THEATRE The home of twinkling stars
The Royal Central School of Speech and Drama has a galaxy of names among its alumni, from Judi Dench and Kevin Whately to Cameron Mackintosh and Vanessa Redgrave, but now it has begun the biggest development in its history. Simon Tait reports
“One of the things that’s different about Central” said Tony Robinson as he prepared to turn the first sod on a vital new development at the end of January, “is that it’s always had a twinkle in its eye”.
The Blackadder star and graduate of the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama was marking the start of the long awaited North Block of the college that will give it the space that allows it to stay in its home of 60 years in Swiss Cottage. “Central has had such an enormous effect on my skills as an actor, but also on me as a human being” he said.
The £16.7m development, says Professor Gavin Henderson, Central’s principal for the last ten years, will not only burnish that twinkle in terms of its public face, but greatly upgrade the facilities that keep it at the front of theatre education in all its facets.
It will also allow it to stay at Swiss Cottage. “Without it we would probably have had to find a new location, probably a split location, but it would not have been effective. It would no longer be Central” he says.
Before coming to Central ten years ago Henderson had been more associated with music than drama, but in truth his artistic roots are widespread. Brighton born, he was a keen trumpet player as a youth; he won a scholarship to the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, but instead went to art school to study sculpture. He had his own brass ensemble while at Slade School of Fine Art, and then pursued a career that veered from playing in Worthing Municipal Orchestra, being publicity manager for Victoria Theatre, Stoke, and running the York Festival and Mystery Plays.
He then managed the Philharmonia Orchestra, leaving to become director of the South Hill Park Arts Centre in Bracknell where he founded the Wilde Theatre. He was director of the Brighton Festival for 11 years, and for 26 years ran Dartington Summer School of Music (whose name he changed to Dartington International Summer School).
In 1984 he became principal of Trinity College of Music, moving it from Marylebone to Greenwich and then merging the college with Laban Dance. His ambition to merge with Ravensbourne College of Art and possibly a drama school was thwarted, however, and he left Trinity Laban in 2005, joining Central two years later. He was awarded the CBE in 2004.
His enthusiasms still spread across the arts, however. He is president of the National Piers Society and is leading the campaign to save Matcham’s great Brighton Hippodrome and return it to use as a lyric theatre. “There have always been ways in which I could use my other experiences” he says.
Central was founded in 1906 by the voice teacher Elsie Fogarty who “taught the stage to speak” it was said. Its first home was in the Royal Albert Hall, in the rooms that radiate off the auditorium, and the studio theatre where the likes of Peggy Ashcroft, Laurence Olivier and John Gielgud first demonstrated their art is now the Elgar Room, the hall’s contemporary performance space. When the hall wanted its rooms back in 1957 the school took over the old Embassy Theatre in North London which had been associated with the avant garde - in 1933 Paul Robeson had controversially taken the lead here in Eugene O’Neil’s expressionist play All God’s Chillun Got Wings.
The theatre had to be adapted for conservatoire use, and for the last 20 years has been in the throes of expansion and rethinking as its reputation and activities grew. A library was added, offices, a studio block, workshop facilities, a refurbishment of the old theatre, but the place grew haphazardly, a hotch-potch of rooms and extra spaces that make conducted tours utterly bewildering for visitors.
There were to be six phases in the master plan, and Henderson was brought in to push through the crucial fifth. There were delays, the first being that the preferred site contained a gas main, putting paid to the essential deep basement. There were other hold-ups, often to do with the ownership of the land by Camden Council that had its own development ambitions, and the difficulties of fundraising after the 2008 credit crunch.
However, Henderson and chairman Paul Taiano were able to use the public spending and credit squeeze to persuade the authority into a 999-year lease. They had also been conserving the school’s own resources as well as creating its first fundraising unit, so that it is now just £500,000 short of the ultimate target, allowing Robinson to start the process that will end in September 2018 when the new North Block, designed by Tim Ronalds, opens. There will be six storeys, two of them underground accommodating film, TV and sound studios that will give Central a turbo-charge into the screen world (Taiano’s recently appointed successor as chairman is John Willis, the head of Menthorn Films and former chair of BAFTA).
There will be a new courtyard theatre and gallery, open to the public, two more studios, one with public access, workshop space, on the top level a top-lit dance and movement studio and more break-out rooms and office spaces, all pointed towards enhancing the school’s research activity.
It means the much-loved temporary Studios One and Two have had to go, but a lease has been acquired in another theatre centre near Shakspeare’s Globe on Bankside.
Central has 1,000 students in any year, a third of whom are actors, the others on technical, producing and design courses. It has been a pioneer throughout its long career, adding research to its teaching and in 2005 becoming a federated college of the University of London (along with institutions such as the Royal Academy of Music and the Courtauld Institute).
The award of the royal warrant in 2012 helps in recruiting students from overseas – about 80 a year come from the USA alone.
The school has been able to develop its practice-based research to develop new work. “It’s quite significant that playwrights have been coming out of Central – we do a certain amount of training for writing for stage and screen now – and some extraordinary playwrights have emerged” Henderson says. They include Duncan Macmillan who wrote the National Theatre’s big success of 2016, People, Places and Things; the Olivier Award-winning Jessica Swale; and Nick Payne, author of the Royal Court’s hit Constellations.
Funding has been byzantine, but the complex system that put specialist colleges on a range of different grant levels has been rationalized by the Higher Education Funding Council for England. Central’s research was reassessed and registered as world class, and then last year an international panel chaired by the former Royal College of Art rector, Sir Christopher Frayling, assessed the teaching standards of all colleges and rated Central to be, again, of world class. “That was crucial” says Henderson.
“It meant that when we were fundraising we could show that we had approval from the very top of thesystem”.
When the North Block opens it will mean that Henderson has completed the task he was given, but he won’t have finished. There is to be a final sixth phase which will see a new front of house for Central, student accommodation, a film viewing theatre and possibly a space for puppetry, but most importantly a large communal space where students, staff and the public will mingle – built around the troublesome gas main. “It’s what we need to fulfill our role, which is to be bring great theatre to as many people as possible” says Henderson.