Proudly Different  

Musical Theatre Academy, long since rebranded as TheMTA, is a tiny vocational drama college whose working methods, influence and achievements are out of all proportion to its size. Susan Elkin went to find out how.

Every student graduates with agent representation. Around 75% of TheMTA’s graduates – known as “ambassadors” and there are 144 of them to date – are still employed in the performing arts industries. Their names crop up all over the place: in the West End, in panto, at the RSC, in regional theatres, fringe shows, cruise ships and lots more.

TheMTA was founded in 2009 by composer/musical director/singing teacher Annemarie Thomas Lewis because she was disillusioned with much of the training she saw going on all around her. In her view many training organisations routinely sell students short, even in famous institutions with household name alumni. For a start a student at a standard drama school spends around five months a year not in college because of long holidays, half terms and reading weeks. Second, some of their teachers will be very out of date because they haven’t themselves worked professionally in the ever-changing industry for decades – if ever.

So Annemarie decided to start her own college, based first in the Drill Hall (now RADA Studios) in Chenies Street, then in Holloway Road and now at the Bernie Grant Performing Arts Centre in Tottenham. As the college has evolved, its accommodation needs have changed although there has always been a total commitment to remaining small and no “development plan”.

“That’s one of our main USPs” says Annemarie. “We recruit a maximum of 20 students each year and it’s a two-year course so the college never has more than 40 current students in total. It means we can tailor the training to meet individual needs”.

TheMTA does not run standard terms or take conventional holidays. Instead it runs four, eleven-week terms with short breaks between. There are a few days off at Christmas and Easter. Otherwise it works through bank holidays. The idea is to deliver the best possible three-year training in two intensive years to save students time and money.

“And every teacher or tutor – we have about 50 in total – who works with our students is currently active in the industry”, says Annemarie, several of whose own shows are published and performed all over the country. “I audit the staff every year to make sure that they still comply. It sometimes makes timetabling tricky when I have to get cover for someone who’s working elsewhere, but it’s manageable and a great benefit for the students”.

Another major feature of TheMTA is its focus on mental health. Every student has easy, confidential access to a counsellor, Angie Peake, and as there are only 40 of them this can be very immediate. Help is on hand 24/7. Annemarie and Angie have written a charter, Time4Change, setting out minimum organisational mental health standards. Many other colleges and performing arts employers have signed up to it.

MTA’s syllabus has a clear 50/50 split between screen and stage work – unusual for a musical theatre college. “We teach acting too” says Annemarie firmly “Not something called ‘acting through song’. It means that many of our ambassadors work in non-musical shows as well as musical ones”.

Then there’s the transparency about which Annemarie is fiercely passionate. “Any student can see our accounts, know what I’m paid – not much! – and exactly where their fee money goes” she declares, joking that some drama school principals might drive SUVs with fancy number plates. “I tootle round London on a scooter” she says, grinning. It’s also worth mentioning that 50% of the royalties she gets on her published shows go to the college.

She is also proud of TheMTA’s independence. “We are not affiliated to or accredited by any of the drama school bodies – the Conference of Drama Schools, the now defunct Drama UK or the newer Federation of Drama Schools, for example. That means we are completely free to deliver excellence in our own way and produce people who are industry-ready at the end of the course.” She is also, obviously, not involved with any sort of university. The qualification is simply a diploma issued by TheMTA. “What matters is whether you can do what they want – the pirouette, the top C or the mime – not how many certificates you have” she says.

TheMTA styles itself “a college for life” which means that ambassadors can and do pop in frequently and can take part in classes and activities free of charge. There’s a very appealing family atmosphere at TheMTA and Annemarie speaks warmly about the networks her students build. “Yes, they create the networks they need to thrive in the industry, but they also develop astonishingly strong, permanent bonding within their year groups which is a great joy to me.”

There is room for vocational performing arts training of all sorts, obviously. The industry is famously competitive but it’s also hungry for well trained talent. Teachers advising school students about where to look for training would do well to remember that there are some very valid alternatives to the only drama school everyone’s Granny has heard of and a few others like it.