Jude Tisdall – Ambassador for Drama UK and theatre company Trustee

JUDE

I first met Jude at the age of 18 during my time as a student at Mountview Academy. Her office was just by the school canteen and in between ballet, singing and stage combat classes, I would pop past (Kit Kat or cottage pie in hand), observing her complete Vice Principal duties. Jude spent the main part of her working life dedicated to Mountview where she took on various roles in the teaching faculty and management team for more than twenty years. After much reflection and realising she needed a new challenge, Jude resigned as Deputy Principal in 2001 and took a mid-life gap year to look at new ways of living and working.

For the past two years, Jude has worked with Drama UK, which provides a unique link between the theatre, media and broadcast industries and drama training providers in the UK. Her role there is varied – in addition to advice and advocacy, she is responsible for the overseas showcases that Drama UK facilitate for graduates from Drama UK member schools, such as annual showcases in New York, LA and Dublin. Additionally, Jude is a trustee of Giants Theatre Company (Standing on the Shoulders of Giants). The company is built on two passionate beliefs – the enduring relevance of the classics and the creative energy to be found in our diverse communities.

Jude is also a trained Alexander Technique teacher, mentor and coach and in addition to her drama school work has built up a private practice and taught in Denmark and Kathmandu. She undertook a post graduate course in the Alexander Technique and completed a one year Creative Leadership Course with the Institute of Creativity. Occasionally mentoring and advising those wanting to create a working life in the arts community (most recently Deborah Groves of Acting and Dyslexia London), Jude is also a busy mother and grandmother who often finds herself in mid-air between international showcase locations.

Joining me for a tea at the St. James Theatre, Jude gives me a fascinating insight into fifties Dublin, seventies London, and her views on the future of the acting profession…

You were born and raised in Ireland as the eldest of five children. What brought you to London and what were your ambitions?

I was born in Dublin in 1951, growing up in the fifties and sixties. Dublin was very different then with little job opportunities and many people emigrating to England and America. My father was a baker and my mother had been to university but ended up having and looking after five children. I was the eldest and for some reason my grandmother paid for me to attend an independent school. We lived in a working class two up two down house. I left school at fifteen as my father demanded all of us children did to start bringing in money. At eighteen I fell in love and in 1971 moved to London with a man who studied hairdressing at Vidal Sassoon. I had no idea what I wanted to do but I loved the freedom and the opportunity to be able to explore and be away from the rather strict and confined Dublin regime. We lived in a squat with ten others in Peckham (which was fantastic!) and I worked as a temp at an estate agent in Victoria. One weekend we got married – simply because my mother was coming down to London and living together out of wedlock was not an option really. I did not know what I wanted to do. I spontaneously applied for a PA position to the Head of Mountview (Peter Coxhead) because I had always been drawn to theatre – and years later ended up as the Deputy Vice Principal of the school.

How do you see business opportunities having changed for women since the early seventies?

In the early seventies when I came to London there were so many jobs available, so many opportunities in different areas of the job market. You could leave a job on Friday knowing you would get another job the following week. And I think one of the biggest differences then was that having a degree was not a requirement for so many jobs as it seems to be today. In many cases it was very much about just getting out there and doing it, taking a risk and a chance. Apart from job opportunities, things like housing was easier. If you bought an old house you could apply for grants to improve and renovate the property, mortgages were available. I am mindful not to paint a “oh it was so wonderful then picture” but I do honestly believe it was easier. I look at the pressures on young people now leaving university and vocational courses with huge debt, cost of housing, lack of affordable housing, difficulty in saving for a home and in obtaining a mortgage, lack of job opportunities. I see the sometimes inflated demands and requirements of employers when considering applicants for jobs that often bear little relation to the individual’s ability to do the job. So yes I do think it is very much harder – but there are opportunities and different kinds of opportunities – perhaps just harder to find and obtain.

You were Deputy Vice Principal of a leading drama school for many years. What changes did you see Mountview handle in your time there? What do you think are the biggest challenges that drama schools and the performing arts industry face today?

