The empty space: the mystery of UCL’s disappearing theatres

19 March 2016

by Alice Saville

As theatre director Peter Brook had it, “I can take any empty space and call it a bare stage.” It’s a fine idea. But what does a student drama society do when it’s forced to search harder and harder for the room to exist?

Since June 2015, University College London Drama Society has had Bloomsbury Theatre, its 550-seater venue, closed for building works to remove asbestos found on the premises. At first, it was meant to be out of action for a year, so students scrambled to find replacements for the large-scale plays, musicals and dance shows it housed. But this hiccup has turned into one long, gassy burp all over theatre-loving students with the revelation that it will now be closed until 2018, during a consultation process over the building’s future. This means that, combined with the loss of UCL’s studio space Garage Theatre two years ago, a whole cohort will pass through their UCL education without being able to perform in a dedicated space. Three years isn’t long. But in student drama, it’s an eternity – the time it takes for wide-eyed teenage freshers to become desperate job-hunters, with a slough of student drama behind them.

As Matthew Aldridge, president of UCLU Drama Society, says: “There’s now absolutely no dedicated rehearsal or performing space at UCL. If we want to put on a show for free, we have to find a classroom.” It’s a million miles from the riches available to students at drama powerhouse Warwick. And it goes beyond performance space. “There used to be rehearsal space in the lower refectory, which in classic UCL style has been turned into cafes,” Aldridge says.

This wholesale erosion of drama resources means that students wanting to put on shows are thrown into the very deep deep-end that is London fringe theatre, where spaces are expensive and need to be booked much further in advance than time in which the average student production is dreamt up. Enterprising student societies are booking out spaces at the Camden People’s Theatre, and the Etcetera. They’ve got some financial support from UCL. But pitting them against deeper-pocketed, far more experienced professional companies is far from ideal. It’s especially problematic for technical roles: lighting, stage management, sound, set-building, the quirks of each space’s tech desk – these are skills that are taught and passed on in informal shadowing schemes, in societies; but with no venues to learn them in, they’ll be lost. Aldridge is finding that “one of the main problems is the stage crew: every single society needs them, but most of them are about to leave this year, and they’re having such trouble recruiting with no spaces to train people in that there’s a very real possibility it will cease to exist”.

Another problem is the gaping hole that’s opening in UCL drama’s finances. About a quarter of shows are in classrooms. “We don’t have much support in negotiating and guaranteeing those spaces, and even when we have them, people don’t want to pay to watch something in a classroom,” says Aldridge. For the rest, Aldridge explains that on top of shelling out for expensive Camden theatre hire fees, the society’s income is being cut short by its inability make a profit: not only from Bloomsbury shows but also from running activities such as dance classes in the theatre during the daytime.

It’s tempting to draw parallels between what’s going on in UCL and the wider trends in higher education. The ideal of the university as a welfare state in microcosm – providing free services limited not only to education but also sports, arts, health, benefits – is being eroded in favour of the university as paid service provider. And if resources can’t turn a profit, they must be sold off – or turned into cafés.

This is wrong on quite basic grounds. But it’s also a selling students short in terms of career prospects, and development. This isn’t the place for arguments about how delivering a stunning Beckett monologue will one day help students to make the perfect elevator pitch to business moguls with fat wallets. But it’s worth pointing out that a huge number of people make their careers in theatre, and relatively few of them study theatre at university.

It takes a huge amount of courage to go to drama school. Even at my secondary school, the kind of luvvie stomping ground where adorable year 7s were regularly dragged off to star in The Lion King or Carmen, the news of someone getting through to the final round of auditions at RADA was an achievement to be proudly lauded in assembly. Studying drama, even when tuition fees were “only” £3,000 a year, was a gamble. Now, when tuition fees are £9,000 a year and grants are a thing of the past, signing up to a lifetime of debt without a back-up plan looks less like an honour, more like mad bravery.

But the NSDF is living, breathing evidence that you don’t need to be a drama student to be passionate about theatre. At universities across the country, students have developed delicate ecosystems to support drama. Some, like Oxford, have centuries of legacies to draw on – bequeathing multiple dedicated theatres for students. Edinburgh has Bedlam, a theatre completely run by students. So what does the future hold for UCL drama? Aldridge is downbeat. “UCL has an appalling track record of making good on its word, as what happened to the Garage proves.” He speaks of a culture of secrecy, whereby students who entered into consultations with UCL Estates weren’t allowed to report back to UCL Drama Society on what they’d discussed. What he did know was that the alternatives proposed to the closed Garage Theatre space had been “completely inappropriate: first the Estates suggested an underground car park with a roof that was about two metres high, then a so-called ‘pop-up’ theatre space that didn’t even have a roof”.

“The people in their last year now are the last generation of students who performed at the Garage Theatre, so it’s hard not to conjecture that UCL are shutting down the conversation, because if you keep it quiet for a couple of years students move on and people forget about it.” The latest statement from UCL suggests that the Bloomsbury Theatre could be closed for redevelopment until 2018. They confirmed that they are committed to reinstating the theatre, but have made no guarantees that student work will have the same status in a shiny new central London performance space that was already hosting big name comedians. As students scramble to find rooms to perform and rehearse, the future of UCL drama on campus looks like one big empty space.

Alice Saville (@RaddingtonB)