On 4 April, without warning, an entire drama school shut down with immediate effect.
The Academy of Live & Recorded Arts (ALRA) closed its doors unceremoniously at 9 am in the morning, changing its website to just a written statement, detailing its closure.
Explanations, though, were thin on the ground. Many staff and students largely found out about the closure through Twitter.
This is the story of what happens when a drama school disappears, and what happens to all those caught in its wake.
A harsh reality for students
The 4 April was the first official day of the half-term break for students. Assured there would be no one in the building at the time, ALRA closed its doors and released the statement.
In the statement, ALRA claims that the closure was due to losses made in the 2020/21 academic year and a lack of new income streams for the 2021/22 year.
The university also emailed all students saying ALRA was in the process of going into liquidation and would cease teaching. All staff were let go immediately.
“We knew ALRA’s finances hadn’t been great,” Akaash Dev Shamar, a third-year student, tells Euronews. “I’m pretty sure they stopped hiring cleaners as sometimes the building would get so messy and when this would be brought up in student council meetings, we would hardly see any action taken.”
With just one term left to go, third-year students like Akaash were left without any clear knowledge of what would happen for the rest of their degrees and the important final shows drama students prepare for.
“We would constantly be asking to see where our money was going as we pay almost £14,000 a year. It’s a lot of money and honestly, it wasn’t reflected in what we were getting.”
Budgets had been squeezed for a long time. Last year, a mass restructuring saw many established staff lose their jobs and have positions taken up by newer staff.
George Richmond-Scott had been hired as the Head of Directing MA in September 2020 but was promoted to the Head of Live and Recorded Performance in the shake-up.
“That was grim and really difficult for the staff who had to leave,” he recalls. “Every role anyone then had was at least two, if not more, jobs rolled into one which was hardcore and very stressful. There was no support structure though. We worked hard and did our best to shield these realities from the students as best we could.”
Lack of communication
One of the biggest mysteries at the core of ALRA’s sudden disintegration is the way that students and staff were kept in the dark about the situation.
Around a month before the closure, Richmond-Scott and two other teachers directly approached the drama school’s senior leadership team about fears that the finances of the school were shaky.
“We asked them directly if the organisation was in serious trouble, if we were likely to close. We couldn’t get them to say anything at all.”
Less than a month later, all of ALRA’s students were left without a university. Staff were left without jobs. And freelancers were left without any clear sight of reimbursement.
Rose Bruford steps up to the plate
An hour after the announcement, another drama school, Rose Bruford, announced that they would be offering a place to every student who had been enrolled at ALRA. ALRA students had until 20 April to inform Rose Bruford that they would like a place to continue their course.
Rose Bruford had been contacted by the Office for Students (OfS), which had worked with ALRA over its imminent closure. OfS approached Rose Bruford just over a week before the announcement.
“We had a matter of days to decide whether we wanted to step in and teach these students,” Professor Mary Oliver, vice-principal of Rose Bruford, told Euronews Culture.
Given the similarity in the teaching structure of the institutions, Rose Bruford decided they would heed the call.
“I’ve been in academia for decades and never known a situation to end as badly as this in such a small time scale,” she says.
The goal for Rose Bruford is to provide as much continuity for the ALRA students as possible. ALRA had two campuses, one in London and another in the north of England in Wigan.
Rose Bruford has already started working with Wigan local council to keep the northern campus open for students. However, as the London campus was rented from a private owner, it is less clear whether they will be able to continue teaching ALRA students there.
Rose Bruford has also offered significant support to students feeling dislocated and traumatised by the loss of their university.
“They’re just shocked and require a lot of reassurance and guidance. For us it’s about giving them opportunities to speak,” Sally Elsmore, Head of Student Recruitment and External Affairs for Rose Bruford says.
Other organisations have also stepped up to help the ALRA students.
ALRA South students have been given a space by the Omnibus Theatre in Clapham to perform their final year shows from the end of May. There was also a showcase of ALRA South third years held at the enduring casting operation, Spotlight, on April 27.
However, it is unclear whether similar opportunities will be offered to ALRA North students.
Ex-staff member Daneka Etchells noted the issue on Twitter. "I’ve heard that a showcase has been organised for the former ALRA graduating students at Spotlight by former staff and a former patron. Yet it has only been provided to the South students. And nothing has been offered to the North students. They have been completely omitted."