The biggest change I witnessed was drama schools migrating from vocational training to degree courses. Very early on in this process we had to ask ourselves – how do you quantify a “good” performance? That was a difficult one but it had to be addressed in order to fulfil the demands and criteria for obtaining funding. The educational system was changing and funding was drying up. One had to justify grants and such means in much more detail as a drama training establishment to the government. There was also pressure from parents who wanted to see more than just a diploma qualification at the end of their children’s education to create more security for their future and potentially pursue two careers. Changing to degree courses also gave drama schools and courses more gravitas and a stronger presence.

One of the biggest challenges faced by schools offering drama school conservatoires is maintaining the high quality of training whilst facing the threat of more and more budget cuts. Training at this level is required to be delivered with high contact hours and in small groups. There are many university courses available in this area however, not all can offer that level of training demanded at conservatoire level. It is not that they don’t recognise the need for high contact hours but unfortunately just can’t offer that. Keeping the quality of training high while the amount of funding keeps going down is also linked to many courses now being connected to university accreditation, which don’t see the need for forty to fifty hours of practical training time. This can almost force the amount of performance related training hours to go down, which of course directly affects the students and the quality of their training. Anyone needing advice regarding which route to follow (drama school/university) can contact me at Drama UK or read up on the website.

In terms of the industry, the biggest challenge we face is creating a fully trained work force for an ever-changing performing arts job market. One used to train mostly for the big stage and learn in rep (repertory theatre) – now actors have to be prepared to go for auditions and win jobs that involve fighting a computer generated monster in front of a green screen. There used to be the triple threat to aim for – now there is the quadruple threat (acting, singing, dance and playing a musical instrument to professional standard). Actors have the challenge of having to be in continual training to keep their skills up to scratch and being able to create the time and finances to enable them to pursue this.

In relation to technical backstage training, there are many excellent courses and apprentice schemes available. This is an area where there is a shortage of trained and skilled people. Young people wanting a career in theatre, film, TV, music do not realise how diverse the employment market is and the range of opportunities available. We tend to hear endless reports on actors being out of work and lack of opportunities – that is only one small part of the story that is the creative industry.

You decided to make a life change and take a mid-life gap year. What advice would you give to women who want to purse the same? How can one best prepare for this?

Don’t think too much about it – just do it. If you think too much about it then you will come up with too many scenarios as to why making a change might not be such a good idea. I suddenly made a decision on my 50th birthday that despite the fact that I loved working at Mountview – I needed a change. And if I wasn’t going to do something about it now then I never would. And at some point the pendulum might swing the other way and I would not enjoy my work the way I always had. I realised that it is important to have the space to sit down and think about what you want – away from the normal routine. I took a year off and travelled to Nepal, worked for charity and taught children to read.

You have been an Alexander Technique teacher for many years. How have you personally seen this create a positive change in your students and yourself?

For me – Alexander Technique taught me how to live the centre of who I am. I find this work is something I take with me into all areas of my life. In short, it grounds me and allows me to use myself well and effectively – most of the time! In my teaching, I have worked with actors and musicians over many years. I find that Alexander Technique supports a Stanislavski approach to actor training. Excessive muscular tension can often highjack an actor and interfere with their ability to fully realise a performance. Stanislavski wrote of the difference between undue muscular tension and necessary creative tension. When I work with actors and students we look at understanding these differences. I think that one of the most difficult things for an actor is to ‘do nothing’ – not to interfere! It is always amazing that when an undue tension is removed it results in an ease of movement; a clarity of sound; an open breath – in short it opens up the ability to communicate fully. It allows the actor to be centred and available both physically and mentally. I have to say I absolutely love working in this way.

Could you please sum up the purpose of Drama UK and what you see as its biggest challenges moving forward? How does the international presence you are establishing help progress the organisation?

