Learning from the best – a theatre school of thought
For the staff at Bristol Old Vic Theatre School going to the cinema or watching television must come with an inherent sense of déja vu.
That's because every day, locally, nationally and internationally, they believe a former pupil or someone connected with the school is appearing either on stage or in the credits of a production.
Principal Paul Rummer says: "We're constantly watching things and we see one of our former students. I always sit and watch the credits too because although we have the acting students we also have a large number who study the technical side of things. I was listening to a radio play which had one of our recent graduates in it just the other day. It's lovely to see or hear of them doing so well. When they come here they join a family and it's lovely when they keep in touch."
"It's amazing the things they end up in," adds finance director Simon Payne. "We've got graduates who are directors in the Royal Shakespeare Company, a third of the Archers cast are former students, and then we have students who were on work experience filming The Great British Bakeoff."
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With a history going back to 1946, the impressive roll call of alumni reads like a who's who of acting greats. Daniel Day-Lewis, Pete Postlethwaite, Miranda Richardson, Sir Patrick Stewart, Jeremy Irons and Patricia Routledge all learned the craft in Bristol and the school is fiercely proud of its home-grown talent.
The school has even spawned three actresses who have played the role of Miss Moneypenny in a James Bond film. Caroline Bliss played M's secretary in The Living Daylights and Licence to Kill. She was succeeded by Samantha Bond, who played the role in 1995's Golden Eye. The recent addition is Naomie Harris who stars in Skyfall with Daniel Craig.
The school, which was originally set up by Sir Laurence Olivier and based in King Street with the Theatre Royal, now operates as an independent charity over three sites in Bristol. Its historic roots have been strengthened again recently with the re-launch of the Patron's Prize – which gives two graduates from the school six months' work within the theatre company.
The main school is at Downside Road, in Clifton, there are TV and radio recording facilities at Christchurch Studios, in Clifton, and a scenery workshop in Bedminster.
Artistic director Jenny Stephens, who along with Simon is in a new role at the school, says: "Along with Rada and Lamda we are one of only three drama schools, and the only one outside of London, to be affiliated to the national Conservatoire for Dance and Drama."
The conservatoire is a small group of leading performing arts training organisations established by local government to promote and subsidise the best in UK vocational training.
"We don't actually have a theatre here but I think that is what distinguishes us from other schools. We go out into the arts structure of the city. We tour local schools and we have our final-year students, both acting and technical, working at Circomedia, The Alma Tavern, The Redgrave Theatre, The Tobacco Factory Theatre and Bristol Old Vic. It gives us a real added advantage.
"The students get the challenges of working in different spaces and we also become part of the theatrical infrastructure of the city."
As well as touring to schools with adaptations of Shakespeare plays, to make them more accessible for staff and pupils, students work on a number of productions throughout the year, and are currently working on A Christmas Carol to tie in with Dicken's bicentenary.
Jenny says: "In terms of the artistic direction things are going really well and my plan is to build on that great reputation and the depth of talent and integrity of the school. It has such a fantastic heritage."
Every year, 1,800 students audition for one of 26 places on an acting course at the school.
"The school has a reputation for doing classical theatre well," Jenny adds. "I feel that if you can tackle the big beasts – then you can do anything. Our student numbers are geared towards the employment market. We don't flood the market with actors – we take on a number that we think have a good chance of finding work and then we do everything we can to help them find it."
Because of the school's Conservatoire status, the mix of students who join the school is hugely varied.
Paul says: "We have a really vibrant social mix. From pupils who have come to us from Eton, to those who have been living in hostels. The running theme is that they are so highly motivated. They are challenged here but they are also supported."
A Christmas Carol runs at Redgrave Theatre, in Percival Road, Bristol, until Thursday, December 20, at 7pm. For tickets or more information about the theatre school visit www.oldvic.ac.uk.
The Coming Out Party
We wanted to move back to London after 35 years living in Bristol. Our house had been on the market for over six months without a sale. And then, well, the third-year students film cast and crew from the Bristol Old Vic Theatre School arrived at our house to make their training film The Coming Out Party.
There were 23 of them! They arrived at 9.30 every morning and left at 8.30 every evening, Monday to Friday. The house was packed out. It was a long week...
They filmed all over the house, inside and out. Each room took about a day, so one day we couldn't get into the bedroom, another day we couldn't get into the lounge, another day we couldn't get into the dining area – and every day we couldn't get into the utility room because it was stuffed with props, case, clothes racks and crew members, and every day we couldn't get into the kitchen because it was packed out with crew supplies, food and drink, plates, kettles, props, cables.
Most days we couldn't get upstairs (or downstairs if we were already up there) because of the camera, lights, stands and cables.
In fact there were cables trailing all over the house.
We couldn't boil a kettle for a cup of tea for most of the time because they were recording takes, doing the same scene over and over again, and the kettle was so noisy it deafened the sound man.
We couldn't take many photographs because our camera makes silly noises when it's being used – and planes and helicopters flying over from Filton Airfield ruined a few takes as well.
It was a hectic week, but we absolutely loved having them there. The house was so vibrant, lively, fun and full of wonderful young people, and we really missed them when they went.
We've been invited to the first screening at the theatre school so we'll see the cast and crew again.
But what a co-incidence it had been.
Diana worked at the Bristol Old Vic Theatre School for 20 years and retired about five years ago.
We got a call from the estate agent saying a film crew thought our house looked ideal for their film.
When the location manager arrived he was from the theatre school. As a result, we let them have carte blanche, taking over the whole house rather than having to use other houses as well for different shots.
It was after watching the dramatic final scene of the shooting that Diana and I looked at each other. We more or less both said together: "We can't sell the house. We can't afford a flat that's nice enough or in the places we want. Would every day living in London really be as exciting as this? Let's stay in Bristol and enjoy it."
The next day we took the house off the market.