Treading the boards at Oxford inspired George Peck (St Catherine’s, 1975) to found his own drama school in nearby Woodstock. Notable graduates include Catherine McCormack, Charity Wakefield, Claire Foy, Penelope Skinner, and Sophie Cookson.
George Peck founded his Oxford School of Drama in the pretty village of Woodstock, just outside Oxford
St Catherine’s, 1975
By Lindsay Harrad
After graduating from Catz, George Peck, founder and principal of the Oxford School of Drama, enjoyed a successful theatrical career, a passion that was first nurtured during his university years. ‘I remember when Yvonne Mitchell, who was a big star of the RSC in the 1950s, came to Oxford and directed a show. She set rigorous professional standards, which were a shock to the system for all of us. I think for me, this was the transition between having a good time in the theatre and becoming an actor.’
Some of Peck's recent graduates include Catherine McCormack, Charity Wakefield, and Claire Foy
Peck landed a job in a repertory company after graduation, but admitted it was a much tougher career than he imagined. ‘I realised you really do have to love the life of the actor to survive, and this is one of the things I found hardest to cope with. I always wanted to escape the confines of the dressing room at every possible opportunity. I loved the living language of theatre but not especially the life of the actor.’
After taking advantage of an Arts Council-funded trainee director scheme, Peck climbed the ranks to become an associate director, but soon found himself spending much of his time running endless auditions for the next season’s shows. However, the experience laid the foundations for establishing his own drama school in 1986.
‘I started to see how desperate actors were for any sort of job, but also there seemed to be a complete lack of responsibility towards their craft. When I set up the Oxford School of Drama I also wanted to give students a love of the art form, its potential and to take some responsibility for its future – it may sound like a fanciful ideal, but I do think we’ve achieved this. Importantly, I think we’ve influenced the way other drama schools operate too.’Peck set up the school 27 years ago in a cottage just outside with just nine students
Now one of the UK’s top five drama schools with a tremendous success rate among its graduates, Peck believes the secret of the Oxford School of Drama’s success is staying small and independent, inspired by the kind of teaching he experienced for himself at Oxford. ‘We are now one of the only recognized drama schools that doesn’t offer a degree, which means we are not honour-bound to follow any particular academic path and can attract students purely on their native ability regardless of their academic qualifications. But the course is rigorous enough to bring people to a level of understanding that is equal to that of a university degree.’
Talent is essential, of course, but resilience to survive the unique lifestyle of an actor and the inevitable highs and lows of a notoriously fickle business is equally vital. ‘The nature of the business has changed in some ways thanks to reality TV,’ says Peck. ‘But if you’re picked off the street and become a TV star overnight, you’ve got very little chance of sustaining a real career in the industry. I think what attracts people to our school is that we give a training to sustain a lifetime as an actor. You may be a pretty face at 21 but with the right training and attitude you can still be working at 31, 41, 51 and beyond. We once had a 61-year-old woman on our course that ended up in a Dustin Hoffman film, so people can succeed in this industry at any age.’