Derby Theatre as a learning theatre

A theatre is a venue where live audiences go to see live performers and a university is where you might study the various different elements that make up a theatre performance. But what happens when you bring the two together and open up every aspect of a theatre as an opportunity for learning?

The result is a complex Learning Theatre model, which has a huge impact on students, the community, the artistic landscape of the city and the industry at large. At least that is the outcome of the collaboration between Derby Theatre and the University of Derby, which began in 2012 when the University acquired Derby Theatre from Derby City Council.

So, what is happening backstage at Derby to make it such a trailblazer?

“Many universities with theatre programmes have partnerships with professional theatres and some have their own theatre facilities on campus. There are many different models, but the reason that the University of Derby and Derby Theatre model is unique is because of the integrated and embedded nature of the programmes that sit at the heart of it,” explains Caroline Barth, Creative Learning Director at Derby Theatre.

“University of Derby academics are based in the theatre – they sit in our building and work alongside theatre staff to deliver modules. Teaching sessions are practical and therefore take place in the working theatre.

“We do have some traditional lectures, but we know from experience that it works better when the students are in the theatre building, walking the dressing room corridors alongside the actors and interacting with theatre staff on a daily basis, so they are familiar with the professional environment.”

The UK's first Learning Theatre

Derby Theatre’s approach to teaching and learning has not gone unnoticed. Considered to be the UK's first Learning Theatre, it is now recognised internationally as a pioneering venue. The Derby Theatre team attend regular forums with different universities to talk about ways of working, where they are most commonly asked: ‘how are you so close to the University?’

“It’s because of how it’s been set up from the beginning,” explains Caroline. “To start, we are integrated in terms of governance. The Vice-Chancellor of the University, Professor Kathryn Mitchell, is Chair of our Board, so she has that level of insight and is able to understand the University and Theatre equally.

“In other models, you will see close working but the way it works at Derby is it is embedded across all modules, through all three years.

“All staff are trained in communication and facilitation so that they can share their skills with learners, and staff really love that element of the job.”

Student sitting on sofa acting during performance at Derby Theatre

Sarah Brigham, Artistic Director and Chief Executive of Derby Theatre, agrees: “As an artist, it is fantastic to come to work and have over 100 undergraduates in our building. They are the next generation of theatre makers, so they inspire me every day with fresh ideas and energy. But it also makes me really reflective as an artist. I have to consider the educational benefit of what we do and why we are doing it. Having to disseminate how we work is really interesting and makes us plan much more carefully.”

A network of opportunity

The Learning Theatre ethos spreads through everything Derby Theatre does and it is not only providing benefits for the students. It is having a bigger impact on the city and communities within it, and students are being given opportunities to develop their skills and professional networks so they are work-ready graduates.

“Every day, through our award-winning community-based programmes, our team is working in schools, colleges, community centres, social clubs and other communities to develop confidence and other soft skills using drama,” continues Sarah.

“For example, we worked with a group of young people in care where they acted as creative consultants on a show about the care system and they directed the writing, the acting and other elements of the show.

“Through this work, and other projects, we provide a network of opportunity for students to come and learn alongside us.”

Last year, it was announced that Derby Theatre would remain part of Arts Council England’s National Portfolio and received more than £3 million for four years of delivery to support this programme of work. In addition to this, the Theatre has been awarded over £2.5 million in project funding by the Arts Council for its excellent work in the community, delivering in partnership with other key organisations and independent artists.

And the work ethic is embedded back on the main stage in the theatre too, as Caroline explains: “We actively encourage students to talk to us about how they can develop their employability, networks and careers.

“Modules include follow-on project work and activities for students, so that they feel confident approaching staff and asking questions. In the second year, every student at the University does work experience, but most theatre students choose to do theirs with us.

“Our graduates have gone on to do great things, from staying on to work in the theatre itself to forming their own theatre companies. We continue to support them through our ‘In Good Company’ programme, funded by Arts Council England, which was created for theatre makers and companies in the Midlands, to provide mentorship, business support, resources and high-profile performance opportunities.”

Dan Ellis is a University of Derby graduate who now works as a relief technician at Derby Theatre: “Having a theatre course which is based in a receiving and producing theatre is fantastic. You can really engage and connect with the professional theatre makers, designers, actors and technicians because they are in the building that you are studying in. They are doing the job that you want to get into.

Four students standing acting during performance at Derby Theatre

“The opportunities are there to get as much experience as you want, therefore enhancing your academic work and connecting you to potential theatre companies that might employ you after your studies. I don’t think I’d be where I am today in my career if I went to a different university. I’ve just toured China with an award-winning theatre company, started my own, and have worked up and down the country on a variety of different projects.”

The Learning Theatre concept at Derby is successfully producing theatre and threading creative learning through every element of its work to deliver a positive student experience, but what is the wider impact of this style of teaching and learning and just how unique is the University and Theatre’s approach?

Inclusive and collaborative learning

Darren Daly, Lecturer in Drama at the University of Wolverhampton, has previously worked and studied at the University of Derby. He is now in the final stages of a PhD, which focuses on English regional theatre and university collaborations in delivering undergraduate theatre degrees and, particularly, how the concept of a ‘Learning Theatre’ can provide a transformative (as opposed to a transactional) model for that delivery.

“Who is ‘allowed’ or ‘welcome’ in theatre buildings has been focused on by a number of researchers in theatre, often with a focus on the exclusionary nature of the building design, operation and behaviour within them,” says Darren. “The collaboration at Derby and its impact on the material spaces of the building goes some way to addressing these concerns and creating a more inclusive environment that promotes the nature and processes of learning within theatre.

“Generally speaking, my research illustrates that there are a large number of universities that use connections with theatres as part of their marketing offer. Most of the models I looked at place students predominantly on university campus learning spaces and lecture halls, and have visiting lecturers to supplement undergraduate learning or visit their theatre partners for production modules, utilising them as performance venues or for occasional workshops.

“What Derby does very differently is that it’s completely integrated. The location of the students and academics in the building is transforming the nature of the space, making learning more present and visible as students spread across the theatre alongside the professional work.

“Students feel more at home in the building and, as a result, more confident in approaching the staff for advice, mentorship and support to take up opportunities.

“Often universities will offer students placements in their second or third year, or expect them to pursue extracurricular opportunities independently. This mode of engagement can often fall foul of the numerous barriers to students in connecting in this way, particularly for underrepresented groups, students who have work, family commitments, or lack of confidence.

“What is happening at Derby in the Learning Theatre isn’t a one-off placement, they don’t just go in, do their placement and come out still having barriers to making connections. That’s one of Derby’s real strengths. Students' professional networks develop at a much earlier point and have three years to build and grow.

“Some institutions I researched were labelled as Teaching Theatres or Training Theatres, which indicates a one-way pedagogic transmission. A Learning Theatre suggests a much more collaborative approach.

“A Learning Theatre also learns – this, for me, is the real value of the Derby Theatre model and has been clear to see in the commitment to reflective and collaborative engagement between academics, theatre staff and students in the model.

“Derby’s Learning Theatre is an innovative model which offers a lot of potential for the future.”