Hundreds of drama students and their pushy middle-class parents have been outraged to discover that drama schools have collaborated since the Renaissance to end the practice of kidnapping children and fast-tracking them to the London stage, a route to a theatrical career that could have saved today’s aspiring actors years of school fees and angst.
Dr Bart van Es of Oxford University says Court documents show some Elizabeth children were forcibly snatched, without any need to attend elocution lessons, period movement classes or the Brit School. One irate parent raged: ‘I’ve attended twelve school plays, faked interest in everything from Gilbert & Sullivan to that thing with all the suicides and faced bankruptcy, just to get my India into Sylvia Young. Are you telling me I could have had her kidnapped by a ruff-wearing thug at a fraction of the cost?’
Dr van Es says these children faced systematic exploitation and abuse but admits they would have saved tens of thousands of pounds in fees. The London theatre environment was clearly sexual, exploitative and misogynistic, but in others respects it was entirely different from today’s drama schools. While cruelty was widespread throughout 16th/17th century, children were at least saved the humiliation of having to find an agent, gurn for a spotlight photographer or wear a unitard.
Theatre owners had Royal Licences to forcibly recruit talented children, as opposed to contemporary casting which unerringly alternates between James Corden or David Tennant for every role. Today’s students are required to hone their skills in narcissism, insincerity and shallowness, whereas the Elizabethan waif was only required to have a shapely calf muscle. ‘The one positive about the Renaissance approach,’commented one drama graduate, ‘is that after all the whipping and enforced labour, you would at least have a few genuinely interesting anecdotes.’