"This is a really important issue. How can support for a whole school be so loud yet us only supporting those who can afford London training?" she continued.
"The implications of this are dangerous and frankly disgusting. Many attended the North campus solely due to cost. What exists for those?"
Student fees disappearing
Quickly after the announcement, discussion on Twitter turned to student fees. With nearly £14,000 a year in tuition fees, students were anxious to know what would happen to the remaining money they had given to ALRA.
This was heightened by the fact ALRA pushed and reminded students of potentially dire consequences were they not to deliver the next term’s fees by the deadline of 1 April.
The school closed its door three days after the deadline for the term’s fees.
Although the announcement of the closure came after the request for term fees, ALRA’s SLT definitely knew about the closure beforehand.
The SLT had directly discussed the necessary handover to Rose Bruford with OfS at least a week before this.
“We’ve committed to not asking any student to double-pay,” Professor Oliver says.
But with the company in liquidation, it is unclear if Rose Bruford will have any of the fees transferred to them. If students don’t choose to continue their studies with Rose Bruford, then the only hope of getting their fees back will likely be through long and protracted legal proceedings.
Freelancers and staff left in the lurch
“I then asked if I should be employing freelancers for the next summer term,” Richmond-Scott says, continuing the discussion of his meeting with the SLT last month.
Freelancers are key to a drama school’s work. Hired to build stages, write scripts and teach additional courses, a drama school’s freelance network will often be made up of the staff’s personal contacts.
“We were told flat out yes,” Richmond-Scott says. “So we did, and fully staffed for the next term.”
With ALRA’s sudden and unwarned closure, freelance work that was yet to be paid will now go unpaid.
Liam McLaughlin, creative director of Just Add Milk (JAM), a charity championing working class actors, says he’s aware of freelancers owed thousands by ALRA.
“One freelancer was asked to rewrite a script for a performance and had done months of work and that’s gone in an instant,” he explains.
“The reality is there is going to be very limited prospects for a lot of our members to get the money that they’re owed back,” says Karrim Jalali, Industry Official for Equity, the trade union for actors in the UK.
“That includes money for existing work that’s unpaid, it also includes the money lost for the cancelled contracts for future work, and for those who had rejected other work because they thought they had an engagement in place with ALRA,” Jalali explains.
As ALRA has gone into liquidation, it will go into a creditor process to reclaim on the school’s debts. “Unfortunately,” Jalali explains, “the way that works is that secure creditors take top priority.” This means HMRC, the banks, mortgage companies and loan companies are paid off, but the freelancers will likely be left in the lurch.
“My biggest fear and worry is that people who are owed thousands of pounds, to them that’s the difference between having a roof over their head, having food on their tables and supporting their families,” Jalali says.
Staff not in a better situation
In the list of priority creditors, typically, staff would be included. But the teachers and non-teaching staff of ALRA aren’t so lucky.
“British employment law and British business law is so poor that it doesn’t offer protection for ordinary people,” Amanda Sackur, Regional Support Official at University and College Union (UCU) says.
“If you look at the list of preferential creditors, those are the big institutions, not the individuals,” she explains. Freelancers are at the bottom of the list. But because ALRA let go of the staff as well with immediate effect, they aren’t much higher in priorities.
“It’s shocking ALRA behaved like this,” Sackur says. “Sacking them. If they hadn’t been dismissed, they would have been preferential creditors. But it was the simplest thing for ALRA to do. They cut all ties and run.”
The employees will be able to claim for a notice period and though they might not get it from ALRA, after a long process the government may reimburse them.
There is also the question of whether ALRA staff will be able to take up their previous jobs at Rose Bruford. In my conversation with vice-principal Mary Oliver, she couldn’t confirm anything other than that the institution is assessing the possibility.
A troubled organisation
Was this an inevitability for an institution beleaguered by mismanagement for years?
In ALRA’s most recently publicly released audit of its full accounts until 31 August 2020, a five-year plan up to August 2025 gave trustees confidence that ALRA “remains a going concern for the foreseeable future not limited to 12 months from the date of signing these financial statements.”
One anonymous commentator said that the ALRA has been a terrible employer for at least a decade. And it hasn’t been an easy last two years for the institution.
In March 2020, an open letter was published detailing accusations pertaining to systemic racism at the school. Following the criticism, the board commissioned an external audit to report back findings on the accusations.
