Last week it was my great pleasure to be in the audience for an Analogue production of Stowaway in the Bedales Olivier Theatre. I mention this because recent weeks have seen a flurry of press attention to concerns that acting is becoming a profession closed to all but the wealthy. Dame Judi Dench has expressed the view that working class talent is increasingly squeezed out as a consequence of the costs of entry (a point supported by David Morrissey), and associates the death of repertory theatre with a reduction in opportunities to both see and participate in theatre.
Others in the industry appear undecided on the question of access – whilst BBC Controller of Drama Ben Stephenson supports the view that acting is ‘too middle class’, Gavin Henderson of the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama reports no noticeable shift towards the better-off in the School’s intake. Edward Kemp of RADA also disputes that the Academy’s students are all from wealthy families and, instead, directs attention to what he sees as a general downgrading of the arts and humanities in UK society. If borne out, his concerns a) that exposure to good theatre is being squeezed and b) that in terms of school provision independent school facilities are significantly better than their state sector counterparts raise an interesting dilemma. Does this make independent schools the protectors of the interests of a wealthy minority seeking entry to the acting profession to the detriment of a socially diverse theatre or, alternatively, the guardians of arts and humanities under siege?
Inevitably, the answer must be nuanced. At Bedales we believe that theatre has an important social and educational function, that it has a value for everybody, and that its importance would be reduced were it to be colonised by any minority. From an early age, we encourage our students to develop their performance skills – not least because we believe that it develops confidence, and awareness and understanding of others. And we believe that this is true for everybody. Simultaneously, we leave no stone unturned in trying to prepare our students for careers in acting, or indeed any other role within theatre and the creative industries more generally, should that be what they wish for.
There can be no disputing that Bedales’ commitment to theatre is expensive, and that is reflected in our fees. We know that not everybody can afford them, although we do, of course, try to make our provision more accessible through bursaries and similar support. However, we are adamant that our facilities should be accessible to those from outside the school, and we are committed to our role as a locus of regional theatre that helps to fill some of the gap left by the demise of repertory theatre. Bedales theatre facilities are used by the local Petersfield Youth Theatre, and we value highly our association with such an accomplished and vibrant company. We also put on a diverse and regular programme of theatre that is open to the public: whilst we are not in a position to eradicate wealth disparities and associated privileges within society, we are in a position to encourage critical reflection on this and other issues – a responsibility we take seriously both as educators of our students and in planning our theatre programmes for wider audiences.
To return to last week’s production of Stowaway, it is possible that one or more of our students present may absorb the experience into their entry into an acting career, and should that turn out to be the case I will be very proud. What is beyond dispute, however, is that in addressing questions of labour exploitation and migration, the production challenged its audience – students, staff and members of the wider community alike – to consider together human experience as connected to the great social and economic forces of our times. I am no less proud of that.
Bedales School is one of the UK’s top independent private co-education boarding schools. Bedales comprises three schools situated in Steep, near Petersfield, Hampshire: Dunannie (ages 3–8), Dunhurst (ages 8–13) and Bedales itself (ages 13–18). Established in 1893 Bedales School puts emphasis on the Arts, Sciences, voluntary service, pastoral care, and listening to students’ views. Bedales is acclaimed for its drama, theatre, art and music. The Headmaster is Keith Budge.