Warning: This article contains descriptions of sexual misconduct and harassment
When Holly* was accepted into an elite drama school, she was constantly told how lucky she was to be there. But instead, she was left feeling violated.
During one lesson, her head was lowered into a bucket filled with vomit, excrement and a pig’s trotter. In the same lesson, she says, her fellow students forced her to inhale the smell of sperm on boxer shorts belonging to one of them – all in the name of honing her craft.
Getting accepted into one of the UK’s 18 prestigious drama institutions feels like winning the lottery, students say.
Classes are small – between 15 and 30 students. As they walk to lessons, the faces of famous alumni often hang on the walls above them, reminding them how privileged they are to tread the same path.
During their study, aspiring actors can find themselves pushed to their limits.
They are expected to participate in a series of physical and sensory experiences designed to prepare them for future roles on stage or screen. But behind closed doors, graduates say, the fine line of what’s acceptable is being crossed and exploited.
“A breeding ground for sexual misconduct,” is how one former student described the culture inside these institutions.
Former drama school principal, Annemarie Lewis Thomas, who founded the now-closed Musical Theatre Academy, believes some leading institutions are exploiting the blurred lines of student boundaries.
From a young age, these students are told to do whatever it takes to succeed, she says. Then they go out into the industry having been taught to just say yes.
Sky News spoke to more than 50 people who shared similar traumatic experiences of misconduct and harassment. They only agreed to speak anonymously, fearing the impact it could have on their future careers.
Below are extracts from their testimonies.
These are the stories of three former students. All of their names have been changed.
In the second term of her first year at East 15 Acting School, *Holly’s class had a sensory experience set in a 1730s brothel in London.
“We were blindfolded and our hands were placed on breasts, bums and bulges,” she says.
The next sense the group explored was smell.
“For the second smell, I had my head lowered into a bucket which one of the guys in the group had pooed, pissed, vomited and put a pig’s trotter from the butchers in,” she says.
This was encouraged by their teacher, she claims.
“They actively encouraged students to go to extremes and made light of it.”
“We were indoctrinated into this cult-like bubble. The expectation is to say yes to everything because we’ve had it hammered into us that we’re lucky to be there.”
Anyone who did make waves was “picked on” and “bullied” by the tutors.
“None of it was safe and none of it’s consensual because you can’t consent to being treated like that.”
Drama school was *Hannah’s dream that she’d worked towards all her life. But the reality, she says, was “soul-destroying”.
Movement classes at her school, which Sky News isn’t naming, were “always uncomfortable”.
“There was one girl who wasn’t a pair, but the teacher would always use her as an example,” she says.
The teacher would ask for consent while massaging her groin: “It felt more like asking for consent was a box to be ticked, rather than he was genuinely concerned.”
She was then partnered with a student “who was considerably taller and larger than me”.
“[The teacher] would come over and watch us performing massages on each other and make comments like, ‘Try that harder, try that deeper’ and he’d watch and snicker,” she says.
In another exchange, he told her: “Your attitude really comes from your sex organs, doesn’t it?”
“He didn’t touch me. He just hovered his hands over my groin and said, ‘Your power comes from there’.”
Like Holly, she was reminded how grateful she should be to have a place there. Instead, she was left full of regret.
“When you look back, you think was it all necessary?”
It was during a singing lesson at another institution that *Megan was told to seduce the boys on her course and crawl towards them while practicing her solo.
“I started to feel uncomfortable but I couldn’t stop. So, I started to cry,” she says.
“I was then asked to sing twice more and only then was I allowed to sit down.”
Looking back, she can’t fathom what the lesson was, other than to leave her feeling “broken”.
In another improvisation workshop, being run by two older male students, she was told to act out sitting on a mechanised dildo in a sex shop.
“I know they weren’t laughing at me, but I felt incredibly uncomfortable. I stopped and tried to carry on the scene without engaging in any more of those types of mimes.
“The feedback I got once it was over was that I’d been ‘blocking’ and should have not disrupted it.”
There was no safeguarding at her school, she says. Instead, when she asked for help there was a feeling of “closing ranks against us”.
During her first year, her hair began falling out from the stress.
“I was trying to lose weight, so I wasn’t eating particularly well,” she says.
“That would at least free me from the fear of what I would be asked to do that day, because I knew it would be humiliating. I was like a raw nerve that had been carved away.
“Being hit by a car and escaping would have been a relief.”
STUCK IN THE 1970S
Of the 18 schools Sky News approached, only 10 fully responded to our Freedom of Information request.
Since 2020 those schools claim to have had at least 25 formal complaints of sexual misconduct and 47 complaints of inappropriate behaviour.
Many of the schools’ policies indicated a desire to resolve complaints internally and informally.
All of them have policies on student safety, harassment and wellbeing but some have specific sexual misconduct procedures for staff and students.
In the immediate aftermath of the 2017 #MeToo movement, leading conservatoires assessed their rehearsal and training processes to see how they could be improved.
The Office for Students, which regulates all higher education settings in England, is seeking to implement sexual harassment guidelines across colleges and universities. However, some are calling for drama conservatories to have specific guidance tailored to the unique environments.
Annemarie Lewis Thomas, founder of MTA and former principal, explains: “I think drama college is stuck – certain colleges, very much so.”
She says there needs to be a “systemic explosion” to sort out the problem. Students, Thomas says, need a place outside of their colleges where their voices can be heard.
“It was needed 10 years ago,” she says, when asked how quickly regulation needs to come in.
RESISTANT TO CHANGE
Some schools have brought in intimacy directors and coordinators like Robbie Taylor Hunt, who has delivered workshops and training for staff and students in theatres, drama schools and universities.
Taylor Hunt says institutions have approached him and his colleagues to oversee intimate content during end-of-term productions.
Occasionally, others have asked him to embed safe practices into the curriculum as part of actors, stage managers and director training.
But requests for delivering staff training have been rare, he says.
“Stage combat practice and sword use happens quite comprehensively in most drama school training, and there’s not the equivalent happening for intimacy practice.
“There seems to be resistance to it which I can’t quite get my head around beyond the idea of them not wanting to relinquish control over the way their staff run things.”
Meanwhile, abuses continue to take place behind closed doors, with students like Hannah, Holly and Megan paying the price for their failure to reform.
In response to this Sky News investigation, the University of Essex, which oversees the East 15 drama school, says it is launching an independent inquiry into the allegations that have been brought to attention.
A spokesperson for the University of Essex and East 15 Acting School said:
“We are appalled by the issues that have been raised, which do not reflect the values of our university and East 15. This case was not reported in 2014, but having had this brought to our attention, we are appointing an independent reviewer to complete a full investigation into these very serious allegations.
“Our updated guidance on conduct and consent, which has been in place since 2021, sets out expectations of staff and students and creates a learning environment which places respect for students at the centre of our work.
“We do not tolerate harassment and bullying of any kind. We actively encourage students to speak out if they have any issues and to report incidents directly to staff or through our Report + Support system so we can take appropriate action.”
*Names have been changed (SkyNews)