Year Out Drama in Lockdown

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A BLOG BY JOSEPH ATKINS

The Stratford-based Year Out Drama Company is nothing if not tenacious. Set up over thirty years ago by Deborah Moody, her intensive gap year drama course has weathered monumental changes in higher education, the ever precarious state of the arts in the UK and the loss of its original home at Stratford-upon-Avon College in 2014.

Much of the course’s success has been down to the adaptability of Deborah, her Assistant Course Director Alastair McPhail and their students. Whenever they hit a snag, they make a virtue out of it, and they buoy themselves by keeping close ties with the Royal Shakespeare Company and its world-class facilities, maintaining independent rehearsal premises and celebrating an ever-increasing roster of distinguished alumni across the performing arts industry and beyond. They offer a rigorous combination of class-based practical work, full-scale productions and projects that see the students engaging with the wider community, including local schools and care homes, along with the chance to work with a myriad of visiting theatre professionals throughout the year.

Year Out Drama has, like everyone, been hit hard by the pandemic. As the shutters started descending nationwide, the company was mid-rehearsal for a new production to be performed at the RSC’s Other Place. Heartbreakingly, activity stopped in its tracks, culminating only in an informal sharing of work-in-progress the week before the country went into lockdown. This course prizes itself on emphasising personal growth through practical ensemble work over academic assessment. Deborah focuses on nurturing a troupe of budding actors, akin to the erstwhile (and much missed) theatre model of the season-long repertory company. Going into lockdown, Year Out Drama stood to lose much of its unique identity.

That fateful Tuesday, the morning after the prime minister’s first address to the nation, a call went out to the current students, summoning them for their usual 10am daily get together. Year Out Drama had no intention of calling time on the academic year. The company meeting, naturally, ensued via video conferencing and since then the company have continued to work remotely.

Where many conservatoire courses appear to have stalled, buckling under anxiety over the viability of practical exams and syllabus delivery, the team have devised a richly diverse and imaginative body of projects to keep the company occupied through this period. The range of work has been staggering, including short play writing projects, a comic limerick workshop curated by writer, actor and past student Justin Edwards that saw winning entries performed by RSC actors, and an exploration of the lyrics of Stephen Sondheim in his 90th birthday year with West End star, Simon Green. These larger projects have been supplemented with regular fitness classes courtesy of their brilliant dance teacher Kath Waters, play readings, quiz nights, online social gatherings, and regular one-to-one tutorials.

Deborah has long been an advocate for the transferable application of drama education. Many of the skills acquired can be made applicable to a plethora of customer, client and patient facing roles, and that ethos has extended to lockdown activities which move beyond the traditional realm of actor training. The company have tried their hand at photography, costume, film editing and even bakery (overseen remotely by Rachel Barber, stage manager and former owner of award-winning vintage café, The Fourteas).

It’s becoming increasingly apparent that those looking to pursue a career in the arts are going to have to be more persevering, imaginative and multifaceted than ever. Young graduates will need the drive to forge work opportunities for themselves and engage with their communities while the arts sector reshapes itself to survive in a financially leaner post-corona world.

These values of self-sufficiency, creative entrepreneurship and sheer front-footed courage lie at the heart of Year Out Drama’s modus operandi, and in these strange days, Deborah, Alastair and their wonderful students are proving more adaptable than most.

Joseph Atkins is a freelance composer and musical director, and has been an associate practitioner for Year Out Drama since 2003.

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