Stephen Simms is our Vice Principal and Head of Acting at Royal Birmingham Conservatoire who has an abundant amount of acting experience and knowledge. From performing and touring across the United States of America to running our School of Acting department, Stephen tells us that the best part about working here is the students and the staff. Find out what advice he would give to students looking to join our department!
What is your ethos for the acting department?
The School of Acting doesn’t just train actors. We have students studying on courses in Applied Theatre, Professional Voice Practice, and Stage Management. Our aim is to give everyone the best world-class training for the profession they have chosen to enter, and to help them gain entry to that profession.
What do you look for in actors who are auditioning to join the Royal Birmingham Conservatoire?
The assessment of each candidate is based upon a set of criteria used consistently by staff, which can be found on our website under the audition guidance. Our focus is on the candidate’s potential for development through training, whatever course they may apply for. We don’t have any “image” of what our students should be like, or look like – we just want your own individuality, imagination and creativity to shine through.
Do you perform outside of teaching? If so, could you give us details?
I’ve recently been working on an extended project called “Macbeth Projeto”, exploring, in a very experimental way, the play by Shakespeare. I’ve performed versions of this in the UK, Belgrade (Serbia), and most recently in Shanghai (China). I have just begun exploring the potential for this as an online video performance with a fantastic theatre company in Sao Paolo, Brazil.
What are your main responsibilities as Vice Principal, Head of Acting?
I’m completely responsible for the running of the School of Acting, as well as being part of the Royal Birmingham Conservatoire senior management team and serving on various committees within Birmingham City University. So I do lots of meetings, look at far too many excel spreadsheets, and pound the keyboard doing emails. However, it is teaching acting and directing which is the most fulfilling part of the job – helping people to unleash their creative potential.
What have been your career highlights so far?
It was very fulfilling to see the school recognised by being granted Royal status after we merged with the music conservatoire – we were previously two separate organisations: Birmingham School of Acting and Birmingham Conservatoire of Music. Our patron, HRH Prince Edward, The Earl of Wessex, has shown real interest and support for the work of our students and in the development of the Conservatoire. I guess it was pretty cool being made a Professor by the University. As a professional actor I’ve had the chance to work with some incredible artists, and been to some very glamorous locations – performing in Rio de Janeiro or Buenos Aires or Tokyo isn’t something you get to do every day. But honestly, when a student has a break-through in class, or makes me laugh out loud on a wet Monday morning with the way they deliver a comic line – that is a really great moment for me.
How did you come into your current role, what did you do before RBC?
I was a professional actor for about 20 years. That was how I paid the rent. I did TV and made movies, but most of my work was in theatre. I have toured and worked all over the world. I was living in Stratford-upon-Avon, having been working at the RSC for several years, when the opportunity came along to run our one year acting course in Birmingham. Eventually, I found myself doing what I do now – there was no plan, it just happened.
Can you tell us about your work in the USA, what did this involve?
I first went to the USA as a performer, working in Los Angeles. I later returned with a theatre company and toured all over – I loved Memphis, San Antonio, and (surprisingly) Appleton Wisconsin (where Houdini came from). I never got the chance to perform in New York, which still annoys me a bit! I’ve since developed relationships with various universities in the states, and our acting students have the opportunity to do a Showcase in America, normally in New York, if they have a work permit or are a US citizen. We also hold auditions in New York, Chicago and Los Angeles or San Francisco – but of course all this is now going online due to the pandemic.
In five words, how would you describe the acting team in the department?
Brilliant, Brilliant, Brilliant, Brilliant, Brilliant.
I’m a massive fan of all our teachers across all our various disciplines. I’ve never seen people work so hard, and with such dedication, all to give our students the best experience possible.
What is your favourite thing about working at Royal Birmingham Conservatoire?
The students and the staff.
What do you think sets RBC apart from other Conservatoires?
It’s a really friendly place with a family atmosphere. It’s not pretentious or elitist in any way – despite having the highest of international standards and expectations.
What are the greatest challenges that new acting students will face?
Oh, goodness! The world is such a changed place after Covid-19. I think our students need to have a new kind of virtuosity. Not just a mastery of the art and skills they have learned, but also an understanding of how to put new work into the world, and how to survive without the traditional structures for making performance. In a way, there are less people between you and your audiences – the gatekeepers have lost some of their power – but you have to be super-creative and entrepreneurial as well as being skilled and talented.
What do you think makes a successful actor?
We all have our own benchmarks for success. Being famous, for example, is a very different thing to being “successful”, depending on what your own definition of success is. I’m so proud of the work our graduates go on to do in various community settings, bringing important messages and helping others find their voice. I love hearing of a stage manager running a theatre on a gigantic cruise ship.
And I laugh when I see the excitement of an ex-student nominated at an awards show on TV. Success is what you want it to be – and at Royal Birmingham Conservatoire we give you all the help we can to become your vision of successful.
What can prospective students look forward to the most when they join Royal Birmingham Conservatoire?
Having the best time of their life, working harder than they believed possible, meeting insanely talented teachers, and having a laugh with me on a wet Monday morning…
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