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Inside the RSAMD’s Speirs Locks studios

Nine months ago, the RSAMD’s new high-spec studios were a rat-infested warehouse - now they define the future for developing the arts in Scotland.

It’s an unexpected Tardis moment. On the outside, the new Speirs Lock Studios on Glasgow’s Garscube Road resemble a long, low unit of brisk industrial storage.

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Step inside, however, and you enter an airy, expansive complex giving the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama the kind of workshop facilities most dance or theatre companies can only dream about.

This year sees the academy celebrating the 60th anniversary of its School of Drama. Looking back over decades of change and achievement will be just one part of events throughout the months to come. Looking forward, however, has led to a visionary development -- the Speirs Lock Studios -- that will not only enhance the academy’s status at home and abroad, but will also open up a host of new creative experiences for the communities on its doorstep.

Maggie Kinloch, vice-principal and director of drama at the RSAMD, admits she came very close to tears when she walked into the finished building for the first time and let the sheer scale of it sink in -- you could probably fit the Hampden Park pitch into the floor area twice over and still have room to line up several squads of cheerleaders.

Blueprints that had promised so much -- vast, two-storey open spaces for making scenery, light-filled workrooms for designing and making costumes, well laid-out changing rooms with showers for the dance and music theatre students -- had become a reality beyond everyone’s expectations. “I felt so incredibly proud of my colleagues who’d been involved in driving this through,” she says, and a slight quiver in her voice tells you that she means it. Kinloch had been one of the RSAMD team who had originally visited the site a year ago and the memories are vivid.

She explains that the original premises had been an automobile spares depot that had succumbed to the recession and closed down, more or less overnight. “We came in and, really, it was a tragic building. Everything was smashed to bits. Files were scattered across the floor, desks broken, rats running around. Oil and water was all over the floor; an asbestos roof. We stood in the middle of this, absolutely horrified. There was such pain and anger in the building, you felt it. We looked around, finding reasons to say no -- it didn’t have an upper level, for instance. Then, bit by bit, we started thinking about what it did have. It was the right size and in an area that is already showing an investment in the arts -- the National Theatre of Scotland and Scottish Opera are near neighbours here. So is the Glue Factory, now being used as an exhibition space. And it was a 10-minute walk from our campus in Renfrew Street.”

The location clinched it not just in terms of it being within to-ing and fro-ing reach of the RSAMD’s main building in the city centre, but also because of the surrounding area itself. The studios have formed links with Abercorn Secondary School, which is directly across the road and caters for pupils who have additional support needs. Standing on the pavement, her voice of necessity raised above the constant roar of heavy traffic, Kinloch also points to the primary school just up the road, then she turns and gestures towards the nearby motorway flyover. “We’ve become really aware of the M8 divide,” she says. “That sense of a kind of cut-off point in the city, and the need to go beyond that and reach out to the communities that lie north of that divide. We’re determined that this fabulous building will be accessible to this community. We’ve already got Dramaworks, offering opportunities for participating in theatre projects to people of all ages, and we’re launching Danceworks to do the same with movement. Everybody connected with this building is passionate about the arts and we want to share that -- we’re part of this community now.”

For the locals wandering by the site of the former auto-spares business, the sheer speed at which the studios came into being must have seemed a nine-day wonder. Make that a nine-month wonder. That’s how long it took for Malcolm Fraser Architects, and the construction team to bring the new build in on time, and on budget -- the cost was £6 million, with 90% gathered from private donations. Kinloch agrees that, given the current spectre of financial cutbacks, they are lucky things went as swiftly and as smoothly as they did. “I think if we’d held off, even for a few months,” she says “we wouldn’t have had anything like this on the cards; not now, maybe not ever. And when we see the difference it’s going to make to what we do, and the effect the studios have on the staff and students who are already working here, and loving it …” She falls silent. In the wake of the Browne Report into higher education in England, Kinloch and her colleagues are braced for the academic sector to become ever more competitive. The Speirs Lock Studios are a definite plus in attracting students to both the technical/production arts courses and the BA in modern ballet that came on-stream in 2009.

