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Why shouldn’t student shows be reviewed?

If you stand on a stage and act, sing or dance people are going to comment on your performance. And it won’t always be kind – or informed, or tactful or sympathetic or understanding.

That, I’m afraid, is a fact of life whether you’re a young child in a school play or a seasoned actor at the National Theatre. So it’s pretty obvious to me that anyone who wants to make a career out of performance simply needs to get used to criticism – formal or informal –  as soon as possible. At drama school, for example.

Yes, of course I know that people who commit themselves to a life of publicly pretending to be someone (or something) else often have a lot of vulnerability. The industry has a significantly higher incidence of mental health issues than most other fields of work and drama schools have a major duty to care for their students.

Nonetheless they also have to prepare them for the world they want to work in and that includes facing public scrutiny.

I used to review a lot of student shows. Until relatively recently, moreover, The Stage covered student showcases too and I used to review a lot of those with the schools telling me that the “expert pick” slot in which a couple of students were named as being especially promising, was particularly helpful. Well the Stage has a different policy now but I was happy to go on reviewing drama school shows for other outlets.

Increasingly, though, more and more schools are telling me that although they’re happy to welcome me as guest they don’t want anything written about the shows. It isn’t fair, I was told this week, for some students to get reviewed while others aren’t – well, excuse me, but that’s exactly what will happen all the time the moment they graduate. Other schools have said that because these students are not yet fully trained actors they need to be protected – by implication from predatory critics like me. Well, sorry, but are they training actors or snowflakes?

For the record I have never slated a student actor in my life. I come from a teaching background and I’m programmed to be encouraging and supportive. All I’ve ever done is to praise the really outstanding cast members and say nothing about the ones who shine less. At the same time, if I possibly can, I always make positive remarks about the production in general. I’m certainly never going to write “Frederick Blogs is appallingly weak as Laertes and I doubt that we’ll see him doing much professional work” or anything remotely like it. Yet I was told recently by one school that it seeks to manage publicity for its students so that it’s fully inclusive which means that no body gets attention which others don’t. Right – as will the professional companies these students will, one hopes soon be working for when they invite in critics? Of course not, critics will praise what they like. Welcome to the real world.

Now, let me be clear.  It isn’t all schools which take this misguided line. I reviewed Red Velvet at the enlightened Guildhall School of Music and Drama last week and very good it was too. And I continue to review at, for example, Rose Bruford, theMTA and Fourth Monkey whenever I can but the list seems to shrink every week.

Lottie Fraser & Daniel Adeosun in GSMD’s 2019 production of Red Velvet. Credit: Mihaela Bodlovic

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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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