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You can’t teach what you don’t do

In his 1903 play Man and Superman  Bernard Shaw famously observes that “He, who can, does. He, who cannot, teaches”.

And it still hits the nail on the head. If you’re trying to become an actor, singer, dancer, triple threat performer or theatre technician then you don’t want to be taught by people who have little or no direct personal experience of the industry they’re preparing you for. Apart from anything else the industry is very volatile and if your teacher isn’t bang up to date he or she could easily give you bad advice or even misinformation.

All over the country there are drama schools with full time staff who have no time or, probably, inclination to practise the art they teach – or maybe they’re not good enough anyway. That’s why it is refreshing to find one which has no truck with this approach.

TheMTA was founded by Annemarie Lewis Thomas in 2009. Now based in the Bernie Grant Centre in Tottenham it is small – a maximum of 40 students across its two year intensive, accelerated course. Everyone who teaches there, including Thomas herself must also be a current industry practitioner. That’s the deal.

It means teachers can inform everything they teach the students with their own parallel work. It puts a rather specific spin on the term “industry readiness” and may, in part, account for the fact that – to date –  every single MTA graduate has secured representation before graduation. They get plenty of jobs too –  86% of MTA graduates are in paid, professional work.

You can see it in the quality of the shows they do too.  Last week I saw Dangerous Daughters – a developed version of a show Thomas co-wrote with Nick Stimson in 2010 for her inaugural group of students. Everything about it is cutting edge because people like director Racky Plews, and others who work with the students, know exactly what the industry wants – now, in 2017 –  and how to develop new talent to work in it.

Other larger drama schools are gradually realising that this is a selling point and telling students that many of its staff have worked in the industry recently. And the best schools use – as theMTA does – huge numbers of part-timers so that teachers can fit their own professional work in with teaching commitments. Edward Kemp, director of RADA – once told me with pride that one of his hardest jobs is convening a staff meeting because of the logistics of getting such a large and disparate group together.

Good schools also import guest staff – sometimes very eminent ones – to do one-off masterclasses on some aspect of the industry. And this, obviously, is yet another way of bringing the students closer to the industry as it really is.

It all needs to go further though, in my view. I’m unconvinced that anyone who – in Shaw’s terms – “cannot” should be telling others how to do it. Yes, I know that teaching is a different skill from, say, performing but the best people can do both. And they’re the ones who should be developing the talent of the next generation.

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Susan Elkin
Susan Elkin Susan Elkin is an education journalist, author and former secondary teacher of English. She was Education and Training Editor at The Stage from 2005 - 2016
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