Forty-three years since its foundation, ALRA (Academy of Live and Recorded Arts) continues to develop talented performers across many disciplines. Susan Elkin went to find out more.

ALRA has come a long way since Miranda Hart and Jimmy Akinbola became its most famous alumnae. For a start, it’s the only drama school in the Federation of Drama Schools (FDS) which has two separate campuses, one in Wigan and the other in London – both in historic buildings. ALRA North opened in 2010. 

ALRA South is housed in the glorious Royal Victoria Patriotic Building in Wandsworth. Its counterpart in Wigan, on the edge of artistically vibrant Greater Manchester, occupies Trencherfield Mill which had a long history as a performance venue before ALRA took it over. “Yes. Victorian Gothic and Victorian industrial. That’s us” laughs spokesperson Lynn Howes, who also chairs the FDM marketing group.

It’s definitely a single institution, however. Adrian Hall is principal. “He deals with all the big issue stuff such as setting up partnerships and the application for degree awarding powers, which we’re currently going through. Two vice principals are based on the two campuses and it functions like a triangle with lots of department heads on the next tier of management”, explains Lynn, telling me that overall ALRA has around 300 students, which makes it one of the smaller drama schools. 

Courses include BA (Hons) Acting, MA in Professional Acting and a Foundation Acting diploma along with other post-graduate options and various courses taught in partnership with other institutions. Degrees are currently accredited by St Mary’s Twickenham.

So does ALRA have any other specific USPs? “I think our emphasis on film, TV radio and other media alongside live performance makes us a bit different” says Lynn, pointing out that this has been ALRA’s policy from the very beginning – when Sorrel Carson founded it in 1977 and stayed on as founder-principal until 2001. “The name, with its reference to ‘recorded arts’ really does mean what it says”.

Like all other drama schools, ALRA is back in business with students working together this term after extensive preparations for safety and Covid-security. “It isn’t easy to organise by any means, but we’re using smaller studios which are all gridded out” says Lynn. 

“Student bubble groups work together in five week modules, which allows for pair work and we try to keep people in groups which relate to the houses they’re living in. It’s a big, complicated patchwork. But we’re creating shows such as Blank by Alice Birch using two separate casts of 14”. She continues ruefully: “The logistics are tricky and the theatre which normally seats 92 can only have 35 in the audience. It’s all a bit ‘novel’.”  

It helps to have space, though. ALRA is now using the Loom Room at Trencherfield Mill. “We take over a bit more of the Mill each year” says Lynn.

2020 recruitment, of course, was a bit odd for ALRA. When the country was locked down in March it had lots of auditions scheduled. It meant that some recalls had to be done digitally and the whole undertaking became a bit of a “mixed bag”, but in the end ALRA recruited the right students in the right numbers and they are busily accessing their first term of training this term.

Applications are now open for September 2021. “It will be online in the first instance, but we hope to meet them at some point in the process” says Lynn, but she is disappointed that there has been no “Road Show” to demonstrate to young people in other parts of the country what ALRA does and can do. “I also regret that we haven’t been able to run the regional shared auditions we’d started with Italia Conti and Drama Studio London. We’d planned to expand that this year.”

Lynn has booked showcases for the post-graduate groups in January but says it’s difficult to plan ahead with confidence under the present circumstances. “I worry”, she says, “that if the pandemic restrictions are with us for too long we shall have students graduating in three years’ time who won’t have worked on big live shows with an audience. It would mean a crucial part of their training was missing”.

Meanwhile ALRA has plenty to be proud of. Alumna Molly Gallagher won the 2019 Best Newcomer in a Soap award for her work on Coronation Street. Gaby French excels as Enola Holmes in Military Wives and Victor Oshin created a terrific Muslim Othello in English Touring Theatre’s 2018/2019 production. Denise Gough, meanwhile, after a number of theatre, film and TV credits played Harper Pitt in Angels in America on Broadway in 2018.