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Reviewing student shows – or not

The Stage used to review drama school showcases regularly and a large number of them fell to me. They’re not the easiest sort of show to review appropriately because sometimes the performers are sold short by poor choice of material or misguided direction. Nonetheless I strove always to be scrupulously fair, praising the ones who were doing really well and tactfully not mentioning any who weren’t. Thus every word was positive.

Then The Stage changed its reviewing policy and decided to drop student showcases completely.

After a while I began to miss them. It’s quite fun and very satisfying to see a young actor excelling at showcase stage and then, a few months later to spot him or her in some plum role somewhere. And they’re anyway rather pleasant quasi-celebratory events.

So I emailed the colleges and offered to review as many showcases as I could get to here on my own website using a format very similar to the one formerly employed by The Stage. I honestly thought the schools would bite my hand off.  Well, a few of them did and I reviewed a handful of showcases last year.

Most, however, declined the offer on the grounds that they don’t want the students exposed to external critical appraisal at this delicate point in their careers, just as they are graduating into the profession. Well that seems a pity to me because many a graduand has been helped on his or her way by an upbeat quotable comment from me or a colleague in The Stage or elsewhere.

Even odder, in my view, is the attitude of many drama schools to student shows. They routinely invite people like me (bums on seats?) to see the work but then when I agree to come in order to review they say that they don’t want their students critiqued at this point.

OK, a handful of schools have always taken this line but in recent months three more,  some of whose shows I’ve happily reviewed in the recent past, have told me that they too no longer want journalists commenting on their students’ work. The message is that I’m welcome to come but on condition I don’t write about it. Well no – like all journalists I’m interested in things which generate copy. If they don’t, then frankly I’d rather do something else such as read a book, practise my violin or have a nap.

What on earth is going on? Is this some new joint policy dreamed up by that strange new organisation The Federation of Drama Schools?

Students in drama schools are being trained to work in an industry in which, by definition, their very public work will be exposed to detailed scrutiny. Some of it will be harsh, upsetting and off-putting. There are journalists out there who delight in trying to seem clever by rubbishing others (although I’m not one of them) but even if criticism is simply truthful performers have to learn to take it on the chin. That’s the nature of the world these students are entering.

Surely it’s part of good, thorough training to prepare students for the critical world by letting them experience it before they graduate – even if you invite in only those critics you can trust to be fair? To do otherwise is to over-protect. I think the colleges – or too many of them at least –  have got this wrong.

Bristol Old Vic Theatre School’s 2016 production of King Lear.

Author information
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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