Rising up the pecking order: Julian Bird is appointed Chair of Drama UK

Was anyone else a little puzzled by the recently-announced appointment of Julian Bird as ‘Chair’ of Drama UK, an organisation formed from a merger between the National Council for Drama Training and the Conference of Drama Schools.

Bird is certainly enjoying a meteoric rise in the world of theatre, but why, we ask?

According to The Stage, he has served on the boards of the Yvonne Arnaud theatre and the De La Warr Pavillion, but he has only been in the business of full time arts management since 2007 when he joined the Tate as chief operating officer.  It wasn’t long before he become chief executive of the Society of London Theatre and the Theatrical Management Association in June 2010.  It’s not clear whether this new appointment of Chair of Drama UK is an additional ‘honour’ or an actual job, but either way, we find it quite worrying.  If he was acting as chief executive, that might be a bit more understandable, but the position of ‘Chair’ usually indicates a figurehead of some kind, and a role which determines the future path of the organisation.  And why would you appoint as chair of an organistaion purporting to champion drama training a person who did a degree in Economics, went into banking and then worked for the FSA for seven years?  A passion for theatre is all very well, but what does he really know about acting and drama training?

And if he retains his role as chief executive of SOLT/TMA, surely there is a conflict of interest.  These organisations exist partly to negotiate with the acting unions of behalf of employers, and Bird has made his credentials pretty clear when it comes to prioritising ‘biz’ over ‘show’.  One of his great achievements has been to secure sponsorship from Mastercard for the Olivier Awards, including a stipulation that only Mastercard holders can book tickets (remember the similar controversy when Visa insisted on a similar monopoly at the Olympics?)  And yet despite obtaining this undisclosed sum from Mastercard, he went on to make the following boast about the awards ceremony in the Stage:

“It has been an impressive profile boost for the event ……  but not one that has been as expensive as you might think.  MasterCard gave financial support for the marketing campaign, while many people in the theatre industry have given their time at low or no cost – especially performers on the night itself.”

So, he might not have done any drama training, but certainly knows a lot about exploiting the good will of performers.

And what is the mission of Drama UK, we wonder.  The website tells us it is “Championing quality drama training in the UK through Advocacy, Assurance and Advice”.  Doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue, does it?  The Drama UK website aims to become a one-stop-shop resource for information on all kinds of drama training, which shouldn’t surprise us.  However, there is a worrying shift from the remit of the National Council for Drama Training, whose role was to clearly accredit Drama Schools providing a high level of training for students intending to enter the industry.  This accreditation remains, but now it is joined by something else, ‘recognition’, because according to the website

“the drama training landscape has changed significantly in that time and there are now many more providers in this sector running courses that are less vocational than conservatoire training but offer a very real benefit to the industry and routes into a wide range of careers in the Creative and Cultural Industries”

Later we are told that

“It will provide sign-posting of high quality courses which provide a pipeline of talent into the Creative Industries but outside the conservatoire level of vocational training”.

Not quite sure how we feel about that pipeline analogy there.  What we have here is a massive over-supply of drama training, and many of these courses, especially those aimed at children, are big business.  We don’t want to knock those.  After all, there are worse things to spend your money on.  But if these organisations are able to display a kitemark saying that they are ‘recognised by Drama UK’, who is going to know the difference?

Of course, this is exactly what you might expect when making money takes preference – expanding potential membership is a good way of ensuring an income.  But quite how that serves potential drama students and helps to ensure quality in the industry is not clear.  Have a look at the website – it makes interesting reading.

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