Nicholas Hytner Attacks Drama Schools Producing Theorists

February 16, 2009

Courses no longer leave students with a sound grasp of the craft of acting, according to influential director Nicholas Hytner.


One of Britain's leading directors has bemoaned the deficiencies of the next generation of actors, who he says are being taught theatre theory above drama skills.


Nicholas Hytner, the director of the National Theatre, said the failure to concentrate on the craft of acting would leave actors unequipped to rise to the challenges of the stage.


He said that universities and drama schools were under pressure to reduce the practical content of courses and increase the academic content in order to qualify for government higher education funding.


Hytner, who is conducting a review of the relationship between universities and performing arts for the Government, said: “The most important elements of an actor's training is vocational craft training: voice, movement and acting technique.


“This process is slow and repetitious and has therefore occupied the greater part of the traditional syllabus in drama schools.”


He said that as the balance changed it was important that practical training in the actor's craft should not be undermined by the academic requirements of a degree course. “I am not convinced that time spent on education in theatre theory is time well spent in a drama school.”


The result of this approach was that “young actors are not as well equipped as they were 20 years ago to rise to the challenges of the stage, particularly of the classical stage”.


Hytner's review is one of a series of reports on the future of higher education, the conclusions of which will feed into a key review of university funding and tuition fees, due to start before the end of the year.


Hytner said that he was making his contribution to the debate “not as an educationalist but as a consumer of those who graduate from drama schools”.


He was not against the academic and “theatre theory” side of drama courses, adding that actors with a good

academic grounding were “very often better equipped to deal with complex texts”.


He said that many young actors with talent thrived without university education, adding that “for many it would be a distraction”.


One possible solution might be to create a “two plus two” system of a two-year academic foundation degree in drama followed by a two-year vocational training course.


Ross Brown, Dean of Studies at the Central School of Speech and Drama, University of London, said that while university drama departments may be overly theoretical, drama schools such as his own offered purely vocational training.


“We don't have any exams and there is little written work. Students are assessed on their performances and our courses are all practical and vocational, leading straight into employment,” he said.


Working within the university benchmarking and frameworking system that enabled his school to offer degrees, enabled it to provide added value to students, Mr Brown said.


“It helps them to think beyond the acting skills and allows them to reflect on what they do,” he said.


Kaia Ross, 24, a second-year drama undergraduate at Bristol University, where half the content of her course is practical and half academic, said: “I chose this course because it had a balance of the two elements.


“I think that the theory helps, but it's not necessary if you want to be an actor. However, if you don't have any of the academic background or any understanding of things like history or politics then you are just acting on empty.”


'This gives you a grounding'




Gloria Sanders thinks that Nicholas Hytner is wrong to criticise theatre theory, comparing it to the history of art (Paul Bentley writes).


Ms Sanders, 23, who studied at the Drama Studio in Ealing, West London, said that learning about great artists could only improve an artist's work.


“I completely disagree with Hytner's comments. It is ridiculous to think you can act without learning about drama,” she said. “If you paint, I presume you would want to know about the history of art. An understanding of theory can only improve your work.


“On my course all theory was used at the same time as the practical. There weren't any theory essays or anything. We had to read about the play and then put it into practice.


“You obviously learn on the job when you act for a profession but full-time actors rarely have the time to read around their material - or they don't have they inclination to do so.


“But if you have the time and chance to read around on an academic course I think it is very important. It gives you a massive grounding.”


'Method working worth the wait'




Jeremy Paige said that on his course a student sat in a doctor's waiting room for nine hours to prepare for a role that involved a lot of waiting around. Mr Paige said although such method working may not be for everyone, it was a crucial element of learning about drama.


The 25-year-old, who studied at the University of East Anglia for a BA in English literature and drama, said that he still understood, however, why some courses concentrated on theory.


“Practical drama is vastly important. One friend was playing Vail in Once in a Lifetime. The role required a lot of waiting around so one day he sat in a doctor's waiting room for nine hours. The method thing worked for him. But whilst a lot of people say that theory is a total waste of time, I think they are wrong.


“Textual analysis is extremely important to understanding a play. In my final year we studied and performed Love's Labour's Lost. We had to perform it but alongside that we had to study the text in depth. At first read-through it was very stilted but it improved massively once we did the textual analysis. I played Berowne. You can't play Berowne without understanding what he is saying.”




As a student of the University of Bristol drama department I would like add that perhaps this criticism can be applied to Drama Schools but University Drama courses are designed to produce not only actors but the writers, stage managers, dramaturgs or even Lawyers or journalists of the future. - Ellen, Bristol,


Having been involved in both the theatre and higher education, it's clear that Nicolas Hytner is looking at acting for the stage from a particularly narrow, skills-based perspective. He forgets (conveniently?) that the role of higher education is to educate people for life not just a job. - Paul K, Manchester,


Nicholas Hytner should be applauded for saying what we theatre goers have noticed for many years, that many young actors(not all, some are still outstandingly fine actors) simply cannot cut it on the stage, no craft, no projection, just a televisual blandness of acting that carries no substance. - Barry, London, UK

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