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Director of Drama Programmes reflects on St Mary’s Employability Agenda

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Director of Drama Programmes reflects on St Mary’s Employability Agenda

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In a recent article for The Stage, Patsy Gilbert, director of drama programmes at St Mary’s University, Twickenham, reflected on the University’s employability agenda, noting how the London-based University provides practical training combined with an academic focus.

Read an edit of her full interview, originally printed in The Stage as an advertorial in October 2017, below.

University or drama school? Which is best? It’s a choice that students on the acting, technical theatre and directing courses of St Mary’s University don’t need to make.

With a history of vocational training for the stage stretching back 50 years, St Mary’s styles itself, with good reason, as “the University Drama School”.

For director of drama programmes Patsy Gilbert, the dual identity contributes to its ambition to produce “actors for the 21st century who will benefit from the high number of contact hours you would expect from a drama school – in our case, 30 each week – and from the understanding of context that we offer in our academic modules”.

"Actors for the 21st century who will benefit from the high number of contact hours you would expect from a drama school – in our case, 30 each week – and from the understanding of context that we offer in our academic modules.” Patsy Gilbert, St Mary's University, Twickenham

Currently around 225 students study on the acting and technical theatre courses (both offering a BA (hons) degree over three and two years respectively) and the intensive, one-year masters in directing in collaboration with the Orange Tree Theatre, Richmond. All students receive “a bespoke education that will include the best drama school training within a university context”.

Simply put, says Gilbert, “We’re about teaching the whole student. We train the body, we train the person and we want to work with students who will go on to be theatremakers who will change what theatre is.”

With 90% of lessons engaged in practical work covering the full gamut of the theatrical process from skills classes to workshops and on to rehearsals and full productions, students spend the remainder of the time learning in academic-led strands.

An essential element is the Creative Thinking module, where students learn to combine imagination and innovation by addressing some of the fundamental issues they will face as theatremakers of the future.

“How do you solve problems? How do you go into a situation where you have nothing and make something?” explains Gilbert. “Students learn that how you stop yourself getting in the way is the beginning of a process, and to understand that everything they need they already have. Everything is possible from then on”.

With a generous array of studio spaces, two dedicated theatres (an existing 120-seater and a 320-seater in a new building, the Exchange), St Mary’s well-equipped resources complement an intensive teaching programme led by dedicated core staff and visiting lecturers drawn from every area of the theatre industry.

Central to the ethos of the course is the conviction that theatre has a social purpose. That, says Gilbert, “is where the head as well as the heart comes in. It’s not just about the learning-by-rote that can be found in some drama schools; it’s also about training the mind to question – as any good university would do. How actors respond to things intellectually is just as important as how they react emotionally.”

That sense of social responsibility has previously manifested itself in off-site projects as far afield as South Africa and Chile, as
well as closer to home in student-created, community-centered projects.

“The community aspect is the thread that runs through everything we do. What is the impact of the work you’re creating? How do you apply it and make it relevant? It’s also an area in which a lot of students get work in, either as an actor, a facilitator or creating their own shows.”

St Mary’s teaches students to be “free, open and aware” and, says Gilbert, “the employability agenda is very clear for us: we don’t make promises that we can’t deliver on”.

It’s all designed to produce actors “able to walk the walk as well as talk the talk; to leave us at the end of their studies able to say: ‘I feel creative, I feel ready, I feel able to make my own work and I have something to say.”

"It’s all designed to produce actors able to walk the walk as well as talk the talk; to leave us at the end of their studies able to say: ‘I feel creative, I feel ready, I feel able to make my own work and I have something to say.” Patsy Gilbert, St Mary's University, Twickenham
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