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Time to co-ordinate direct action

Jonathan Croall looks at the lack of progress in setting up structured training for would-be theatrical directors. It's a scene full of tension. On a rooftop in Berlin, an East German official is goading a Russian artist about his wife's infidelity, pushing him inexorably towards suicide.

As the actors rehearse in the white-walled studio, the young director helps them to adjust the physical and emotional space between them. "That stillness is fine," he tells one. "By being static, you give him the freedom to move and to think."

Rhys Thomas is one of a rare species, the Theatre Director in Training. Now in his second year on the MA theatre arts course at Goldsmiths College in London, and taking the directing option, he's been working for months with professional actors on David Bridel's new play One Hundred Years of Enchantment.

Such an opportunity comes to few theatre directors, young or otherwise, since courses in the UK are rare as hen's teeth. Anyone seeking to discover the opportunities available needs inside knowledge, or plenty of time and determination.

There is no proper structure for training, no grand plan, no clear map of what each course is doing, or how it fits into the wider pattern, according to Andrew McKinnon, a director commissioned to research the topic by the Gulbenkian Foundation.

It is a problem that was highlighted six years ago in Kenneth Rea's report A Better Direction, the outcome of an inquiry into the training of directors for theatres, film and television. It found the opportunities for theatre directors to be thoroughly inadequate, uncovering merely bits and pieces of training that cannot pretend to go into any serious depth.

The report recommended the setting up of three-year professional courses to cover all aspects of theatre, and modular courses for post-experience training. It also suggested a pooling of resources by drama schools, drama departments and theatres, to cover the key elements of craft, culture and experience; and the setting-up of a central coordinating council.

Why then has so little progress been made? Edward Braun, head of drama at Bristol University and chairman of the inquiry, believes most people have accepted the main thrust of the report, and recognise the need for change.

But, he says, for such courses to be set up "you need co-ordination, which involves bringing together several disparate bodies, which in turn requires a coordinating body. It's also impossible for the work to be crammed into a year's course."

The co-ordinating body may be hard to establish while the long-standing hostility between the Directors' Guild and the National Council for Drama Training continues. The problem has been exacerbated by the upheavals in higher education and the drama schools, and by the tight financial situation.

Andrew McKinnon, whose grant money was originally intended to finance the setting up of a central council, pinpoints other factors. Some of the recommendations in the report were complicated, and involved large investments of time and money. There are also a lot of different intentions, pulling in different ways.

The essential question remains: How can good directors best be produced? Nesta Jones, who runs the Goldsmiths course, believes it is dependent on giving would-be directors experience of working with actors in a variety of contexts.

A lot of directors do not understand the acting process, she suggests. They are good at the intellectual side, but they do not know how to create a climate that enables the actor to give a performance.

Trainee directors at Goldsmiths get a very thorough grounding. They spend the first of their years studying voice, movement, character and improvisation alongside the other students. They also work on lighting and sound, look at budgeting, management and marketing, and direct a small-scale production with professional actors.

In their second year they get a placement in a London theatre, and one abroad - students have been to Dublin, St Petersburg, Berlin, Vienna and New York. They also work extensively with actors, and direct them in a full-scale production, sometimes in a London venue. It is a fantastic opportunity to work in depth and be really creative, Rhys Thomas says. Nesta Jones underlines his point. Outside of this kind of course there is no context for directors to fly kites, or to make mistakes, she says.

Andrew McKinnon feels it is important for directors to know about the cultural context of theatre. They often have little understanding of history or literature, he says. Yet you need to be able to see a text as produced for a particular reason at a particular time.

He hopes to be able to set up a database of courses. He is also pressing for some version of the co-operation recommended in the Rea report to be piloted next year in a couple of regions. His observations will be with Gulbenkian next month, with a final report due in October.

One Hundred Years of Enchantment is at the Oval House Theatre until July 7. Details on 0171-582 7680.

A Better Direction, by Kenneth Rea, is published by the Gulbenkian Foundation, price Pounds 8.50.

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