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6 April 2022

“It smacks of cowardice”: inside the closure of the Alra drama school

The school, which had campuses in London and Wigan, closed without warning on Monday, causing turmoil for 284 students and 44 staff.

By Ellen Peirson-Hagger

Acting is about investigating what it means to be human, said George Richmond-Scott, a director, voice teacher and acting coach, who was the head of live and recorded performance at the Academy of Live and Recorded Arts (Alra) until Monday 4 April. That is why the sudden closure of the drama school, part way through the academic year, was so “unnecessarily painful”, he said. The process by which the closure was announced was “so lacking in kindness and empathy and humanity, all the things that are really fundamental parts of actors’ work and our training”.

Alra, which opened in 1979 and had campuses in south London and Wigan, counted Miranda Hart, Denise Gough and Bridget Christie among its alumnae. Its closure, announced to its students and staff on Monday morning, has affected 284 students and made 28 permanent and 16 fixed-term staff members redundant. Following a restructure in spring 2021 designed to “stabilise finances”, losses made in the 2020-21 academic year “meant the organisation was not financially viable”, a statement on Alra’s website said. After an unsuccessful attempt to seek a new owner, the board “ultimately resolved to cease teaching students”. The company is entering liquidation.

“To be thrown out like this is devastating,” said a third-year student on the school’s acting course at the London campus, Alra South. The student, who asked not to be named, was due to graduate this summer. He was taught in the school’s Grade-II listed Victorian building on the corner of Wandsworth Common, which he attended as usual until last Friday (1 April). Some students had even been in the building over the weekend, filming for their dissertations. Now they have been told that they cannot return to collect their belongings from their lockers until a liquidator is appointed.

“It’s an old building, it’s got leaky roofs, it’s cold in the winter, but it’s our home,” the student said. “As cliché as it sounds, it’s where a lot of us spend a lot of our time. When it’s show week, we spend more time there than we do at our flats. To be disregarded in such a way is horrible.”

All the school’s current students have been offered to continue their studies at Rose Bruford College, a drama school based in Sidcup, south-east London, either from the college’s building or from their current campus in Wigan. Those at Rose Bruford College “have shown us more decency and kindness than Alra have”, the third-year student said.

Richmond-Scott first joined the school as head of Alra South’s directing MA course in September 2020. “By the time it all tanked I was one of the longest-serving members of staff in the building,” he said. He and his colleagues were told of their job losses in an online meeting on Monday morning that was set up as a webinar: the staff could not see or speak to each other and the chat function was disabled. “It was a way of giving us information without us being able to respond. It smacks of cowardice.”

Aly Spiro, an actor best known for playing Sarah Sugden on Emmerdale between 1994 and 2000, was previously Alra’s head of acting. She was made redundant in the spring of 2021, alongside four other senior teachers, as part of the company’s restructure. Looking back, she described tension between the senior management and the teaching staff. “We were people who had a passion for the school, a belief in the school, and it wasn’t particularly liked if you said what you felt was right,” she said. “We were fighting for what we felt would be good for the students. There was opposition to that. They weren’t very happy that I was not fighting for myself.”

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Richmond-Scott said that he and his faculty colleagues had in recent months become “increasingly concerned about the financial circumstances of the school”. “Something had been wrong behind the scenes,” he said, “for a long time.”

This period of financial turmoil followed Alra’s appearance in the news for other reasons. In August 2020, in the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement, former Alra students published an open letter describing the “systemic racism” they had experienced while at the school. Following a six-month long internal investigation, the school’s principal Adrian Hall, who played Jeremy Potts in the 1968 film Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, stepped down. In May 2021 Alra’s internal report into racism concluded that it had cultivated a “humiliating, hostile and exclusive” environment for students of colour at both its north and south campuses. The same year it was alleged that a former teacher at Alra North had sexually harassed students. 

Since then Alra has been governed by an interim principal, Ellie Johnson Searle, along with a board of trustees. Johnson Searle did not respond to an interview request from the New Statesman. Neither did Sara Doherty, the interim academic registrar. 

Upon the announcement of the closure, all Alra social media accounts were deleted, its website stripped of everything but the statement of its closure. When the New Statesman tried to contact Alra via telephone and email it received automated messages with details of the school’s closure. The senior management have left no way of being contacted by staff, Richmond-Scott said. It was always “incredibly difficult to approach them” in the office, he said, but now they have made themselves “completely off-limits and totally unreachable”.

Spiro described a disconnect between the staff and students at Alra, who were passionate about acting and drama, and the senior management team, who “have no interest in it whatsoever. They were businesspeople.”

When the Drama Centre London, part of Central St Martins, announced its closure in March 2020, it said that students could complete their studies first. While Alra students do now have the security of knowing they will be able to complete their degrees at Rose Bruford College, the announcement of the closure came at a particularly bad time for those who were due to graduate this year.

The culmination of the students’ degrees is the summer term of their third year, when they perform in showcases that provide crucial exposure for those seeking agent representation. Some of these performances had already been postponed due to coronavirus. Now, after many months of rehearsals, none will go ahead as originally planned. “We deserve more than this,” said the third-year student, who also expressed his gratitude for the many Alra alumnae and other industry professionals who have stepped in to offer to hold replacement showcases for the students.

Drama schools are highly competitive and more expensive than typical university degrees. Some courses at Alra cost up to £13,000 a year, whereas the standard rate for UK students at non-private universities is £9,250. Both the third-year student and Richmond-Scott spoke of students who had spent four or five years auditioning for drama schools before winning their place at Alra. The students’ experience was already overshadowed by cancellations and classes being held online because of the pandemic. The particularly large amounts of time and money they invested in studying make the closure all the more sour, while one less UK drama school will make access to the industry even more challenging.

Alra’s closure is particularly worrying given the commitments the arts industry has made on increasing its accessibility, said the playwright and screenwriter James Graham. “We all made promises about building back better if the live arts in the UK survived lockdown, and here we are,” he said, “closing schools that are meant to be an equalising force in a highly unrepresentative industry, dominated by the middle classes and the privately educated. It’s another hammer blow for arts education, and is becoming a real emergency — unless of course we don’t want the artists of our future to come from the broadest range of backgrounds possible.”

The closure of Alra North, which had a reputation for accessibility for working-class northerners, and which had lower fees than Alra South, is a particularly “regrettable loss”, Richmond-Scott said. “I feel like drama schools are tapping into people’s hopes, dreams and aspirations of wanting to do something creative and rewarding, rather than gruelling and mundane, with their lives. A lot of the time they are then making money out of this. It’s not true of all drama schools, but it is true of some. 

“The industry has been going through a necessary and tumultuous change over the last few years, and rightly so — it’s long overdue. If this is the overhaul in process, I hope it’s not done yet.”

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