'No one does it as well we do': LAMDA on being the UK's oldest theatre production college

As the UK’s oldest theatre production college, London’s LAMDA continues to set the standard in the world of audio education for the stage. Daniel Gumble visited the academy’s Theatre Sound tutor Robert Tweedie and Production Sound tutor Sam Charleston to find out how it continues to produce and nurture the audio stars of tomorrow...
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If any building can encapsulate the theme of blending the past with the present, it’s west London’s LAMDA (London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art). Part authentic Victorian theatre, part state-of-the art 21st century education facility, you can literally see these centuries collide as PSNEurope discovers on a guided tour of its various studios, stages and meandering corridors. While navigating its labyrinthine floors, there is a point where the white, clinical walls lining the stairways of the purpose-built quarters meet with the red brick and oak panels and storied floorboards of a bygone era.

In many ways it’s a fitting image for what LAMDA represents. Steeped in history and tradition, it is the country’s oldest theatre production college, yet its high- end facilities make it one of the most advanced places to study theatrical sound on the planet. Its mixture of traditional and high-tech spaces and equipment ensure students are exposed to all manner of real-world working environments, while its extensive vocational programmes allow them to experience the pressures of working on live events, more often than not on high- profile shows at historical venues.

PSNEurope paid the academy’s Theatre Sound tutor Robert Tweedie and Production Sound tutor Sam Charleston - both formerly students at the facility - a visit to find out why they believe “no one does as well”
as LAMDA...

How did you both end up teaching at LAMDA?

Robert Tweedie: I trained at LAMDA myself, graduating in 2009. In 2003 I was pushing flight cases around for a company called Rock City Stage Crew. But I wanted to do sound, that was my passion. I never had the passion to play an instrument, so sound engineering was the thing for me but I didn’t quite know how to get into it. Then I found this course at LAMDA where you could study stage management, lighting, scenic construction and sound. So I used the course to build on the skills I already had to specialise in sound. In the first year, everyone studies all four areas, and then you get to specialise in one, if you wish, in your second and (more recently) third year as well. You get to do two work placements in your second year. One of them for me was with RNSS and when I graduated I worked there more and more, mainly in live music. Then in 2014 I started moving more towards theatre. I toured internationally with the musical Chicago in 2016 and I’ve done over 200 different shows across 18 different countries.

Sam Charleston: Like Robert, I also trained here. We were in the same year and graduated in 2009. 95 per cent of the work I’ve had in my career has come from the work placements I did while I was here. Unlike Robert, I was never interested in sound until I got to LAMDA. I did a show in my first year, and I hadn’t been interested in it whatsoever, but I had to do sound for the last show of the year, and I was dreading it. It was a show called Journey’s End, which is set in the first world war in the trenches, so there were lots of bombs and explosions and I spent three weeks in the sound studio listening to all this and had a really great time! And I enjoyed it so much that at that point in the year - when you make your choices for the following year - it completely shook up the whole idea of what I originally wanted to do. So I put down sound as my first choice, and it went from there.

How much has the place changed since you graduated?

RT: The building has changed, but the course is very much the same, and that’s great. We are the oldest drama school and the first to recognise that you needed to train people to work in all areas of backstage.

SC: The scope of the course has expanded according to demand. When we studied it was very much stage management and technical theatre, that was the name of the course. That’s only just changed to Production and Technical Arts - Stage and Screen. The underlying aim changed a little while ago to expand beyond just the theatre side of things. When we did it, it was mostly theatre and a couple of other bits and pieces, but nowadays we have a more expanded offering. For example, we have a film, TV and radio department. We are interacting with a lot more companies outside of the theatre sphere and that’s because there is an increasing number of courses, like ours, being offered by non- specialist organisations. You see a lot more university courses and technical colleges doing this stuff. That’s grown a lot in the last few years. I don’t know if there is more of a demand from students, or if there are just more places they can go.

So what are the main advantages of coming here as opposed to a non-specialist centre?

RT: The reason I picked this course as a student, and it still remains the same now, is that I am dyslexic, and the course is very vocational. You start in September and spend up to Christmas in lectures. After that you are working on shows. We introduce lectures as part of that show structure; for me, any written work I would do was part of the show, which was fantastic. It’s very much a hands-on experience that we offer. You are on the sound desk. You are really interacting with your kit in a live way. We train students in how to mix bands as part of the course, but the shows are a very real, live experience. It gets them used to the pressures of working on a real live show.

SC: There are technical courses offered by universities where they don’t do any shows, or they only do one or two. It’s either all classroom based or you’re not dealing with the pressures of real live show environments. For me, the only way to learn is by doing it. We also have very deep industry connections here. I’m not saying nowhere else does, but we have a very long history of people coming here and doing very well in the industry. And that feeds back to us here, so we have graduates from however long ago who we can call up to take students out on a work placement, or come in and do a session with students on any subject. We have a real breadth of industry knowledge that is institutional but also comes from the tutors as well.

What is your graduate employment rate?

SC: At the moment our intake is 25-30 students per year and we have a rate of 90 per cent who either gain employment in the industry within the first three months of graduating or continue their education after graduating here.

RT: Those work placements we offer really do set people up for their careers. The variety of our offering is part of the great employment rate. When they do leave here they have studied such a broad spectrum that if there was a job to do a bit of stage management and lighting, even if they want to specialise in sound, they can still do that.

When I graduated, although I wanted to specialise in sound, I toured as a re-lighter, because I’d trained how to do that here. You get random phone calls from your mates saying, I know you’re a soundie, but maybe you can operate a lighting desk? It gives you flexibility. We know those first few jobs in the industry aren’t always going to be totally sound-orientated.

How do students attain a place on the course?

SC: It’s always difficult trying to fit the square peg of academic background into the round hole of vocational training. We do not require any previous academic qualifications for someone to be accepted.

RT: It’s all about passion, and we can recognise that. If someone doesn’t have great academic qualifications but they’ve done amateur dramatics and something relevant at college then they will be considered.

SC: It’s through the interview you can really see the passion; or equally we might see someone who looks great on paper but doesn’t come across as well in the interview.

And how do you ensure that the course is open to all potential students?

SC: We have scholarships and bursaries. We try really hard not to lose anybody [due to the cost of tuition fees] because that’s not what we’re about. There are options for people of any background. The advantage we have as an institution is that we have some high-profile alumni, usually in the acting world, who can be quite generous at putting money back in.

The subject of gender diversity in the audio industry has been a major talking point this year. How do you ensure the course is as inclusive as possible?

RT: We generally have more female students – usually a ratio of about 2:1.

SC: That’s the usual trend for our course. We used to see more women go into stage management and men go into the more technical areas, but that balance is changing and we are sending out a lot of female technicians now. We really don’t want the place to feel like a boys’ club. The industry as a whole can be very male dominated and a struggle for women to break into.

RT: We make sure that we have women coming in [to give demonstrations/workshops] and we go on west end visits and make sure there are female role models the students can see.

Why should students come here?

SC: We’re the UK’s oldest drama school, we’re the oldest technical course. No one does it as well as we do it. People will come because they want to learn in the best places. And London is the theatre capital of the world. If people want to be in theatre, this is where they’ll come. We are in a purpose-built theatre. We’ve got three small studios, we have film and TV recording studios. It’s such a flexible building. It’s exciting to see the new students passing through this place and putting their own stamp on it.

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