Cast into the limelight

25th February 2005 at 00:00
Audiences aren't there just to have a good time; they have a part to play in developing stagecraft, writes Brian Hayward

The in-house joke at the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama in Glasgow is that it should be called "Opposite the Savoy" because that is how people direct taxi drivers. Not for much longer, one suspects.

The academy is busy involving its staff and students in educational and community projects and attracting audiences to an expanding programme of events. This term it is offering over 100 lectures, plays, concerts and workshops.

"It was ridiculous," says Hugh Hodgart, the head of drama. "Here we were, the busiest arts centre in the country, quality work going on all over the building, and not really caring who knew about it.

"Our aim is to offer the best possible education to the best students we can recruit in a very competitive market. For that we need a high public profile, and one aspect of that is an audience that goes home talking about what they have seen."

However, audiences are not there merely to enjoy themselves, Mr Hodgart explains, but to contribute to the learning experience.

"We can teach the students theory, technique and develop their inner process, but the business of actors is communicating with an audience. They can only learn that standing in front of one.

"Not too much too soon, of course. That would make for superficial playing.

In fact, we wait until the end of their second year before we allow them full stage work. Only in the third year do we extend the length of the run.

Last year our panto, Aladdin, ran for two weeks."

This gentle way of introducing actors to audiences was evident last week.

First year drama students were in the circle studio of the Citizens'

Theatre for a staged reading of The Red Priest directed by its author, Grace Barnes. The cleric in question is Antonio Vivaldi, who had flame red hair. The spare, allusive script explores the theory that he used his position as music teacher at a Venetian orphanage to train his better pupils to write music in his style, which he then sold as his own.

With the benefit of a quartet from the orchestral course to make the play's musical points, a dozen students in stage black walked the performance through with hardly more theatricality than you would expect from a very early rehearsal. They were dipping their toes in the water, as their shy smiles showed when they took their applause.

At the other end of the academy is the opera school. Its international reputation draws students from the world over. Next year's intake, for example, already includes a tenor from China, another from Australia and a big soprano and a big mezzo from Iceland, "big" being a technical term.

To the joy of opera-goers, singers on the two-year post-graduate course perform scenes without scenery in their first year and in the second year are guaranteed two significant roles in mainstream opera, with full staging, in the New Athenaeum theatre, supported by the academy's admirable stage students and orchestra.

Because this is a school, the productions are staged primarily for the benefit of the singers, but what is good for the singers is also good for the audiences. They see the artists in repertoire hand-picked by the head of opera, Timothy Dean, to show off their particular talents. They see them - and this is by no means customary - in productions that showcase the composer rather than the director.

Unsurprisingly, tickets for these performances fly out of the box office, as they did for the recent, delightful production of Verdi's Falstaff. The opera had only two performances in Glasgow and two at the King's Theatre, Edinburgh. Again, there is a double purpose for showing at the two venues.

"Performance in Edinburgh extends the fame of the school and at the same time is an essential part of the continuum of the training," explains Christopher Underwood, the head of vocal studies. "Singers need the invaluable experience of singing in the larger commercial theatres, because that's where they intend to work.

"It is a happy symbiosis, particularly with opera in Scotland as it is. The school wants audiences as much as the opera-goers seem to want the school."

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