The future of theatre: training for tomorrow with Plymouth Conservatoire
 

Dr John Matthews' – Programme Lead for BA (Hons) and MA Acting – first professional role came in a BBC drama while at school in South Wales.

His most recent parts have been on BBC radio, where he voiced Robert Cecil, Earl of Salisbury in John Nettles' production of Sir Walter Raleigh. Alongside, John has also appeared in experimental performance and in first casts of new writing at The Pleasance and Theatre 503.

John is recognised internationally for his research in the field of training and performance. As well as journal articles and edited collections, he has authored three highly acclaimed books on the subject including Training for Performance.

With interests including acting and training theory and practice, as well as philosophy of performance, his most recent work has focused on performance ontology and the role of temporality in training. 

John also supervises doctoral research in the area of new technologies and AI in performance training practice.

In a wide-ranging conversation, John talks to us about his passion and why studying acting and performance at the Plymouth Conservatoire is a unique and career-building experience.

 

What sparked your interest in acting and theatre? 

I was scouted as a schoolboy to play a role in a BBC TV drama (Friday on My Mind, 1992), so I fell into acting really! A BBC producer and director toured the schools of South Wales looking for a young actor to fit a specific role in a Falklands drama. They’d already cast the parents – Christopher Eccleston and Maggie O’Neill – and they were looking for a child who looked like he could be their son. They auditioned all of the boys who fitted the look and, in the end, I was cast. 

That chance event began a lifelong journey with acting that has led me here, to Plymouth.



Which shows and performers inspired you while studying? 

I have always been inspired by The New York City players, and especially their amazing show Joe. There is an amazing reveal in it (I won’t spoil it for you) which I just didn’t see coming, and that moment has always stayed with me. 

I really love the work of Sh?n Dale-Jones and his Hugh Hughes character too – every time Sh?n is in Plymouth with a new show, I am there!

Do you have a favourite production you performed in that you are most proud of?

I absolutely loved performing in Michael Pinchbeck’s The Man Who Flew Into Space From His Apartment. 

This is a show where the solo actor performs lines they have never heard before, which are relayed to him or her live as they perform. 

It was so exciting, especially because a lot of my students were in the audience – you really have to put your money where your mouth is then.

What does studying acting, theatre and performance in 2020 look like? How does Plymouth lead the way?

The collaboration with Theatre Royal Plymouth is totally unique. This gives our students the best of both worlds and access to leading research, teaching and creative practice. 

This collaboration makes the Conservatoire really innovative and allows us to get on board with the latest developments in theatre as they are happening. 

Training at Plymouth in 2020 looks like training will look like everywhere in 2030 – inclusive, accessible and progressive.

Can you tell us a little bit about your areas of research expertise and the relationship between acting and training with the philosophy of performance?

My research is all about training. I have published three books on the subject of performer training and each one has built on the previous one. 

My research has now moved into an area of training and emergent technology, as well as training and accessibility and inclusive training practice.



Plymouth Conservatoire brings the talents of the University and the Theatre Royal together to provide training and professional experience that will set talented students apart in today’s arts and creative industries.

Thelma Holt CBE, an Honorary Doctorate of Arts at the University (2010) said about the Plymouth Conservatoire:

“For me, this is a marriage made in heaven and as a student, if you can work with a theatre while you are still studying it gives you a great advantage in your professional career.”

Why is Thelma such an inspiration to the ethos of Plymouth Conservatoire and regional theatre production?

Thelma is an amazing role model. With Charles Marowitz and the Open Space Theatre she revolutionised and democratised theatre in London and, as an actress, producer and artistic director she has always been a risk-taker and a change-maker. That’s what we train our students to be.

 

How is technology such as AI and virtual reality changing the way we create, practice and perform?

That’s the focus of my research right now. I have been working with a doctoral student of mine on an autonomous AI training tool for actors that uses simple proprietary kit – like a smartwatch – and open source software to let actors practice their craft in isolation, which has been huge in the current context of COVID 19. 

This tool is also really accessible and inclusive, and is enabling us to reach out across international boundaries and get people into training who might not otherwise access it.



In light of current global circumstances, could you see Plymouth creating and staging a fully virtual performance in the future? How can streaming help the acting community and the public as a whole during this period of social isolation?

We’ve already done it! We have just finished a digital production of Girls and Boys with our final year actors.

When the pandemic hit our final year showcase at Theatre Royal Plymouth was cancelled. But, we didn’t let that stop us and, with director Phil Bartlett we set about making and recording a full-length version of this production with our students self-taping in their homes. 

The play is set in various domestic environments and so this worked really well and our amazing tech team edited everything together to make a feature-length show hosted online by Theatre Royal Plymouth.

What excites you about the future of performance?

Everything! With the closure of theatres the industry has almost completely halted and this means that there is a once in a lifetime opportunity to change and enhance industry practice.

There are some long-standing old habits and practices out there and lots of emergent and positive ideas about how to do things – like casting, for example – much better.

I am really positive that in this window of opportunity places like the Plymouth Conservatoire can lead the way by training our graduates to expect and demand more and better, and to role-model and lead this change.



How do you believe acting and performance can change our world for the better?

Performance allows us to test possibilities and to imagine a future very different to the present. Sometimes what we imagine is so compelling it becomes true. 

Theatre, and especially actor training can change individual lives but can also be a driver of change for all.

 

A spotlight on performance

When a university like Plymouth shares a relationship with a theatre as world-famous as Theatre Royal Plymouth, and when that theatre is able to embrace students from the University, the advantages are beyond measure.

Thelma Holt CBE – the successful British theatre producer and former actress, who opened the House – shares with us a wealth of stage wisdom, including the benefits of young actors learning their craft with a working theatre.

Find out more about Thelma's words of wisdom