Spider: Play about drama school misconduct lifts curtain on trauma behind the scenes | UK News

Feb 25, 2024 | Uncategorized

A new play, written by a former drama student, tells the story of a flawed acting school teacher whose out-of-date and unethical practices land him in deep trouble with his students.  

Spider is set in a fictional drama school and the writer and director, Jude Benning, says the lead character – Frank Dowling – is a composite of people who still work in the industry.

It’s run at the Riverside Studios, in London, and comes after a Sky News investigation in November last year uncovered misconduct and harassment in some of Britain’s leading conservatoires.

Speaking to Sky News, Ms Benning says a play exposing disturbing behaviour – through a narrative of black comedy and adventure – is needed now more than ever.

“There’s a sort of cult-type aspect to some drama teaching,” she says.

“There are characters in power that traditionally have always run away with their power and found it difficult to be aware of themselves and be aware of creating a safe environment for students.”

Experiences Ms Benning has researched and heard about have influenced her directing style.

“As one example, last night the cast had a party and I can’t be at that party among them, I can’t have alcohol with them,” she says.

“I have to be really strict about my boundaries, because we have to keep a nice professional balance.

“I think it’s very difficult not to, as a leader, as a director, or a teacher, not to want to get in with everybody and socialise and be a friend, but that’s when things start getting a little bit blurred.”

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Alleged abuse at UK drama schools explained

It’s quite common for teachers and leaders to socialise with students at drama school after a big performance or event.

The issues this can sometimes lead to are drawn out in the play.

“We have a scene in the play where the main character Frank has been to the pub with one of the students and things start to blur and he starts to forget that he’s actually an authority figure and a person in power,” Ms Benning said.

“That leads to muddy waters when you’re a director or a teacher. It’s not good.”

Frank is an unnerving character. Some in the cast are familiar with aspects of his behaviour in the play from their own experiences as students.

Actress Saffy Andrews is a former student of the now-closed Academy of Live and Recorded Arts, known as ALRA.

Saffy Andrews
Saffy Andrews

Ms Andrews says her time at the campus in Wigan was filled with experiences of racism that eventually led her to leave a couple of months before graduation.

“I had to leave, it was just a mess,” she says.

The school was marred by racism and sexual misconduct allegations. It eventually closed in 2022 due to financial difficulties.

One internal report in May 2021 found the school created a “humiliating, hostile and exclusive” environment for students of colour.

Ms Andrews says being part of a play like this has been satisfying, although saddening at times, reminding her of her own experiences.

The cast during rehearsals
The cast during rehearsals

Speaking to Sky News, she says she is proud to be part of a play exploring these issues: “I feel like it’s the only way that drama schools are going to notice and it’s also an eye-opener to potential students that want to go to drama school and this industry.

“You have to have a strong back, otherwise – teachers, people, your classmates – they’ll eat you alive.

“During this show, it is very sad because this teacher character, Frank, he doesn’t care about his students.

“He just wants to abuse them, get what he wants, because he hasn’t made it and he lies to them and they believe what he says because they want to make it in the industry.”

The former chair of trustees of ALRA, Henry Cowd, tells Sky News they were made aware of general complaints from students involving microaggressions of a racist nature and it eventually became clear the school had a “deep-seated problem”.

In addition, Mr Cowd says: “There were clear policies but many staff had an insufficient understanding of how their language, often used unintentionally, could be misinterpreted and found to be potentially insulting.”

Read more:
‘I always felt unsafe’: The alleged abuse at top drama schools

Fellow cast member Scarlett Green loved her drama training experience but hopes the show will offer some comfort for those who did not or are currently struggling.

“I would hope that for people who had a negative experience in drama school… I would hope that it was a cathartic experience for them just to have… to know that it’s out there and people are aware of it,” she says.

“The thing with harassment and subtle abuse that we draw on is that the victims of it can so often feel unheard, and like no one really knows that this exists.

“So hopefully for them to come and see it, it’ll feel good that people know about this.”

This play may lead to some in the industry having to confront some uncomfortable truths and help survivors feel seen.

David Smy, Deputy Director of Enabling Regulation for the Office for Students (OfS), said: “Harassment and sexual misconduct can have a profound impact on a student’s life, including their education.

“We know that universities and colleges take these issues very seriously, but we think there is a compelling case for further action to prevent these incidents from happening, and to ensure higher education providers respond effectively when they do occur.

“This is why the OfS launched a consultation on introducing new regulatory requirements in this area in 2023.

“Any student who has experienced harassment or sexual misconduct should speak to their university or college. They should expect to be supported by their university or college or signposted to more specialist support.”

Spider runs until 25 February at the Riverside Studios in London.

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