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Gareth Farr: 'Training for the stage must be as current as possible'

Head of Acting at ArtsEd Gareth Farr explains why he commissioned two brand new plays from Matthew Dunster and Jessica Swale for his students to work on

Gareth Farr

At ArtsEd we are constantly looking for new ways to provide the most relevant and cutting edge training for all of our students. They already get more screen training than any other drama school but my experience and passion is in theatre and with our graduates leaving and securing work at the Royal Court, RSC, Royal Exchange and on the West End we felt that it was vital to keep the stage side of the training as current as the screen training already is.

It was with this in mind that we took the decision to commission two leading writers to work with our students over a period of 18 months. They would write a new play that would premiere at our school and showcase both our students and their work in the final productions of the year.

But which writers? They had to be exciting and of the moment, they needed to be the most relevant theatre makers we could find. Ideally they would offer a contrast and therefore a range of experiences for the students. I had two people on my list and fortunately both said yes without a second thought. Jessica Swale and Matthew Dunster were booked.

It had to be an experience that forged working relationships

One of the most valuable aspects of this project has been the collaboration between writer and actor. The development of the plays and the vital role of each student has been an experience that they will remember for the rest of their careers. We are a passionately inclusive and fair school so it was important that every student worked with both writers, allowing them to experience both processes as well as allowing the writers to get to know and work with all of the students in the year group. We didn't want to allocate a cast to each writer and send them away to write a play. It had to be an experience that forged working relationships. I was keen for the voices of our students to be heard and in some way add to the writing of these plays. Similarly the plays needed to stand on their own as a piece of writing that could live outside of the school.

The workshops challenged the students and writers in very different ways. Matthew took a practical approach with the students, structuring extended improvisations and setting writing tasks for them in order to hear the issues affecting their generation. This then fed into the writing and the overall world of his play. Jessica took a very different route and read up on topics that interested her. She presented ideas to the group and listened to their responses. It was through these sessions and as a result of her own research that she landed on the world and story of her play. At the end of the 18 months we appointed two directors: Steven Atkinson was keen to work on Matthew's play and Kate Saxon on Jessica's. They, along with the writers, held auditions so that once again in the spirit of equality, every student had the opportunity to audition for both plays.

The project has had so many benefits. The students felt included in the development of two new plays by leading figures of the industry. Both Matthew and Jessica got to know and work with our students, something that any professional actor would love the opportunity to do and both writers have had a structured and supported process within which to write.

The results are astonishing and both The Mission by Jessica Swale and Those Who Trespass by Matthew Dunster promise to be stunning productions of fantastic new plays. We can't wait.

The Mission runs 10 to 14 May 2016; Those Who Trespass runs 17 to 21 May.