The purpose of Drama UK is to enable actors to get the best out of their training and ultimately, get the work they want. We give a united, public voice to this sector; offer help and advice to drama students of all ages; and award a quality kite mark to the very best drama training available. We also give personal advice to students in terms of choosing a course that suits them best.

Our biggest challenge is that we are funded by the drama schools themselves, hence we are constantly balancing finding a general middle ground to support all the school’s different needs. And these can really be very varying at times. We are a small team who aim to find the best common denominator. Our international showcases have raised strong brand awareness. Drama UK is a globally unique organisation – there is nothing of its kind for drama related training in any other country.

Do you think there are too many drama schools facilitating too many students to train for an overfilled profession, ultimately bringing the supply and demand cycle completely out of sync? If so, what is the best way forward?

Drama UK has twenty member schools. There are many other courses available – some good, some not. Anyone wanting to follow a training should do their research properly. Ask the right questions: For example, how many contact hours, staff and student ratio, facilities, alumni statistics, etc. I think it is important to realise that the training offered at a conservatoire level whilst preparing you for the profession does not guarantee that you will work in that profession. It is a hard, hard world. However, you could say that the profession has always been crowded with people who have a passion for work – but unfortunately that does not actually translate into work.

Are there too many drama schools? I would say yes there are. Open The Stage newspaper any week and you see so many courses on offer, so many new schools popping up. You could say that it was demand…and indeed it is. More and more people want to work in this area. Are all the schools good? Well again, do your research. The obvious route would be to apply to an accredited school, but shortage of places at the accredited schools means that prospective students have to look elsewhere. And there are some excellent courses available and different routes into the profession. But…. research, research, research before parting with your money or investing your dreams and hopes.

You are trustee of a theatre company and also mentor individuals pursuing careers in the arts. What do you think are the biggest challenges starting out in this industry?

The biggest challenge remains basically finding someone who wants to take a risk and a chance on you and finance your start up. This is relevant to all businesses but even more so to any business connected to the arts. You have to create a very strong, constantly evolving network around you and be prepared to subsidise your passion through the tough times. On the other hand you also can’t look too desperate and you have to keep more self-belief in you and your venture than anyone else might ever be able to fathom for it.

What are your future ambitions, career and personal?

I would love to complete a degree in anthropology, theology or philosophy at Trinity College Dublin. Back in my youth this was unattainable for me. Now, I want to walk through the college gates on a daily basis and study and converse about subjects with lots of time on my hands – simply because I can.

Who is your inspiration? What do you think makes an inspirational woman?

The person who inspired my love of theatre, my love of storytelling and language was a teacher I had when I was just 13. She was in her sixties then and I always knew her as Miss Tighe. I think she was one of the first people who I recognised as ‘seeing’ me. She was a friend of Hilton Edwards and Michael MacLiammor who co-founded The Gate Theatre in Dublin. The first play she took me to was a one man show written and performed by MacLiammor, The Importance of Being Oscar. She took me backstage and I met these wonderful, exuberant men – I had never experienced anything like it – I loved it. My first introduction to theatre and theatre people.

In terms of family – my sister, my daughter and my granddaughter who are all remarkably inspiring in their own rights.

To find out more about Drama UK and to contact Jude please see www.dramauk.co.uk.

Jennifer Reischel
About the author

Jennifer Reischel is the Business Development and Communications Manager for Entertainment Media Group, which includes the St. James Theatre in Victoria. Completing a theatre degree at Mountview Academy Jennifer first pursued a career as an actor performing on stage and screen. Migrating into writing and penning the award-nominated guide book “So you want to tread the boards”, Jennifer became a theatre critic and feature contributor for The Stage, as well as launching the global video audition website The Stage Castings. Additionally, Jennifer has acted as a judge for the Leicester Square Theatre New Comedian Competition of the Year, cast plays for Soho Theatre and hosted industry events workshops in the West End and at the Edinburgh Festival. Twitter: @jenreischel. Website: www.performingarts-auditionguide.com

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