Reflecting on partnerships between Higher Education and Professional Theatre Practices, Rosie Garton, 2015




Rosie Garton is Co-Artistic Director of the Anglo-German performance company Zoo Indigo. She currently lectures in Drama and Performing Arts at De Montfort University and in Creative Writing at the University of Nottingham.

 ‘This has been a long over-due conference’ Charlotte Jones – Independent Theatre Council

At a time when the validity of courses in the arts is being questioned and when funding for arts practices is being reduced, it is of mutual benefit for HE institutions and Theatre organisations to partner together, pooling resources and knowledge, and enabling survival of the arts through supporting emerging professionals. With one of the key HE agendas being ‘Employability’, students need support in developing an awareness of the possibilities of paid work within the arts sector, and in identifying the fundamental skills required to attain these positions. In her report The Cultural Knowledge Ecology (2012), Sarah Fisher writes that ‘many HEI’s arts departments have ‘pathway’ programmes but more could be done on the ground to link these to programmes delivered by cultural institutions’. Three years on, this conference reveals this is in fact happening; partnerships between HEI’s and professional theatres are being developed and sustainable models of working together are being forged. Effective collaborations create the exciting potential for a knowledge exchange across the academy and arts in general, opening doors to new ways of teaching and learning for the teachers, students and theatre workers, and nurturing students as emerging professionals. The Higher Education and Professional Theatre conference initiated a timely dialogue around effective models of collaboration, raising questions, concerns, and hopes for the future. The conference opened with a keynote from Dr Farah Karim-Cooper, Head of Higher Education and Research at Shakespeare’s Globe. She suggested that in order to develop successful collaborative ventures, we first should question ‘why HE and Professional Theatre want to collaborate? What do both parties stand to gain? What current models are there? Will these models be sustainable?’

I write this conference response as both an academic and a theatre-maker. Like some of the conference speakers, I stand on the borders of academic and artistic languages, methods and motivations. With one foot in immediacy and one foot in the HR systems. With one hand toying with risk and the other typing risk assessments. Part struggling through creativity in the isolated rehearsal room and part surrounded by the inspiring energy of emerging professionals. My reactions to the debates are spurred by identification with these core areas of debate:

  • Compatibility
  • Communication
  • Clarity of purpose

Compatibility: Structures and scale

Arriving from the perspective of a small-scale theatre company, I was particularly drawn towards a recurring theme of size. The similarities between the administrative and financial structures of HEI’s and large-scale theatres/organisations create an initial mutual understanding on which to build the collaborative framework. Smaller-scale organisations, however, often with limited or non-existent HR departments and without substantial regular funding, work to very different schedules and procedures to HEI’s, which calls for a new approach to the collaborative arrangement. In 2012 Sarah Fisher ‘found little evidence of formalised partnerships between small arts organisations and HEIs’. The conference demonstrated that these partnerships are in play, but that the structures of these relationships are not formalised and documented in the way that the relationships with large-scale organisations are. It is a worry that perhaps the paucity of the recordings of these relationships reveals a lower grading of ‘value’ in working with small-scale organisations.

Dan Barnard spoke from his dual perspective as artistic director of fanSHEN theatre company and as a university lecturer. He suggested that working with different scales of partners offers varying opportunities, and that these differences should be recognised but also considered of equal value. The size of these organisations means they can work with an immediacy that allows for reactionary and organic responses. Talking us through three examples of student placements within the company, he said ‘small companies can be very flexible and create a very bespoke and tailored experience and work towards supporting specific needs of individuals’. He went on to discuss the ways in which placements are often given a role in small companies that are important to the development of the organisation, tasks that impact on the work and show recognition of students’ individual skills and abilities, allowing them to hone a specific craft and feel embedded in their working environment.

From the point of view of a small-scale venue, Michaela Butter (Director of Attenborough Arts Centre, University of Leicester) also highlighted how the size of an organisation allows for a different kind of intimate relationship with students. She referred not only to the actual size of the performance space providing emerging practitioners opportunities to take risks in a safe and supportive environment, but that additionally the scale enables direct relationships between students, artists, and the Director/Programmer. To illustrate this, she outlined her relationship with students from De Montfort University, many of whom have presented graduate performance work at AAC in different stages of development and taken part in the AAC supported performance festivals such as Hatch. Michaela focused on ‘Tetrad’, a collective of DMU graduates who had been regular attendees at the venue. The immediacy of the relationships between the group and the venue staff led to AAC fostering the company’s regular performance platform for emerging practitioners. This collaborative relationship between a small scale venue and an HEI is perhaps less defined than the selected case studies, but evidently is of value and appears to work well alongside the partnership between DMU and Curve in terms of the contrast in scale offering students different ways of working in professional theatre environments.

In her end-note, Charlotte Jones worried about the vulnerability of smaller organisations, and warned us to consider re-thinking collaborative models between these and HEI’s, dealing directly with possible areas of inequality. Referencing student placements, she asked on behalf of these project-funded organisations ‘if students are paying for this, who is paying us?’ She firmly reminded us that these small companies do not come with a ‘dowry’, and if the value of these partnerships is to be recognised, a different financial model from the one used with the larger scale organisations should be agreed.

