THE Scottish actor James McAvoy yesterday urged ministers to step in to secure the future of the drama school where he trained, as he joined stars including David Tennant and Alan Cumming in signing an open letter to Alex Salmond.
Speaking to The Scotsman from the set of his latest film, McAvoy described how the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama (RSAMD) schooled him in his trade – including how to play characters other than an "angry working-class boy". He added: "It has changed my life."
He is the most high-profile figure yet to step into the growing row about a funding gap at the RSAMD, in Glasgow. Saying he was proud to have trained in Scotland, rather than London or New York, he urged the Scottish Government to act.
Earlier this year, the RSAMD warned it might have to make staff redundant to close a 600,000 budget deficit. It has complained that current funding levels cover only half the cost of training drama students.
The row over the RSAMD's future comes as Queen Margaret University (QMU) in Edinburgh has stopped accepting drama students. It offers Scotland's only other accredited professional drama training course. It has partly blamed "perennial and severe underfunding".
McAvoy told The Scotsman that two music teachers who first drew him to the arts as a Glasgow schoolboy had trained at the RSAMD. "I couldn't afford to go south of the Border and a lot of people I know couldn't afford it," he said. With the QMU "winding down", he said, "there's going to be nothing left in Scotland other than the academy." He added: "It's not a hell of a lot of money they're talking about."
McAvoy paid tribute to two RSAMD-trained music teachers at his school who first got him interested in music and drama.
"They were responsible for changing my direction when I was 15 or 16," he said. "But it's not just actors that are getting trained there."
He yesterday signed an open letter to the First Minister and the Scottish Government about RSAMD, published in The Scotsman today. Other heavyweights among his fellow RSAMD alumni who signed the letter are Dr Who star David Tennant, actors Brian Cox and Alan Cumming, director David McVicar, pianist Malcolm Martineau and singer Karen Cargill. "We are appealing to the Scottish Government to take action to address the immediate 600,000 gap and to work with the Scottish Funding Council to assess the long-term needs of the RSAMD," the letter says.
It warns the repercussions of inaction could "severely damage Scotland's reputation on the international cultural stage".
A Scottish Funding Council (SFC) spokeswoman said it was meeting the principals of both colleges "to explore whether the scale, location, facilities for and type of drama-related provision in Scotland is appropriate".
The intense training offered by the RSAMD, and until recently QMU, is far more expensive than a traditional university course. QMU has its own successful alumni, including Ugly Betty actress Ashley Jensen.
Vicky Featherstone, the National Theatre of Scotland director, stepped cautiously into the row yesterday, saying the NTS believed that "conservatoire performance training is vital to the future of the arts and fully endorses the need for this training to be available in and for Scotland".
STUDENTS claim cuts of 600,000 – announced earlier this year – could compromise the RSAMD's reputation as well as their classes. Campaigners claim the academy, which boasts well-known actors James McAvoy, David Tennant and John Hannah among its former students, faces losing key staff if there is no increase in funding.The academy blames long-term underfunding for its current financial position.
The students have staged a musical protest at the Scottish Parliament.
Springboard to success
JAMES McAvoy's recent film roles have included Becoming Jane and The Last King of Scotland.
But it was Atonement that arguably made him Scotland's best-known screen actor today.
McAvoy, who was raised by his grandparents after his parents' divorce, applied to the RSAMD after winning a small part in a film about child prostitution.
"It made me a much better actor," he said. "I went in there able to do an angry young working-class man, and I came out being able to do a hell of a lot more. I wouldn't have had the career diversity."
He is currently in Germany filming The Last Station. He stars as Valentin Bulgakov, a nave young secretary sent to work for Leo Tolstoy, played by Christopher Plummer, in the last turbulent year of the great Russian writer's life.