School principal Adrian Hall stepped down in January 2021.
In May 2021, the internal racism report concluded the school had cultivated a “humiliating, hostile and exclusive” environment for students of colour. There was also an allegation of an ALRA teacher in the northern campus sexually harassing students.
On 31st May 2021, ALRA responded with a statement that stated the school was "heartbroken to learn of these allegations."
"The allegations have been made against staff members who no longer work at ALRA. The Senior Leadership of the school have opened an internal investigation into the claims of sexual misconduct and are engaging in a public call for information."
MA in Professional Acting student, Saffy Andrews, relates her experiences of the “hostile” environment.
“The more I complained, the more I got little microaggressions or comments about my disability,” she describes.
“I was dealing with so much during our return from lockdown in April, I lost a family member I was considering not being on earth at all. It was horrible and ALRA did nothing to help support me. I never had support with my dyspraxia especially and only got support in the middle of October knowing the course ends at the beginning of December.”
Then there was the staff shake-up. Other commentators who spoke to Euronews Culture on condition of anonymity have questioned whether there was corruption on top of the mismanagement.
Richmond-Scott recalls communication issues with the SLT. “They didn’t communicate well with the rest of the staff or students. They were unreachable and that’s not healthy or a good way to operate.”
In October 2021, ALRA started looking for a new owner. However, after talks with interested parties, the school claims it was impossible to achieve.
The amount of work put into actually selling the institution has been thrown into doubt. “They obviously prioritised over finding a buyer as no one heard any whispers about their search. That's unusual. Usually rumours float around. I suspect they didn't look very hard as they didn't want the news going out,” said one anonymous commenter.
The interim SLT brought in included Harry Cowd as chairman of the board, Ellie Johnson-Searle as interim principal, Sara Doherty as interim registrar, and Elizabeth Sell as interim chief operations officer. Euronews has attempted contact with all of them, without success at the time of publication.
A failure of government and governance
Many of the people interviewed for this article questioned the morals of setting up an academic institution so that the fees could be absorbed and the board could disappear so suddenly.
“The people who were directors will walk away with their ability to start another venture intact,” Sucker says.
“There is a serious problem with privatised education. If you rely on fee-based models, institutions can go bankrupt and the government is setting them up to fail.”
“This isn't the first private education company that has failed and it won't be the last. It's not a responsible model for education. It's not something you buy that's subject to consumer approaches, it's about transforming people and their lives,” she says.
With higher education institutes needing to rely on fees instead of government support, they begin to function like businesses. “This has shown the government won’t step in and bail out higher education institutions,” Oliver notes.
Discussing the issue with Equity, Paul Liversey, Northwest Official, believes there needs to be greater guarantees for student loans. “In that case, if the organisation goes bust, somehow the money is protected. It’s not considered the same as a financial loan from a big organisation where there are protections from the big creditors if that organisation goes bust.”
“We want greater security for both freelancers and student loans. Push for more funding for public education and then in the meantime provide as much support as we can with redundancies, to get their money back and mental health support,” Liversey says.
The future of the arts in the UK
“There's a question about this current government's hostility to the art sector as well,” Sackur says.
She notes the small funds given to some theatres and museums through the pandemic. How that money was enough to keep the closed theatres fiscally solvent, but there was no money for the people who would typically work for those institutions.
Similarly, she questions why drama schools have been underfunded by the UK government. Given the high teacher engagement of their courses, drama schools require a higher ratio of staff to students, but the funding model hasn’t recognised that.
“The arts sector is a major economic and educational and cultural benefit to the country. But the government won't acknowledge that or support it,” she says.
The impact of losing ALRA also may have reverberations across the next generation of theatre practitioners.
For a third year at ALRA, their first year would have started just months before the COVID pandemic, limiting classroom hours to online lessons for the next two years. Now, finally, back in the school for their third year, the students have had their studies completely disrupted by this.
ALRA’s campus in Wigan was also a rare drama school that was accessible to working class actors in the north of the UK. Losing it in such sad circumstances will likely affect prospective students’ hopes for a career in theatre. “It's already incredibly underrepresented and things like this happening don't encourage anybody taking up this industry. It will not improve the diversity of this industry,” Liversey says.
“People without rich backgrounds will be wary of trying a career in this industry as when things like this happen, they're left high and dry.”