Communication: Terminology and understanding

Catherine Alexander is Associate Director of performance company Complicite and Course Leader at the Central School of Speech and Drama. Alongside Dan Barnard, she provided insights from both a small-scale professional theatre and an academic institution. She highlighted the need for early clarification of expectations and desires within HE/Theatre collaborations, including issues of copyright, with good communication being the key to successful relationships. As both an artist and an academic, she is able to broker a distinct difference in the terminologies used by the arts and educational establishments, but realises the problems these differences can cause. She worried about a ‘capitalist language that seems to have permeated Higher Education’ and stated that she didn’t really know what the term ‘Employability’ meant. Complicite often hire the ‘un-employable – the mavericks’, she told us, and acknowledged that those working in devised theatre would never be profit makers, so statistics about the number of students employed after their course ends create a ‘perceived notion of success that looms too large’.

‘Employability’ is high on the HE agenda, and the term was returned to throughout the conference. It made me wonder how, in the age of zero hour contracts and reduced arts funding – meaning short contract positions – we can measure ‘employability’ in the arts? Sarah Fisher’s idea of ‘employment status’, is perhaps a move towards finding a shared language between academia and the arts. She certainly recognises that there is a nuance beyond the prospectus-level language of ‘employment’, and sees great potential in the ways in which HE/professional collaborations can ‘improve employment status’ through jointly sponsored placements.

Clarity: Agreements and equalities

Possibly in an attempt to combat a misunderstanding of languages across the borders of the academy and the practising arts, the day revealed connections through terminologies that are not exclusive to either world. Metaphors were used as illustrations of good and bad practice and it was striking that these metaphors had a recurring theme of marriage and prostitution. The descriptions of these partnerships often used words and phrases such as: dowry, curb-crawling, promiscuity, brothel, pre-nuptial agreements, prostitution, leaving money on the dresser.

This interesting imagery suggested a desire to clarify the structure of a partnership agreement. It demonstrated a concern for nurturing committed relationships, and creating a contract of equality that allows for sensitivity with recognition that one party could be left abandoned or hurt. Many presenters referred to long-term relationships requiring dedication from both sides to make the partnerships sustainable and, as Jessica Bowles reminded us, they should also be ‘enjoyable’. Jacqui O’Hanlon and Taryn Storey, of the Royal Shakespeare Company, promoted the importance of honesty and management of expectations in these collaborative ventures and suggested that successful models often begin with ‘pre-nuptial agreements’. These agreements would ideally map out each party’s:

  • skills/timescales/management frameworks/budgets
  • aims and objectives
  • responsibilities
  • benefits

In the opening of the event Farah Karim-Cooper gave a warning to potential collaborators about adopting what she termed a ‘quick-fix approach’, a method that primarily serves to benefit only one of the parties for a short-term goal. She steered us away from a model that leaves one party as the ‘service provider’, with the finality of ‘leaving your money on the dresser’, rather than offering a knowledge exchange. She acknowledged scope for possible conflict and misunderstandings between the two different cultures of HE and professional theatre, and outlined the challenges in bringing together ‘two different bodies of understanding’. She asked us to consider the balance of the relationships: that HEI’s don’t use theatres solely as providers, and that theatres find a way to allow access to their practices without disruption to their core activity. She called for a true ‘transfer of skills, knowledge and working practices’. Jessica Bowles confirmed the benefit of a knowledge exchange that pulls us out of ‘a linear product-based approach that both parties are put in – towards a more rewarding relationship where impact can be measured in artistic/social/well-being terms as much as in financial terms’.

Key recommendations

Something that struck me, but seemed unspoken, was the question of who the ‘people’ are who instigate and manage these relationships. Often large-scale theatre venues have a dedicated ‘Outreach’ role to broker and maintain projects that cross borders beyond the theatre space. Smaller organisations, though less likely to have that dedicated personnel, manage it within their multi-role teams. HEI’s often have an Outreach team, although this is generally for the University as a whole, rather than being department-specific. The partnerships discussed in the conference appeared to be initiated by teaching staff, and I wonder, with steadily increasing teaching hours and research demands, how this can be maintained. If Drama departments want to fully engage with these initiatives, there is a demand for either:

  • a member of teaching staff being given allocated hours to fulfill this role


  • a development of a post that specifically manages/creates these partnerships

In terms of the progression of sustainable and beneficial collaborations between HE and professional theatre, it is important that open discussions continue. As Charlotte Jones of the Independent Theatre Council put it, ‘this has been a long over-due conference’ which opens up possibilities for future engagements and evolving, timely dialogue which might involve the following:

  • DMU/Curve host a further event developed from key questions that arose during the conference. This may become a regular platform, which creates a hub for an evolving dialogue to an increased number of participants
  • DMU/Curve write an issue in a relevant journal opening the topic for a wider debate, and raising awareness of past and future events
  • The DMU student response be used to consider a wider engagement with students who have taken part in collaborative practices
  • The mix of artists/academics attending such conferences be considered
  • Consideration of how the role of ‘liaison person’ could be identified and supported at universities

Link to Case Studies

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