Select Committee on Innovation, Universities and Skills Written Evidence

Memorandum 85

Submission from the Master of Fine Arts in Theatre Directing at Birkbeck


  I ask the Select Committee to consider granting an exemption from the proposed Equal Learning Qualification funding restrictions for the Master of Fine Arts in Theatre Directing at Birkbeck on the grounds of its vocationality and the highly specialised nature of the practice-based learning that makes it a distinct progression from, and therefore not equal to, other Masters degrees.


  1.1  The Master of Fine Arts in Theatre Directing was established in 2003 in response to two ACE-led and Gulbenkian Foundation-funded reports about director training in the UK in the late eighties and early nineties: "A Better Direction" was written by Kenneth Rae in 1989 and revised by Andrew McKinnon in 1996.

  1.2  Having consulted Equity, TMA and ACE, and a number of theatre directors and drama school Principals, Peter Cheeseman, the then Chairman of the National Council for Drama Training, approached Birkbeck to establish such a course in conjunction with the NCDT, on behalf of the industry.

  1.3  The Gulbenkian Reports believed that a professionally acceptable course must

    —  be at postgraduate level

    —  derive from a collaboration between the university, drama school and professional theatre sectors; and

    —  incorporate a meaningful amount of work for the student with professional actors in a professional context.

  1.4  The design of the Programme incorporates these three specific points and takes account of many others that were contained within these two Reports.

  Its features therefore include

    —  a six-month secondment to a professional theatre company or companies;

    —  specific production opportunities under professional conditions within that secondment;

    —  an opportunity for students to establish a relationship with one of the NCDT-accredited professional drama schools;

    —  regular observation of the Programme by a highly experienced group of professional directors under the umbrella of NCDT;

    —  participation in the teaching of the Programme by a substantial number of experienced theatre practitioners.

  2.1  The programme has a separate relationship with a number of drama schools that offer placements to trainee directors on the MFA during the autumn term each year. Drama schools that have offered placements thus far include: Arts Educational, Bristol Old Vic, Central, Drama Centre London, Guildhall, LAMDA, Manchester Metropolitan and RADA.

  2.2  The programme has also received £320,000 in grants from ACE over the past four years to finance productions by the trainee directors at their secondment theatres. SOLT, Channel Four, the Mackintosh Foundation, Equity Trust, the Olivier Foundation and Laurence Harbottle have provided bursaries for the trainee directors.

  2.3  Theatres currently offering six-month secondments include: Theatre by the Lake Keswick, West Yorkshire Playhouse, Royal Exchange Manchester, Lyric Theatre Hammersmith, Soho Theatre, Hampstead Theatre, Theatre Royal Stratford East and Theatre 503. Last year theatres included the Crucible Sheffield, Tara Arts, the Unicorn, London Bubble, the Gate Notting Hill and the Royal Court.

  2.4  Regular contributors to the teaching on the programme include: Mike Leigh, Mike Alfreds, Juliet Stevenson, Patrick Marber, Simon Stephens, Alison Chitty, Vicki Mortimer, Cicely Berry, Simon Usher, Irving Wardle and members of Complicite and Frantic Assembly. The programme also has a yearly week of workshops at the National Theatre Studio, regular workshops from the RSC's voice department, and a month-long collaboration with Motley Design School each year.

  3.1  At its inception, this masters programme was termed a master of fine arts, to denote that this programme is a practice-based taught vocational degree, distinct from the numerous academically-orientated master of arts programmes available at other universities.

  3.2  During the five years that the MFA Theatre Directing has existed, several places have been offered to students with masters degrees. Some of those students have masters degrees in other arts subject, some in theatre-related subjects: these degrees provide a valuable theoretical contextual knowledge for embarking on the MFA Theatre Directing, but none of them offer the unique practice-based learning, delivered by industry partners and leading practitioners, that the MFA can provide and that the theatre industry has so clearly indicated it believes is necessary for the training of professional theatre directors, ready to take their place in the industry.

  3.3  The MFA Theatre Directing is not directly comparable with any other masters degree: it offers a further level of specialised study and practice and it is the terminal qualification for professional practice as a theatre director.

January 2008

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