You could call it a duet, or maybe a two-hander: arguably the most acclaimed regional production house in the UK taking to the stage with the South West’s largest university to transform the way performing arts degrees are delivered.
The result is the Plymouth Conservatoire, founded by the University and Theatre Royal Plymouth (TRP), and home to around 240 actors, dancers and theatre-makers who each have unrivalled access to the latest industry expertise, research and teaching practice, and professional opportunities.
“We’ve been laying the foundations and building the expertise,” says Ruth Way, Associate Head of the School of Humanities and Performing Arts, and Co-Director of the Conservatoire, summarising the first 12 months of the new collaboration. “The relationship between the University and TRP is pivotal to our students, and it is one that we’ve been developing ever since the faculty moved to Plymouth from Exmouth more than a decade ago. The Plymouth Conservatoire is the realisation of that ideal, bringing together our facilities and our people to create a professional environment for performing arts students."
In the classic tradition of the Conservatoire, there is a strong vocational and performance orientation to its degrees, which range from bachelors courses in acting, dance, and theatre and performance, to masters programmes in performance training and choreography.
But unlike any other conservatoire in the UK, the Plymouth Conservatoire is the only one where a university and a professional theatre co-deliver all of the programmes. Students can move between The House, the University’s performing arts building, and the Lyric and Drum stages at TRP, blurring the boundaries of the traditional campus.
The Plymouth Conservatoire formally launched in September 2017 with BA (Hons) Acting students performing on TRP’s Lyric stage, under the direction of actor John Nettles. The former Bergerac star and Honorary Doctor of Arts at the University has also played a key role in sponsoring a fellowship, in which students can bid for up to £1,000 to develop their career, and an acting prize. Rose Webber was the inaugural winner in recognition of her performances on both TRP stages and her appearances in two BBC Radio productions.
Among a number of other standouts on the highlights reel is a showcase production from acting students directed by TRP’s Staff Director, Nick Partridge. BA (Hons) Theatre and Dance students also presented their final degree performance work at The House, as part of the Plymouth Fringe Festival.
And as the year has progressed, so the Plymouth Conservatoire has added to its cast. Josh Slater was recruited as Head of Movement and Ben Lyon-Ross as TRP’s Talent Development Producer, working closely with conservatoire students to help them to grow as artists and gain professional experience. And in September 2018, Charlotte Storey joined as Head of Voice, bringing with her a wealth of experience from having worked on productions with Sam Mendes and Stephen Daldry, and as an acting coach with Hollywood stars.
“Performance training is crucially important, and that means a good deal more contact time for our students than a standard university degree in this field,” says Ruth. “Those core skills of movement and voice are essential. Students will be spending the time developing their physical skills as an actor, their vocal skills, and creatively engaging with a range of performance texts.”Towards the end of the academic year, TRP opened applications for its Practitioner Development Scheme, a training programme for those interested in developing socially engaged workshop practice. The team were delighted by the number of applications that came from students in the conservatoire, including one successful applicant, Alphonso Brown, who graduated from BA (Hons) Acting in 2018.
“It communicates just how connected our organisations have become,” says Mandy. “The fact that students see employment at TRP as a natural part of their professional progression, along with a resource for their lifelong learning, exemplifies the impact of our partnership. And having them on site, learning and developing their craft, really exemplifies the goals of TRP as an organisation. It’s been fantastic to have the building so animated. Their energy, curiosity and dedication is infectious.”
With the second year now under way there are new developments waiting in the wings, including the launch of a BA (Hons) Directing degree for 2019-20, a summer school, and potentially a new University appointment to focus upon student placements. All of this is building towards helping the conservatoire become a seamless programme that bridges the space between education and professional practice.
“The decision for Plymouth’s Theatre Royal and University to come together to create the Conservatoire didn't really need a lot of thought,” concludes Adrian Vinken OBE, Chief Executive of TRP and Honorary Doctorate of Arts at the University. “It wasn't difficult simply because, at heart, we're both after exactly the same thing – finding and developing new talent. Together we are offering clear pathways for emerging theatre artists and makers to hone their craft. In the years to come, Plymouth Conservatoire will both help to grow the arts in our region while playing a leading role in shaping the UK’s theatre of tomorrow.”
So, maybe not a duet or a two-hander then; more an ensemble cast taking centre stage in an exciting new production.