University of Surrey

The University of Surrey’s dedicated drama school seeks to further employability and foster a better society through the arts


Since joining Guildford School of Acting (GSA) in May 2022 as the Head of School, Professor Catherine McNamara has brought her leadership and experience to the area of employability of graduates. Equipping students with the skills, experiences and knowledge required in the various work environments they aspire to enter is a key aspect of the education and training at GSA.


Applied and Contemporary Theatre at GSA

For Catherine, a focus has been the BA (Hons) Applied and Contemporary Theatre programme, GSA’s newest undergraduate degree. The course develops and trains the next generation of theatre makers, community arts practitioners, facilitators, creative entrepreneurs and cultural leaders. The programme encompasses theatre for social change, community theatre, theatre in education, the use of the arts in outreach programmes, in health and wellbeing, disability arts, and lots more.

Prior to joining the University of Surrey’s Guildford School of Acting, Catherine was part of a project researching this kind of work where students take knowledge and skills gained in the classroom to external organisations in exchange for practical experience. The project, Creative Students, Creating Business (2020-2021) was based at the University of Portsmouth and funded jointly by the Office for Students (OfS) and UK Research and Innovation (UKRI).

The aim of the research was to determine the success factors in this type of student-learning in ‘real life’ settings, specifically looking at what success looks like for the student, the organisation they spend time in and for the university too. Building mutually beneficial partnerships and engaging in dialogue across the boundary between a university and its communities is key to positive experiences, and these ideas feed the work GSA is doing.

Students on the BA (Hons) Applied and Contemporary Theatre engage in two types of placement learning in order to gain invaluable experience with organisations doing this work, one for ten weeks and the other is a year-long Professional Training Year. GSA is building its placements work as the new degree is becoming established.


Towards a better society

As a Professor in Applied Theatre and Arts Education, Catherine McNamara’s current project involves tackling the issue of County Lines and Child Criminal Exploitation (CCE) and the effect it has on young people in the UK. It examines how stories and creative methods can help to increase awareness of these issues.

Along with various partners, Catherine has created “Cold Chips and Money” (CCM) – an interactive digital story and lesson for 11 to 13-year-olds which engages and encourages them to explore the complex issues surrounding exploitation. It focuses on how young people can be manipulated and coerced into committing crimes, such as acting as couriers for criminal gangs involved in illegal drug, cash, and weapon transportation between cities and smaller towns.

The story’s three parts follow a young protagonist’s journey from an ordinary morning to encounters with older individuals involved in County Lines activities, culminating in situations where the main character faces significant pressure to commit criminal offences. The project aims to continue raising awareness about County Lines and Child Criminal Exploitation, and Catherine is working with a number of Surrey schools and youth organisations such as Youth Offending teams until May 2024.

The accessible format of the resources allows for easy implementation, empowering schools to deliver CCM independently after the initial delivery.

Details are available at


Theatre for all

In broader terms, GSA stages over 25 public productions annually across three seasons, showcasing the exceptional talents of their students to around 12,000 attendees per year. These productions are the vehicle for student learning on the Technical Theatre, Stage and Production Management, and various performance courses.

Structuring student learning and teaching this way provides GSA with the opportunity to connect and engage with audiences and welcomes people from outside the university community. Last year at its autumn season of shows, GSA piloted a new way of delivering audio-description, allowing for accessibility improvements for visually impaired audience members. Audio-description enables a blind or partially sighted person to experience and enjoy a performance through a live verbal commentary which provides information on the visual elements of a production as it unfolds.

Developed in consultation with audio-description researchers at the University of Surrey’s Centre for Translation
Studies, this new way of delivering audio-description not only means that attendees are able to connect their favourite listening device such as an induction neck loop or over-ear headphones, they can also sit anywhere in the theatre rather than where the induction loop is installed, and use their own smartphone as a receiver.

The Guildford School of Acting is proud to be fostering a community that respects and appreciates individual differences, while preparing its students to be the next generation of Creative and Cultural Industries professionals.

As GSA continues to build relationships with the wider Surrey community, the school also presents opportunities for businesses including corporate entertainment and conference facilities.


GSA Singers

The GSA Singers is a cohort of 24 second-year students which presents a fully staged programme of material from musical theatre and popular classics, and are available for corporate functions, private and charity events and concerts. The group has performed at Buckingham Palace, the Royal Albert Hall, Cadogan Hall, and Drury Lane Theatre as well as local organisations and charities.

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