York College’s first acting degree intake heads for a knockout climax at York Theatre Royal Studio tonight and tomorrow

Jorgie Willingham’s Referee and Jim Carnall’s boxer Paul Stokes in rehearsal for The Sweet Science Of Bruising at York Theatre Royal. Picture: James Harvey

FOR the knock-out show of the week in York, look no further than Joy Wilkinson’s The Sweet Science Of Bruising, staged at York Theatre Royal Studio tonight and tomorrow by the York College and University Centre’s first cohort of Acting for Stage and Screen BA students.

This epic tale of passion, politics and pugilism in the world of 19th-century women’s boxing forms their graduating production after two intense years at the Slim Balk Lane campus in Bishopthorpe

Set up in partnership with York Theatre Royal and Screen Yorkshire in 2021, the course is designed for a maximum intake each year of 16, 12 signing up in the first year and 11 in the second.

“Entry is based on rigorous auditions, with many more applications than places available,” says programme leader and acting lecturer James Harvey. “The youngest starter would be 18; the oldest, 37. There’s no age limit. It’s all about giving an opportunity.

“Lots of the students in the first year were the first from their family to go to university, so the aim is to offer high quality but not at a prohibitive expense.

“Setting up the course was wrapped in the idea that there needs to be a place in our region that has great accessibility and is affordable, doing a course over two years, when the vast majority of training takes place in London and courses around the country are out of people’s price range. Since Bretton Hall closed, there was nowhere to go around here, and we’ve changed that.”

Gaining the partnerships with York Theatre Royal and Screen Yorkshire gave the degree course momentum, and crucially too, it is endorsed by the Open University and is one of around 20 education providers in Great Britain and Ireland affiliated to the Spotlight Graduate Membership Scheme. The only other one in Yorkshire is based in Leeds.

The students have been undertaking two years of professional acting training under Harvey, who has been assisted by a team of experienced industry professionals, such as voice lecturer Yvonne Morley-Chisholm, who works regularly at Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre, London; movement lecturers Jen Malarkey and Gemma O’Connor; professional development lecturers Niall Costigan and Cassie Vallance, both familiar figures from the York stage, and screen acting lecturer Kate Chappell.

External industry experts are invited frequently to share their knowledge with the students, while the Royal Shakespeare Company has delivered a workshop on motion capture.

“The students have done incredibly well, doing an accelerated two-year course rather than the usual three, so they only get the college breaks: two weeks at Christmas, two at Easter, then working through the summer, with two weeks off in September,” says James.

“The first-year students spend five weeks on a placement, whether at York Theatre Royal, Pilot Theatre in York, Talking Lens Pictures in Leeds, or Blackpool Grand Theatre, for example. Even Harvest Films in Sweden.

“That’s a big focus for us, the industry side of it, to go with Spotlight-recognised daily training, all day, every day, which gives credibility to what we’ve done for professional industry training.”

James has been impressed by the commitment of the first intake. “Some had done a foundation course at drama school but they wanted to come and do intensive training here, really buying into two years of living as actor-training monks,” he says.

As well as doing productions at York College and York Theatre Royal, students have worked with Screen Yorkshire at York Castle Museum last year and York Mansion House this year.

In May, York College University Centre staged its debut Graduate Showcase at the Theatre Royal, where the first graduating cohort exhibited their drama skills in a series of extracts from Patrick Marber’s Closer, Lucy Prebble’s The Effect, Matt Hartley’s Sixty Five Miles, Penelope Skinner’s Eigengrau, Evan Placey’s Consensual and Katherine Chandler’s Bird, played out in front of industry professionals on the lookout for talent.

A video of the performances is being sent out to agents unable to make the showcase. “It was a culmination of two years of professional actor training and gave our first cohort of actors an opportunity to present their work to the industry, which will launch them into successful careers for many years,” says James.

Now comes their final show, The Sweet Science Of Bruising, set in London, 1869, where four very different Victorian women are drawn into the dark underground of female boxing by the eccentric Professor Sharp. Controlled by men and constrained by corsets, each finds an unexpected freedom in the boxing ring as they fight inequality as well as each other.

“The students will still be with us throughout August, working on Creating My Own Work, which is like the practical equivalent of a dissertation, with full responsibility for everything they do in their ten-minute pieces,” concludes James.

York College BA (Hons) Acting for Stage and Screen Graduating Students in The Sweet Science Of Bruising, York Theatre Royal Studio, tonight and Friday, 7.30pm. Box office: 01904 623568 or yorktheatreroyal.co.uk.

Did you know?

JAMES Harvey is developing a musical with West End collaborators.