will be a cost attached to the training – probably in the region of £5,000 per participant although that is not fixed yet. Ticket sales will, they hope, cover venue costs.

The pair have industry contacts coming out of their ears and seem totally confident that they can draw in casting directors and agents to see, and maybe snap up, their “graduates” at the end of the season. Even I have promised to be at Theatre Royal Windsor next year for The Rep Company’s musical, probably Guys and Dolls.

Jo and Marylyn are recruiting this autumn for January starters and would no doubt also be pleased to hear from anyone interested in starting in September 2018. Phone 01494 520 978 or email admin@therepcompany.co.uk