The theatre, we are told, is increasingly becoming the domain of the privately educated. The Guardian has even claimed that the working-class actor is ‘a disappearing breed’, and it’s certainly true that public school-educated actors such as Eddie Redmayne, Benedict Cumberbatch, Tom Hiddleston, Damian Lewis (the list goes on) are rarely off our screens. But what’s the reason for it? Why are our independent schools so good at churning out Bafta- (or indeed Oscar)-winning actors and actresses?
A large part of it comes down to the teaching and the facilities available. Most public schools offer a school theatre, as well as full-time drama teachers, theatre managers and so on. In the state system, you may well have to make do with the school hall and an English teacher who’s keen on am dram. Sadly, in the state system, music and drama also tend to be the first subjects to face cuts. Trips to concerts and to the theatre are common in private schools, particularly boarding ones. But that’s not the case for everyone.
Increasingly though, schools which boast top-class facilities are opening them up to the world, and encouraging the local community to benefit from them as well. St Edward’s School in Oxford funds a proper theatre and art gallery — the North Wall Arts Centre. The centre is home to the school’s drama, dance and gallery facilities; but it also has a programme of more than a hundred public events per year, including theatre, dance, comedy, music and talks. Opened in 2006, it was established with the aim of encouraging emerging artists and new talents, and it has a 200-seat theatre, studios for dance and drama, plus a public art gallery. Its links to the school aren’t made obvious, and the centre brings in about 20,000 public visitors annually. Theatre critic Lyn Gardner describes the centre as ‘a crucial part of theatre’s wider ecology, providing a platform for cutting edge theatre that inspires both audiences and emerging artists. Without it, Oxford wouldn’t just be the poorer; so would the whole of British theatre.’ In fact, St Edward’s and the North Wall recently commissioned a new play by the playwright Sam Potter, called Someone Somewhere, for the Edinburgh Fringe.
In the school holidays the North Wall also hosts ArtsLab; free residential courses for young people aged 18 to 25. Essentially a type of work experience, these courses are also funded by the school, and cover subjects ranging from creative writing to ballet. Professional writers, actors, directors, dancers and technicians have all helped on the ArtsLab, and the courses are open to anyone, regardless of background.
As Mike Stanfield, a governor of St Edward’s and chair of the North Wall Trust, explains: ‘Independent schools are lucky enough to have outstanding arts facilities. It is hugely important that these facilities are shared with the wider community. Arts venues come alive when they are busy, vibrant, diverse spaces representing all types of art forms, and performers from all walks of life.’
St Edward’s is just one of many schools across the country which support the performing arts in the wider community. Radley College’s purpose-built art gallery, the Sewell Centre Gallery, was opened in 2013 by artist Jenny Saville. Each year it hosts six contemporary exhibitions — including ones by artists such as Tracey Emin and Bridget Riley — which are open to both Radley pupils and members of the public. Like the North Wall, the Sewell Centre supports up-and-coming local artists.
At Gresham’s School in Norfolk, its theatre is also an important hub for the local arts community. The professionally run Auden Theatre has a full programme of talks, plays and concerts — again, all open to the public. Perhaps it’s no surprise that Gresham’s is so encouraging; alumni include composer Benjamin Britten, Golden Globe-winning actress Olivia Colman and director Stephen Frears. The Auden is also a venue for touring performing arts venues, and it plays an important role in increasing access to the arts in a fairly rural community.
Many other schools operate similar set-ups, and it’s not just in rural areas that more performing arts spaces are needed. At Alleyn’s in Dulwich the MCT theatre seats 350 people and is regularly used by local schools, theatre groups and dance clubs. They also host regular book talks and concerts which anyone can attend; upcoming highlights include author Sebastian Faulks and the BBC’s Jenni Murray. At Charterhouse, the Ben Travers Theatre is used by other local schools for their productions, as well as by the Godalming theatre group.
The more cynical among you might argue that these schools stand to benefit from offering up their facilities to local communities. Of course pupils benefit if famous actors, writers or musicians perform at their school; and it’s beneficial for the schools themselves to have a good relationship with the local community — be that in rural Norfolk or London. But whatever the reasons for the goodwill shown by independent schools in sharing their facilities, if it allows less privileged children the opportunity to experience more of the arts, it can surely be no bad thing.