James Haddrell speak on the crisis affecting the arts

The last couple of weeks should have been an aspirational high point for actors across the country.

Last week’s Critics’ Circle Awards was followed shortly after by the Olivier Awards, and the UK Pantomime Association Awards take place next week (for which Greenwich is shortlisted for four awards), but while headlines should have been dominated by success and celebration, the sad story that overshadowed all of them was the shock closure of the Academy of Live and Recorded Arts (ALRA).

James Haddrell, artistic and executive director of Greenwich Theatre

One of this country’s notable drama schools, ALRA’s alumni include Bridget Christie, Miranda Hart and three-time Olivier nominee Hannah Waddingham, but on April 4, the institution issued a statement confirming that the organisation is no longer financially viable.

Despite a restructure last Spring to “stabilise finances”, and a bid to find a new owner last Autumn, all endeavours apparently failed leading to this month’s announcement.

The result is 28 permanent staff made redundant, 16 fixed-term roles terminated early, and 284 students suddenly finding themselves having to change school with no warning.

There are positives that have emerged, as always seems to happen in this industry. When the pandemic hit, audience support was overwhelming in saving venues and companies, and support networks and initiatives for artists and companies sprang up overnight.

When the Vaults festival was cancelled, theatres across the country immediately opened their programmes leading to the first ever unofficial and dispersed festival of its kind.

Now, as ALRA students find themselves cast adrift, Rose Bruford College has offered to take as many of the students as would like to relocate there, regardless of the course they were studying on, while social media is full of offers of support from across the industry.

However, the positives are far from sufficient to correct the damage done by a closure which is indicative of a crisis facing drama training across the country, and following the closure of Drama Centre two years ago could prove to be a harbinger of more.

Writing in The Stage, editor Alistair Smith has identified three root causes for this crisis.

A failure by drama training institutions to address poor practice and in some cases what Smith calls “historic abuses”, the impact of Covid which stopped in-person training and had a dramatic effect on student satisfaction and new admissions, and a painful reduction in Government funding for arts education.

An awareness of historic and systemic inequality in drama training was identified well before ALRA hit its moment of crisis.

In January 2021, ALRA’s then principal Adrian Hall left his position after a number of graduates published an open letter accusing the school of failing to address systemic racism, and an external audit of the school stated that the organisation had “turned a blind eye”.

Six months earlier ALRA, along with the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (RADA), the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama, the Liverpool Institute for Performing Arts and the Oxford School of Drama all made public apologies about failures to adequately combat racism.

Events this month at ALRA prove, if nothing else, that things have to change in UK drama schools, but while the schools must look to identify and address their own issues with full transparency, government policy around arts education must change too.

The battle between arts and sciences for funds, the proposal of minimum academic requirements for access to higher education which will limit access, competition rather than collaboration across the country – all have to be addressed if our world-leading arts scene is to survive.

Earlier this month Josette Bushell-Mingo, principal of the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama, delivering the keynote speech at the Future of Theatre conference, said “The future of drama training is at the beginning – or possibly the end.”

With the right people involved and the right commitment to exceptional training, there is every chance that we could now be at the beginning of a transformed and transformative future for the sector.

As someone who works with graduating actors every year, supporting the start of a host of professional careers, I desperately hope so.

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