This weekend I went to a reunion marking 10 years since I graduated from Bretton Hall. It was the second of two reunions organised between friends to catch up and see how life has treated each other since we left drama school all doe eyed and full of aspiration. Meeting so many old faces and wandering around the now closed campus set in the heart of the beautiful Yorkshire Sculpture Park was wonderful, reviving memories about exploits, conquests, terrible performances we put on, achievements and socialising – all of which helped us grow into the adults that we are today. I’m not going to go into much detail about the reunions themselves as I want this post to be about my old college, not a couple of fun-filled, alcohol fuelled days in 2012.
I cannot comprehend what life would have been like had I not gone to Bretton. I realise that’s a stupid statement but it’s completely true. Bretton had a more profound influence on me than any of my schools when growing up. Sure, I had individual teachers who left their mark on me in indelible ink from primary school all the way through to A Levels but as an institution Bretton Hall left its logo clearly emblazoned on my forehead. My only problem with this is that I didn’t even come close to realising it at the time.
Bretton Hall didn’t just give me a degree in Theatre: Acting. Yes we had modules on Shakespeare, naturalism, post-naturalism, physical theatre, comedy and Artaudian theories etc not to mention skills classes in movement, dance, accents, singing, acrobatics, stage combat and voice. But Bretton taught me life skills and gave me a very firm grounding.
One of my most stark memories from my training is from about two weeks into my course. A tutor set us a short task (I can’t remember exactly what it was but that’s not important) that we had to perform to their rest of the group in about 5 minutes time. We rehearsed frantically, performed excitedly and sat patiently waiting for his response. “Well, it’s clear from that there are no natural actors in this room. You’ve all got your work cut out to graduate from this course” he said. Dumbstruck. Whether or not he meant that wholeheartedly or if it was a pre-planned statement he shook me to the core. “I know I’m better than that, I’ll show you!” screamed my internal monologue. Unbeknownst to me at the time, it created a mind-set through the whole of my 3 years to push myself harder to achieve more. It probably still pushes me now. Although I instantly formed a dislike of that lecturer I’d love to meet him again now, thank him, shake him warmly by the hand and ask if he did indeed plan that or not. Mighty oaks from little acorns grow.
One aspect of the industry that Bretton prepared me for was unemployment. It seems very defeatist to train actors for three years only to tell them that they probably aren’t going to work that much. To use a fact I got from Equity (my trade union) a couple of years ago, people who class themselves as actors only work for an average of seven weeks per year as actors. A horrifying statistic but one that reflects the competition in the industry. Bretton taught us skills to prepare us for the wider world. As an example, in the cast of one of my first professional theatre jobs there were two fresh graduates, myself and a girl from Mountview. Although her course had taught her exceptional levels of singing, dancing and acting, she had no idea how to write a theatre CV. Not only that, she hadn’t been taught how to approach agents or what to do to become registered self-employed. Some of my fellow students actually looked down on Bretton at the time due to it not being one of the big drama institutions. I never did but the more time that passed after leaving the more I appreciated both what it and, indeed, the course had done for me. I was always surprised at how well regarded the place was, too. In countless auditions the panel would comment positively on my training. At first I thought it might just be because they were sick of seeing RADA clones or people from Arts Ed who were just ‘tits and teeth’ but no, it seemed they all respected the place. Again, it’s only in hindsight that this is becoming clear.
My final bit about Bretton Hall is more of a brag than anything analytical. It’s set in 334 acres of rolling Yorkshire countryside and dates back to the 14th century. The village of West Bretton doesn’t have a pub (but does have an idyllic cricket club) and the closest town is about 7 miles away. It’s stunning. To be able to walk around the house and gardens of what is essentially a National Trust property in all but affiliation on your lunch break was marvellous. Whereas most drama schools and universities are set in the middle of a city, Bretton was remote, peaceful and tranquil. When the course became intense you could head off into the isolation of the Country Park and be hundreds of metres away from another human within 5 minutes. Being able to escape briefly by yourself and gather your thoughts in silence was fabulous, particularly for an only child like me! So yes, a thoroughly beautiful place to be. Brag over (although I hope you’re jealous).
Finally, I’ve had a real topsy-turvy 10 years. Some people at the reunion had had families, had bought houses, had travelled the world, had moved in a completely different career direction or had pretty much done nothing with their lives, all of which are naturally perfectly valid ways to spend the 10 years. Out of that list I’ve only bought a house in which I live happily with my partner. I’ve been lucky enough to have worked all over the UK, the length and breadth Europe and even in Russia. I’ve played some of the biggest theatres in the country, been in various TV programmes, learnt loads of new performance skills, struggled for a few years with a very serious bout of depression (maybe I’ll do a blog on that sometime) and met some wonderful people. Throughout all of this I’ve had some great constants, though: my mum and family, my best friends, my agent and the Leicester Tigers. Always keeping me grounded.
Oh, and a nod of the head to Alex, Ali, Annabelle, Ben, Cath, Gemma, Hayley, Irina (who flew in from Finland!), Jane, Jenny, Kate, Lovely Fran, Lyns, Mary, Nic, Nick, Pink Karen, Rach, Suzanne, Snowy, Welsh Dan, Zara plus everyone else who came along (including the kids!) to the reunions. Really great to see you all. I miss my time at Bretton Hall and it’s a pity it closed down in 2007. I’ll forever cherish the memories & be thankful for the lessons.
The view from the front of the Mansion looking out over the Yorkshire Sculpture Park and Bretton Country Park with the lower lake in between.
Some of the gang on the steps outside Mansion. We used to pose here each year before the Summer Ball!