The funny thing about Dartington College of Arts is that you can spot a Dartoid a mile off: something about them makes you know that they studied there. Dare to ask, ‘so when were you at Dartington?’ and you open up an unspoken hierarchy of the college’s timeline. Maximum points scored to have attended before its official degree accreditation, notable points for the Mary Fulkerson era, and where I think I qualify for a few extra: being a graduate of the four year course. After that, I’m out of touch. Perhaps the points start going back up for graduates of the first Visual Performance degree. The scorecard timeline is, of course, subjective.
I was at Dartington from 1988 – 1992 and the degree I received was a Theatre BA. I feel sure I was interviewed for a course called “Theatre in Social Context”, but no one ever referred to it as this. I mention this only because whether or not it was too heavy-handed to be in the course title, Dartington’s social conscience seemed to be an important part of its identity. Not that we were expected to legitimise our practice in any way, and theatre for theatre’s sake was certainly applauded, it was more that we were encouraged to appreciate the role of art in society as vital, both critically and through our practice.
High up on its hill in the Devon countryside, Dartington’s idyllic setting also encouraged a great deal of introspection. Somehow this combination of looking within and looking without bred a gravity of importance to what we were doing, and the value of art in general. Encouraging such passion was very inspiring, (especially when you’re eighteen), and it was this passion that I remember so strongly as important to the Dartington experience.
It was also understood that the degree was not an end in itself, but rather that Dartington was imparting a way of life. I remember being told in the first couple of weeks that the college was there to prepare us for our fifth year. From the start we were being prepared to leave. Yet they were also referring to our first year of graduation as a fifth year: leaving the college, yet still being part of it. Perhaps that’s what makes the Dartington branding so strong: you can take the artist out of Dartington…
Encouraging passion and a way of life is all very well, but fundamentally what shaped us at Dartington was the opportunity to try out ideas and to make our own work. We were there to learn the craft of devising theatre shows, and that was what was expected of us. To assist this process, we were privileged to have some excellent stimulation: a great touring theatre programme; a series of practical sessions and lectures by the tutors and visiting artists; and the final degree presentations of our 4th year peers. But it was making our own work and being in each other’s shows that gave us the real skills.
Doing so much devising we also learnt how to work together. Although there was some inter-department collaboration and joint student shows, most of the devising that happened was to serve the vision of one particular person (the student making that work). Someone once described the creative processes at Dartington as “starting as a democracy and ending in dictatorship”, and this seemed to work for us. Anyone suggesting that Dartington was a truly collaborative experience, I would say, was lying. Learning the balance of democracy and dictatorship in devising has served me well from my proverbial 5th year onwards. I also loved being in other people's work.
Whilst collaboration may have been fairly low in the mix, looking across to other art forms was prevalent. I remember an almost reverential excitement about what we called the visual arts. The excitement focussed mainly on video and installation art but there was also a fascination with the lifestyle and biography of more traditionally based artists. This interest in visual art led to a great deal of site-specific work and design-led, visually based shows. Many of my contemporaries went on to work more directly in this field, becoming lecturers on fine art courses, video makers and gallery curators.
In my “fifth year” I did an audition for Stan's Cafe and got the job: a dream come true. It was great for me to become part of a company for whom the theatre language was the most important. Whilst the many cyclical debates about fiction and reality were sometimes mind-numbingly frustrating, it provided a theatre focus that only a few had engaged with at Dartington. At that time the other members of the company were all Lancaster graduates, (James Yarker, Graeme Rose, Amanda Hadingue and Ray Newe), and as the only Dartoid I felt a bit like the strange anomaly. This remained fairly constant until 1998 when Jake Oldershaw and Paulette Terry Brien joined the company. It was satisfying to feel the palpable terror that rose up from the other members when they worked out that the Dartoids were beginning to outnumber….
In that year I also took a job at Corali Dance Company, of which I am now Artistic Director. Corali is a group of performers with learning difficulties that I met during my third year placement from Dartington, at Rotherhithe Theatre Workshop (RTW), in London. Whilst now more informed by the people and places I’ve worked with along the way, my work is still shaped by my time at Dartington.
Dartington is so much about its location and whilst there we all went native. We were fully able to indulge in it all, the landscape, the Bauhaus architecture, the hot south Devon sun, and the art. This was vital to our work. When I hear the current talk of Dartington relocating, I feel like it will somehow be robbed of its soul.
To say Dartington is no stranger to financial crisis is putting it lightly. Completion of our degrees was threatened by college closure in 1991 and RTW was shut down in that year. It is now fancy riverside apartments. It is always a shock when these conversions first happen, and in this case, they nestle tightly next to the council blocks and social housing whose residents RTW was set up for. But RTW’s role in the local community had become negligible. I’m not surprised it went. The local residents never set foot in it and it played no part in the changing cultural landscape of the area.
