I am often asked, especially by school students and their parents, whether performing arts training is really necessary at all. After all, if you can act or sing then surely you can just stand up and do it, they say. Why fiddle about for three years or more at drama school or other training institution? It costs a fortune and what do you really get out of it?
Debunking attitudes like that is probably one of the most important things I do as The Stage’s Education and Training Editor. After all, however great your footballing potential, you wouldn’t expect to walk in off the streets and immediately play for Manchester United. It takes years of training to achieve the right skills. And you never stop learning. Exactly the same principle applies to performing on stage or screen.
Let’s unpick some of the misapprehensions. Every single person you see on the professional stage or screen has, in fact, been trained. Neither Keira Knightley nor Sheridan Smith went to drama school. But the former did drama from early childhood at school and elsewhere, a great deal of amdram, was trained on the job in early TV roles and worked closely with the drama teacher in her sixth form college. She certainly did not arrive as a young adult in the industry as untrained raw material ready to take the lead role in Joe Wright’s Pride and Prejudice.
Smith studied singing, dancing and acting part time for many years in her native Lincolnshire and trained extensively in her teens with National Youth Music Theatre. Untrained she clearly was not.
And take the three leads in the Harry Potter films: Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint and Emma Watson. For nearly 10 years and seven films, starting when they were barely out of primary school, they were trained on set which included many systematic, carefully thought out classes to develop the necessary voice, movement and acting skills. And the same applied to the many other children involved. Those films were, effectively, their training provider.
TV talent shows tend to give the impression that competitors are amateur, but those who do well are anything but
The children in shows such as Billy Elliot and The Lion King are selected for their potential and then trained (and trained) in groups over a long period of time. Only a very small number will eventually be selected to appear in the show. But all have benefited from extensive and intensive training. Children’s casting director Jo Hawes told me recently about a lad who trained for two full years for Cameron Mackintosh’s Oliver! and was then pipped at the final post because his voice broke. Sad for him, of course – but that training will stand him in good stead for the future.
TV talent shows such as The X Factor and Britain’s Got Talent tend to give the impression that competitors and winners are amateur beginners. The adults who do well are anything but – as everyone in the industry will tell you. They have trained and want to work as professionals but, like many others in the saturated performing arts industries, they’re looking for a big break. And winning, or coming out near the top in, a TV talent show is it.
Ben Forster, for example, recently selected on ITV’s Superstar to play Jesus in the new production of Jesus Christ Superstar, is a former National Youth Theatre member who trained at Italia Conti. He has been in Grease in the West End and worked on cruise ships, among other jobs. He is a trained professional and would not have got this break without that.
So the answer to that innocent question is yes, it’s essential. You won’t get anywhere in this industry without training, although – as the breadth of training topics I cover here and in The Stage shows – there’s no one way to do it. Training can take many forms: classes for children, youth theatre, group work connected with specific shows or films, for example. There are many routes as well as the obvious diploma and degree courses.
But, no one, I contend, makes it in this competitive industry without training at all. And that’s a message we need to get into secondary schools.
Casting director and performance coach Donna Soto-Morettini, who has worked on shows including How Do You Solve a Problem Like Maria?, Any Dream Will Do, Superstar and The Voice, will be sharing her experience at The Stage Events’ TV talent show audition secrets on October 31, 2012. For more details and to book your place, visit thestage.co.uk/events.