Eventually, around 150 to 200 students of modern ballet, musical theatre and technical and production arts will be based at the new creative campus. Kinloch mentions that, already, work is under way at what is nicknamed the West Wing in the RSAMD’s main complex which is used by around 850 students from across the world. The spaces once taken up by the technical and stagecraft courses will now be freed up and madeover to accommodate more rehearsal space for students on the acting and contemporary performance practice courses while a further state-of-the-art recording studio will prove a boon to those studying music, or taking a degree in digital film and television. Since the Academy of Music first emerged in 1929 -- the Royal cachet came in 1944 and the School of Drama was incorporated in 1950 -- the standards achieved there have led to the RSAMD now being widely acknowledged as one of the foremost conservatoires for the performing arts in Britain. And with such high-profile names as David Tennant, Alan Cumming, Bill Paterson, Daniela Nardini, to name but a few, on the lists of successful graduates, it’s no surprise that applications to the RSAMD include many from overseas.

For Paul Tyers, head of the BA (modern ballet) department, the new studios are like a home from home -- Malcolm Fraser’s team were the same architects who created a Tramway base for Scottish Ballet on the south side of Glasgow, where Tyers is deputy artistic director. Tyers knows, from his earlier career as a dancer and ballet-master/deputy director with the pre-Tramway Scottish Ballet, what it’s like to do a class or rehearse in cramped, artificially-lit spaces. “Of course you do your best, whatever the circumstances,” he says. “But there definitely is a psychological impact, a real boost to morale, when a dancer or a student is given these kind of high-spec facilities. It’s a professional working environment, and it says you want them to take what they do seriously, as seriously as professionals.”

While the first year intake, many of them eager recruits from England, check out their timetables on the foyer computers, Tyers beckons me into one of the four dance studios that fronts on to gritty Garscube Road and says: “Listen.” The sound-proofed hush is almost uncanny, given the traffic thundering by a few feet away. “It’s ‘son of Tramway’ isn’t it?” he says, pointing out the streamlined design features that these studios share with the Scottish Ballet ones.

High ceilings with natural light flooding in through generous skylights combine with a ventilation system geared to hard-working bodies with muscles that require a certain level of warmth.

“You don’t want conventional air-conditioning when you have dancers standing doing exercises at the barre. The cold air hits them like wind chill,” he says. “And you don’t really want the noise either. And for me, this kind of care -- the finish in the building, the space provided so we can have a pilates studio and even a quiet room for dancers to relax in -- is amazing. This is the standard we have at Scottish Ballet -- a standard not every dancer enjoys either during training or even in their professional career.”

The same impressive standard can be found in the technical/production arts half of the building. It’s evident in the new painting frame where a mobile bridge allows students to work easily on every inch of a hanging back-cloth. Once the blank canvas has been fixed into the frame, the students can use the moving platform to travel up and down at will -- an altogether easier task than unrolling metres of canvas on a floor and painting scenic vistas by crawling about on your hands and knees.

“You don’t find that equipment in every theatre,” says Kinloch, eyes sparkling as she adds that they’ve kept the existing frame in Renfrew Street “because it’s a different type, and that will really develop high-end practical skills.” From the heavy-duty industrial machinery that graces the set-building workshop, to the wardrobe storage area where costumes are neatly ordered, the academy can contemplate introducing a hire service for members of the public. The phrase state of the art becomes the routine description.

And for Kinloch, there could be no more appropriate phrase for what the Speirs Lock Studios are all about. “I think that what we have here says that what we -- what the arts -- do, matters. It says that we take the creativity and skills of our students seriously, whether they’re training to be dancers or to work in production. And I think the standards we have in place here will definitely make a difference to our whole industry -- to the state of our art -- and beyond that, to the people of Glasgow, whatever side of the M8 they’re on. So yes, the studios are a 60th birthday present to us, but I see them as a legacy for the city, and beyond.”

The formal opening of Speirs Lock Studios three days ago could, in fact, be seen as an emblematic beginning to a programme of widespread regeneration that an optimistic Kinloch connects with the 2014 Commonwealth Games in Glasgow. “We had 60 of our students -- including the lone piper who became a kind of poster-boy -- taking part in the recent handover Commonwealth Games ceremony in Delhi. And I can tell you, as we sat there watching the event on TV, we were all so excited, and excited about planning how we are going to be an active part of 2014. It’s not just that symbolic M8 divide we want to get across. We want to get across the old assumptions that the arts are ‘exclusive’. When people pass Speirs Lock Studios, I’d say: ‘Watch this space!’ And don’t just look in, through the windows at the amazing photographs on the wall. Pick up one of our leaflets. Come inside.”

The Herald and Sunday Herald are media partners of the School of Drama’s 60th Anniversary and will be running a series of exclusive features on the school to mark the celebrations.

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