Bristol theatre school accused of neglecting students' welfare

‘Exhausted’ Bristol Old Vic students say theatre school once attended by Olivia Coleman and Jeremy Irons ‘neglected their welfare’ including a costume designer who was so tired by the work schedule she SEWED through both her hands

  • Ex-students of theBristol Old Vic Theatre School say they were ‘overworked’
  • The school said it was ‘shocked’ by the claims and would be investigating
  • Stephanie Drogemuller, 27, said she was so exhausted by the schedule she was once left needing surgery after ‘sewing’ through both of her hands  
  • Shani Schwartz said her experience had a long-term impact on her mental health
  • School CEO Fiona Francombe said they take duty of care ‘extremely seriously’

Stephanie Drogemuller during her time at the Old Vic

A famous theatre school once attended by a host of stars including Daniel Day-Lewis and Olivia Colman has been accused of neglecting the welfare of its ‘exhausted’ students – including one who claims she was so overworked she sewed through both her hands.

The Bristol Old Vic Theatre School – which also boasts the likes of Jeremy Irons and Naomie Harris among its glittering alumni – offers bachelor’s and master’s degrees in a range of subjects for the artistically inclined, including acting, stage and screen production, and drama writing.

It boasts of being one of the ‘most successful and well-respected conservatoire drama schools in the UK’ – but some former students now say the school is not ‘welcoming to anyone with a history of mental health issues’, claiming they it was nothing like the ‘nurturing’ environment it should have been.

The school said it was ‘shocked’ by the claims and would be investigating.

Among those to claim they suffered was Stephanie Drogemuller, 27, who said she was so exhausted by the schedule she was once left needing surgery after ‘sewing’ through both of her hands while making a birdcage for a hat.

Ms Drogemuller, who now lives in Reading, said: ‘I was so tired that I went through my hand on the industrial machines. I tried to move the needle out but to do that I needed to put pressure on the pedal and I was in shock so applied too much pressure and went through my other hand.

‘I needed a paramedic to remove needle and thread and my right hand did not heal right so needed surgery.

Stephanie Drogemuller’s hands after the sewing incident. Ms Drogemuller, who now runs an embroidery business, said that after leaving the Old Vic less than a year into her course she finished her degree at the London College of Fashion who were ‘so much more supportive’

The Bristol Old Vic Theatre School – which also boasts the likes of Jeremy Irons and Naomie Harris among its glittering alumni – offers bachelor’s and master’s degrees in a range of subjects for the artistically inclined, including acting, stage and screen production, and drama writing

Another former Bristol Old Vic Theatre School student, Shani Schwartz, also said her experience there had a long-term impact on her mental health

Ms Drogemuller, who now runs an embroidery business, said that after leaving the Old Vic less than a year into her course she finished her degree at the London College of Fashion who were ‘so much more supportive’.

She said of the Bristol school: ‘It was basically an environment where overworking and burnout was glorified. At introductory events they would say how many dropped out and couldn’t handle it almost as a source of pride.

‘The stress was related to a variety of courses. I did costume making but I have been in contact with some who did acting and they said the same. The issue was across the board.

‘I was bright-eyed and bushy-tailed when I got accepted and was so excited. I was thrilled and wanted to learn more and improve my craft.

‘But over the first term I quickly started to see it was an environment that was not welcoming to anyone with a history of mental health issues and even people considered recovered were relapsing.

‘That was the case for me. During the Christmas period there was an overlap between three shows and the demand in terms of hours was huge. It felt like they were trying to fund the shows through ticket sales and then rely on people on the courses for free labour.’

Ms Drogemuller said they did not get proper training before being ‘dropped in the deep end’, adding: ‘In terms of learning they did not teach – they just facilitated you working.

‘Their defence was always that the industry environment was very high pressured and demanding and this was trying to prepare you. It was like ”if you can not handle it what are doing working in the industry.”


The theatre school attended by a host of stars including Daniel Day-Lewis (left) and Olivia Colman (right) has been accused of neglecting the welfare of its ex-students

‘But it did feel sinister. When I drew things to their attention it was made up that I was the only one who was struggling.’

Another former Bristol Old Vic Theatre School student Shani Schwartz also said her experience there had a long-term impact on her mental health.

Before she was accepted at the school, Ms Schwartz said she had informed tutors that she suffered from dyslexia, dyspraxia and depression but was enrolled in the school’s professional acting course from 2013 to 2015.

She withdrew from a touring production in order to visit her psychiatrist in London and later received a letter she says wrongly labelling it an ‘unauthorised absences’ and said had disregarded the school’s regulations.

It added: ‘You have caused substantial and immediate difficulties for your colleagues.’

Responding to the letter, Ms Schwartz said: ‘It was almost like I had set the school on fire and my behaviour had been put into question, or I had been arrested or had assaulted a student.’

Her father David Schwartz said that shortly after receiving the letter she stopped taking care of herself and was not eating properly.

‘There should have been alarm bells going off,’ he said. ‘She now can’t and won’t sing, the emotion of singing is too difficult for her.

‘Drama for her is something she can never consider again. She has trouble socialising, she has trouble dating, she has trouble integrating.

‘It is the debris of post-traumatic stress disorder. In my daughter’s case, it’s complex post-traumatic stress disorder.’

‘They need to acknowledge what they did and say sorry, I think that would help my daughter heal,’ he added.

School CEO Fiona Francombe said: ‘We are concerned to hear these reports about former students.

‘We take our duty of care towards students extremely seriously and have a robust series of policies and services in place, that we regularly review and update, to support student wellbeing.

‘Our courses need to prepare students for professions that can be both physically and mentally demanding, but our priority is to achieve this whilst ensuring their safety and wellbeing.’

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