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London’s Central drama school axes audition fees to end elite grip on the arts



London’s Central drama school axes audition fees to end elite grip on the arts

A key obstacle in the path of poorer aspiring actors is to be removed at one of the UK’s leading drama schools, the Observer can reveal. The Royal Central School of Speech and Drama, one of the country’s top drama schools, where Dame Judi Dench, Andrew Garfield, Riz Ahmed, Jason Isaacs, Cush Jumbo and Martin Freeman all learned their craft, is to scrap audition fees for prospective students in an effort to broaden its intake.

“None of us want drama schools to be the preserve of the well off. Ideally, they are places where people from all backgrounds can come together and learn from each other,” said Freeman, a Central graduate and star of The Responder, Sherlock and The Office. “Without my grant from Richmond council many years ago, I would never have been able to enjoy my three years at Central. That seems to have become harder and harder in recent years; who knows how many young actors are lost to us, due to lack of funds. I hope this inspires others to follow suit in trying to make attending drama school fairer for all.”

Martin Freeman is a Central graduate. Photograph: Andy Rain/EPA

Central’s decision to get rid of all charges comes after many actors, including Dench, have bemoaned the prohibitive costs of attending multiple auditions and the lack of support for hopeful actors from working-class backgrounds. Each year, thousands of people apply for around 50 places on the acting course. Single audition fees were £40, although reductions were available.

The principal of the school, Josette Bushell-Mingo, hopes to “send a clear message” that applicants from all backgrounds are welcome, she said this weekend. “We must push back against a creeping narrative that says the arts are elitist, that they are only for a select few. It has never been more important to stand together, united, and say that everyone is welcome in our sector and in our institutions – that the arts are vital and that they are for all of us.”

Actor Zoë Wanamaker CBE, vice-president at the school, adds that she believes it will pave the way for a more diverse industry: “In these difficult times we must all unite to support and empower the next generation of theatre-makers and artists,” she said.

The drama school has also established a £20,000 travel grant to encourage prospective applicants to come to open days, and two other grants, totalling £30,000, towards travel costs for attending the final round of undergraduate acting auditions and other campus events. Central claims it wants to help “shift the dial” and “change the landscape of arts accessibility”.

The moves come after a controversy four years ago when Central’s former principal, Prof Gavin Henderson, resigned after he had dismissed the idea of diversity quotas, saying: “Quotas would reduce the quality of our student intake.”

While Central is the most prestigious drama school to drop audition fees, it is not the first. Five years ago Liverpool Theatre School scrapped its fee, while the Bristol Old Vic and Central’s London rival Rada now offer full fee waivers for some students. In 2018, the Labour party challenged all drama schools to end high audition fees.

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