I can remember clearly my drama teacher, Mr. Jewkes, chatting to me during my high school studies in Year 9 and telling me “you should really do this at GCSE Jamie”. Through my time at school I rode the wave a little too much, leaving revision too late and never totally applying myself as much as I could.
When it came to deciding on whether to go to university, I gave serious (although brief) thought to staying in my Saturday job at a department store and avoiding the terror of student debt. Five years later, I am incredibly glad I picked Staffordshire University...and I’ve learned the debt isn’t as bad as I thought.
Originally I chose Drama, Performance and Theatre Arts because performing was something that I loved doing. My plan at that time was to go on to a PGCE and head into teaching; following in the footsteps of my mum, dad, brother and several other family members. Why Staffs? Well, on other open days at larger or older universities, I found the atmosphere wasn’t very welcoming, the people could seem stereotypical in what you’d expect from those who worked in the theatre industry and, to be honest, some of the facilities left a lot to be desired.
Arriving in Stoke however (a great city, no matter what preconceptions people hold), I was given a tour of four excellent studio spaces by Derrick and Paul, two people who would later become my lecturers. I felt that I would be challenged and looked after here and even bumped into my tour guides around campus later that afternoon, where they sat with me and my mum for half an hour or so to chat and tell us a little more about the course over a coffee. I’d made my choice.
The course was perfect for me, providing a balance between learning of the reality of working in theatre and academic progression. Other courses I’d seen seemed to only offer solely practical or theoretical approaches but at Staffs I experienced acting, devising, performance art, playwriting, lighting, marketing, audio visual techniques and (unfortunately for my friends) even had a bash at singing. Every one of these modules was delivered alongside essays, presentations and other assessments that weren’t just an add-on to our practical work, but stretched me academically. The background and experience of my teaching staff made this possible. Reading their CV’s and then working with them I realised the team weren’t people who just knew lots about theatre; these people were working in the industry right now.
I also attended two trips to New York organised through the course; experiences that I will never forget. As well as a little time to do “the tourist thing” in an amazing city, we saw theatre on and off Broadway, visited the New York Conservatory of Dramatic Arts, attended a bizarre and exhilarating performance piece that I can only describe as a live art rave and had a go at improvised comedy with working actors.
Don’t get me wrong, it wasn’t all rose-tinted and an easy ride. The work was often difficult and days could be long and working in groups presented its own challenges as I had to work with those who shared different working methods, attitudes and approaches to attendance. This, however, is something I’ve now learned to be a real part of life. You’re never going to work in an environment where everyone gets on all the time and I’ve developed as a person thanks to these experiences.
As I progressed, I began to think about what I wanted to do when I finished my degree. I loved theatre, I loved acting; did I really want to teach? Studying had put me in the right frame of mind to go for it and make acting what I did, particularly because of one of my final year modules. Here, we were given the opportunity to form a small scale theatre company and produce and perform a play designed to be toured around studio or fringe venues. Taking control of every element of creating a piece of theatre in this controlled environment made me realise that acting professionally was perfectly achievable. I think I’d made my choice again.
Prior to graduating however, I had gotten involved in the students’ union and ran in the leadership race. I have spent the past two years as a sabbatical officer at Staffs union which proved to be an experience which helped me to mature further, develop those skills that would come in very handy for working in a small theatre company and hopefully do some good things for my fellow students and that organisation. If there’s one thing I can recommend during anyone’s time at university, it would be getting involved with your students’ union.
So after five years of fun, friends, learning and changing at University I have set up a theatre company with a fellow Staffs graduates. This year we toured a one man show around the region, including a performance in Lichfield, my home town. Mr. Jewkes (or as I now know him, Les) came to see me act as a professional in a real theatre and even gave me a hug afterwards. Funny to think I probably wouldn’t have been there if he hadn’t pulled me to one side in Year 9.