Last night Craig and crashed a fiftieth Birthday Party! Except of course even that would be a bit rebellious for us. We had invitation and the party was for a Theatre Studies department at a university. Except of course at the University of Birmingham it is Drama and Theatre Arts (discuss).
Neither of us are Birmingham alumni so were were outsiders and flattered to be invited. We learned that this department as most of a similar age was spawned from the English Department pioneered by an English Lecturer who believed that to study plays it really does help to stage them. The evening contained a number of (but not nearly enough) photographs of ‘the olden days’ in the department – flares, mustaches, tank tops, long hair, acoustic guitars and earnest productions of plays that would change the world; I could have watched a slideshow of these all night.
Also featured in the evening were ten minutes slices of productions from the department’s current students – a low effort way of catching up with the work of Sarah Kane and Martin Crimp as it turns out. Proceedings were rounded off by Birmingham alumni Kiln delivering an assured performance of their neat production A Journey Around My Skull.
Before all this Dorothy Wilson gave an excellent speech in which she highlighted the value a thriving university theatre department brings to a city. Dorothy is right in this (as many things) but the department needs not just to be thriving but to be inspiring its students to continue that enthusiasm to stage plays rather than just to read them. In the early days of Stan’s Cafe we didn’t particularly feel the presence of that department. We knew The Custard Factory Theatre Company were graduates, but didn’t spot anyone else. We felt a bit lonely. Our sense was that the department had a literary and historical focus, that it had no interest in contemporary practice and empowering its students to make their own work. We were probably wrong but we couldn’t find much evidence to the contrary.
A while later we – and particularly Craig – became aware of David Edgar‘s MA course in Playwrighting (sorry my mistake that should have been David Edgar‘s MA course in Playwrighting), but still we didn’t feel a surge of energy from the department flowing into the city’s theatre scene.
In subsequent years it seems more lecturers have arrived in the department with experience of devising professional theatre and a focus on contemporary practice. This has led to the department now launching a stream of theatre companies to the city. Kiln got last nights gig but the job could as easily have gone to The Other Way Works, Jane Packman Company or Tin Box or others.
Looking beyond the University of Birmingham it is exciting to note that Birmingham School of Acting is now a ‘Top Ten Drama School’ and is generating graduates that can see well beyond the West End. Newman University has a good practical Drama Department. Just up the road the University of Wolverhampton has recently moved into a great new Performance Hub deviously hidden in Walsall. Just down the road the University of Worcester has been developing what seems like a strong Drama and Performance course. To the East Coventry University has been strongly focused on applied practice for years. To the West? Wales.
These are exciting times.