With the current pandemic having hit the performing arts especially hard, we sat down with school Principal, Professor Sean McNamara to learn about the school, how they are faring and how the local business community can get involved.
Please tell us something about you and your journey to your current role?
I grew up in Cardiff and was fortunate to be exposed to music at a young age, my grandfather and uncle were professional musicians and of course, being Welsh I sang in the National Youth Choir of Wales and played rugby. Following my undergraduate degree in economics at university, I made the decision to audition for drama school. GSA was my first choice and I was fortunate to be offered a place in 1995 to train on the three year BA Musical Theatre programme.
I graduated in 1998 and appeared on stage and screen, however, I realised after a few years that I was unlikely to sustain a viable career as a performer so decided to upskill and enrolled on the MA in Actor Training programme at the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama. Following graduation I worked as a teacher and director at a number of drama schools, one of which being GSA. During this time GSA was in a state of transition as it was moving from its facilities in central Guildford that it had occupied since the 1950s to its new purpose built building and theatre on the University of Surrey campus. In 2016, I was appointed Head of Guildford School of Acting and in 2019, I was appointed Chair of the Federation of Drama Schools, the professional body for representing the UK’s leading drama schools.
It must be very rewarding to return as the head of the organisation at which you trained? Was this planned?
I trained in musical theatre at GSA in the late 1990s and it remains one of the most rewarding and valuable experiences of my life. I returned to GSA as a member of the faculty in 2010 and was appointed Principal in 2016.
As the first GSA graduate to be appointed head of the school, I feel an enormous sense of privilege, and responsibility, particularly to our students, colleagues and alumni.
"I trained in musical theatre at GSA in the late 1990s and it remains one of the most rewarding and valuable experiences of my life"
How has the school been affected by the current pandemic and what are your plans to keep open?
GSA adapted extremely quickly in the Spring to the imposition of distancing measures by implementing a series of measures to ensure the continuation of the training, in particular delivery and learning via online platforms. For the new academic year we have planned for a number of scenarios and eventualities in meeting the challenges of the present circumstances.
The inability of the creative sectors to reopen, in particular theatres, has influenced our thinking and planning for the new academic year. GSA is most probably the largest producer of live theatre in the region. To minimise the potential for disruption we decided to phase the return of students, with first and second years beginning in late September, our final year students return in early November and our postgraduate students will arrive in January 2021.
Public productions in acting, actor musicianship and musical theatre have been delayed until early 2021 when we hope that live performances with audiences in attendance will be possible. We appreciate that we are all living in uncertain times where feelings of isolation and detachment are currently amplified. The health and wellbeing of our students and our colleagues is of vital importance and it is essential that we remain connected and united as a community of artists, practitioners and creatives. Looking ahead, I believe we have to move the narrative away from one of crisis and focus upon the opportunities that the current situation presents us with as we navigate our way through this age defining era. Covid-19 will most likely leave a profound legacy upon our society and our culture and it is an opportunity for us to be pioneers for a new creative era and a more equal society as we embark upon helping to shape that future rather than be shaped by it.
The school seems to cover everything from dance and music, to drama and technical theatre training – are there any expansion plans?
GSA offers academic training programmes at foundation, under-graduate and postgraduate level in Acting, Actor Musicianship, Musical Theatre, and Theatre Production. For the 2021 academic year we have introduced a new three year BA programme in Applied and Contemporary Theatre, this programme focuses upon training the theatre makers, creative entrepreneurs and advocates for theatre as an instrument of achieving social and cultural change. Over the last few years we have invested in our online delivery and now have over 130 students studying entirely online for our BA and MA Theatre (Online Learning) programmes. GSA has also expanded its Saturday School which operates weekly for children and adults from five years and up with the launch in 2019 of the GSA Junior Conservatoire and the GSA Summer Conservatoire for children and young adults who are seeking specialist intensive training in Acting and Musical Theatre.
In the 2020 National Student Survey, GSA scored 91% for overall student satisfaction which ranks the school as one of the leading conservatoires in the UK, with the BA Actor Musician and BA Musical Theatre programmes scoring 100% and 97.5% respectively. How difficult is it to maintain this level of excellence?
GSA pursues a student centred ethos where the experience and quality of the training is our primary objective. Within a competitive sector the school auditions approximately 4,500 potential students each year for places on our performance and technical theatre training programmes. We are constantly aware that GSA cannot stand still and must continue to innovate to meet the demands of our students, and the needs of the ever evolving creative sector. We have invested in upgrading the school’s facilities and resources and providing training in Mental Health First Aid for our faculty to ensure that our students receive high quality teaching and pastoral care. The University of Surrey is continuously supportive and invested in GSA being an international centre of excellence for professional vocational training and our high student satisfaction scores are a measure of the success of our approaches to supporting and training our students.
The GSA is a member of the Surrey Chambers of Commerce – how important is it for you to engage with the local community?
As a graduate of GSA, I am acutely aware of the importance of the relationship and fondness between the school and the local community. For many years we have presented productions at the Yvonne Arnaud Theatre and at other venues within the county, and it is something we feel is extremely important for us as a school, as an ambassador for the University of Surrey and for our students to gain valuable performance experience in front of local audiences. The new Applied & Contemporary Theatre programme is specifically designed to produce opportunities and performances for community theatre and theatre in education and for young audiences. Guildford and Surrey is extremely fortunate to have a world leading performing arts conservatoire. 2020 marked the 85th anniversary of the establishment of the school in 1935 and prior to the pandemic had planned a series of celebratory events culminating in a gala at the National Theatre.
How can companies get involved with the school?
GSA is located at the entrance of the Stag Hill campus at the University of Surrey. We have world class facilities with 21 studios, three theatres, a 200 seat, 120 seat and 80 seat. During the Easter and Summer these facilities are available for hire for conferences, residential courses and events. As part of the University of Surrey we have access to on campus halls of residence and conferencing and catering facilities.
In terms of companies getting involved with the school during term time we are always seeking collaborative and philanthropic opportunities to provide sponsorship support for the growth of the school and financial assistance for students, something which is ever more vital at the present time. Through GSA Enterprises we offer corporate leadership and communication workshops.