University drama turns into a crisis
DRASTIC cuts in acting and theatre courses are being ordered at a leading Scottish drama school where stars like Ashley Jensen and Kevin McKidd were taught.
Queen Margaret University chiefs are said to be planning the closure of its intensive courses in acting, theatre management, stage design and lighting.
Angry academics say the "conservatoire" in the drama school, which currently has around 150 students, will close after the last students have completed their courses. Other courses in "theatre arts", for which about 150 students have currently enrolled, will be kept running, according to insiders.
The Scotsman understands news of the shake-up was broken to staff and students by David Dunn, dean of the school of drama and creative industries, yesterday morning, just hours before an official inspection of the drama school.
The cutbacks have been ordered just weeks after Professor Anthony Cohen, Queen Margaret's principal, claimed that Scotland's newer universities were losing out to older institutions because of a funding bias.
He said both QMU and the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama in Glasgow had repeatedly made the case that their drama courses were under-funded and that they were "struggling" to produce the next generation of Scotland's creative theatre artists.
The RSAMD said recently it had been forced to make 600,000 worth of savings over the next year. Dozens of staff there are likely to be offered either scaled-back contracts or part-time work. Queen Margaret has a proud tradition of drama tuition, with former students including radio presenter Edith Bowman, Ashley Jensen, star of hit sitcom Extras and Ugly Betty, Trainspotting star Kevin McKidd and Simone Lahbib, of Bad Girls.
Its drama school moved into the former STV studios in Edinburgh after they underwent a 4 million makeover.
In 2004 it was announced that the complex, which had a theatre history dating back to 1932, was to become a major showcase venue for Scottish theatre on the Edinburgh Festival Fringe.
But the following summer it emerged the 300-capacity main auditorium at the Gateway Theatre had been shut for health and safety reasons after a fire inspection. QMU later announced it would have to sell off the building because it was unable to afford the 3 million repair bill.
The drama school is now based at the university's new campus in East Lothian, while students are able to use the nearby Brunton Theatre, in Musselburgh.
One staff member told The Scotsman: "QMU is refusing to provide proper facilities for the training of theatre professionals. None of us is surprised. We are deeply disappointed. It's a shame they've chosen to lose an acknowledged centre of excellence. This act is the wilful destruction of a course that has achieved international recognition."
Dr Dunn said: "It has been general knowledge for some considerable time that the school of drama and creative industries has been reviewing the provision of its drama training.
"Underfunding has been a concern, but is not the deciding factor.
"It is our intention that any new developments should not adversely affect the expectations and aspirations of our current conservatoire students. We remain fully committed to drama education."
Joyce McMillan, the Scotsman theatre critic, said: "If this sad decision has had to be taken, it's mainly because the Scottish funding bodies have refused to fund conservatoire education to the levels demanded by UK accrediting bodies."