Dartington College itself has been more resilient, reinventing itself in the face of artistic and cultural shifts. This is one of its greatest strengths: despite its relative geographic isolation it is really up there with its engagement with contemporary arts practice. I am not aware of Dartington Hall Trust’s similar engagement. Perhaps they too want to cash in on the property market and turn the college buildings into luxury flats. I really hope not. But if there were any consolation to such an abhorrence, it is to think about what ghosts those new residents would encounter. Not of the dead, but through the walls and up through the floor will come the voices of its many students past reliving the strangeness of a thousand midnight improvisations, night after night after night. Now that it is a scary thought.
On the 28th of January this year hundreds of people met up in Totnes to protest against the relocation of one the nation's most forward thinking creative institutions, Dartington College of Arts. As a former student I can testify to the emotional response that the proposed move generates, so James has asked me to write a few words about why that should be the case.
The letters of support page at www.savedartingtoncollege.org gives an insight into the influence that this small institution in rural Devon has had on the British and European performance community. Emails from Peter Brook, Forced Entertainment, Gavin Bryars and The People Show as well as countless other practitioners and teachers, all talk of the shock on hearing the news, and how relocation can only be a negative step. Looking back at my time at the college it becomes clear why.
Having studied for a year in Exmouth I relocated to Dartington and spent two years from 1993-1995. What attracted me was an educational focus that centred on exposing you to a wide range of contemporary art and then encouraging you to explore your own creativity in response to it. During that time I worked closely with visiting practitioners from the UK, Poland, USA and Bulgaria, travelled to festivals and workshops in Slovakia, Paris, Brussels and had access to not only a huge amount of free equipment and space but also a wealth of worldwide sister institutions with whom the college had built a relationship.
Alongside this there was an affordable progamme of theatre, live art, music and film run by the arts centre that ensured we were flooded with creative influences. Having been vaguely unsure what I wanted to do with myself prior to college after watching companies like Forced Entertainment, Kneehigh, Nigel Charnock and many others I was convinced I should tour collaborative performance work, internationally if possible. It was at here where a poster for a show called 'Voodoo City' by Stans Cafe caught my eye. Even though I didn't see it, the fact that they had come to Dartington meant that a couple of years later when an opportunity came to devise the new piece, 'Simple Maths', I had some idea what to expect and got in touch.
I can't help thinking that without the location this unique seat of learning just wouldn't be nearly so productive. Totnes, the town a mile or so away from the estate is a beautiful and 'alternative' town whose economy and quality of life is boosted greatly by the student population (and visa versa). Living there I met many people not connected with the college who influenced my thinking and creativity. The college itself surrounds a medieval hall placed on an idyllic hillside in the South Hams of Devon. We could take a day trip to the imposing and epic landscape of Dartmoor or get to some of the most beautiful beaches and seaside towns in England.
It is no surprise such influential figures as Rudolph Laban, John Cage, Michael Checkov came to work there. The place gives you a feeling that anything is possible, a calmness that lets you listen to what your thinking, a strength of heritage that fills you with pride and kicks you up the arse to produce something special. In short, it is inspirational. The rate of postgraduates who continue to work in the arts field must be one of the highest in the country.
Before I drove away from college having finished the course I took one last sentimental walk around the grounds. I know it sounds like some kind of tacky 'Dead Poet's Society' story but I'm even getting emotional writing about it now. There are only a few times in your life when you have the good fortune to realise how lucky you are without the benefit of hindsight. This was one such moment and I milked it for all it was worth. As I got back in the car I bumped into the college caretaker. He was a genuine Devon bloke who quietly put up with all the day to day running of the place and turned a blind eye if you set up a sound sytem in a field for a party. 'That you off then?' he asked. 'Yeah, yep' I said. I barely knew him but it felt good that he was the last goodbye. Then, 'Don't become a signwriter' was his reply. That's pretty obscure I thought and drove off a bit confused, but it comes back to me every now and then as a kind of mantra when I feel like my chosen career is going nowhere (as you inevitably do). Don't give in, don't copy everyone else, don't use this wealth of education to turn a fast buck, don't forget what you came here for and why this place exists.
Christ, Dartington is so influential even the caretaker gives a damn!
So in some way I hope that explains why I like many others feel a relocation for Dartington College of Arts is one that would kill it off. And why that would be a terrible loss for the creativity of this country. I hope the trust and the college can reconcile their differences, and have the courage not to 'become a signwriter'. As Gavin Bryars put it, 'What would remain, if the college were to be forced out, would be merely a pleasant rural environment for conferences and so on, like so many others around the country, but it would no longer have the resonance that it has at present'.
Sarah Archdeacon and Jake Oldershaw