In the ongoing debate about the undervaluing of arts education, there has been a recurring theme.
Now that it costs so much to go to drama school, it seems that unless you are from a privileged background the idea of pursuing a career in the performing arts may appear untenable.
That is not only doing an injustice to all those young hopefuls who may have the talent but lack the financial safety net of wealthy parents, it is also very bad news for British theatre.
It could mean a significant step backwards in terms of the diversity of background and ethnicity that audiences get to see on stage. Many famous theatrical names, from Ian McKellen and Judi Dench, to Julie Walters, Michael Sheen and Helen Mirren have expressed their dismay at this, some of them noting that had this been the situation when they were starting out, they may never have made it into their profession.
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However, there is a performing arts college right here on our doorstep which has been offering opportunities to talented students from all walks of life, regardless of their financial circumstances for nearly thirty years.
SLP College in Garforth, near Leeds, was established in 1991 by founder and principal Sandra Reid who had been running dance classes locally (SLP stands for Studios La Pointe, the name of Reid’s original dancing school).
Housed in a converted old chapel building and equipped with state-of-the-art rehearsal and performance spaces, it specialises in musical theatre and is recognised as one of the leading performing arts schools not only in the North but in the UK, competing with its southern counterparts.
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“It’s been a long process to convince people we can offer something really great outside London,” says Reid. “Now we have staff and students from around the country and beyond, as well as talented tutors wanting to come and work with us.”
The college has had students from all over Europe, including Cyprus, France, Greece – and even further afield from Japan and Australia; they come into a nurturing environment. “We have 125 students in total and that is deliberate because we want to know our students individually,” says Reid.
In July the college became a registered charity which will enable it to widen opportunity and access further. “Money should not be a barrier to coming here – we have so many scholarships and bursaries,” says Reid. “If you are talented, come and speak to us, or come along to one of our open days.” Former students tend to find work fairly quickly after graduating, the norm is within months. “At the moment we have students in Germany in a touring production of Starlight Express, others in the West End and touring shows, many get work in musical theatre on cruise ships.”
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The ethos and atmosphere of the place is welcoming and warm and while students are left in no doubt that they have to work hard, they are very well supported. “It is important to me that everyone feels comfortable and happy,” says Reid.
“We pride ourselves that by the time they leave us, our students will have learnt how to be competitive and to achieve their own potential, but also to understand that you really have to work as a team.”
It is this appreciation of the importance of collaboration that is one of the most obvious benefits of arts education – it is so crucial to the development of tolerance and empathy. Both of which help to make the world a better place.