Do drama schools prepare performers for the world of work?

Alistair Smith
Alistair Smith is editor, print of The Stage.
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I've been reading Julius Green's excellent book - How to produce a West End show - over my journeys in and out of the office over the last couple of weeks.

It really is a good read and well worth a look for anyone wanting to work in the theatre, not just people aspiring to be commercial producers like Julius, who works for Bill Kenwright Ltd.

One of the best things about the book is how opinionated Julius is about all aspects of the business, and there is a paragraph in the book that got me thinking this morning - not about the West End at all, but about drama schools and how well (or not) they are serving the industry.

Julius writes:

Much as they may be happy to talk about their work, there is a limit to the amount of time that producers can be expected to spend explaining exactly what it is they do, and drama schools must surely take on at least some of the responsibility for educating young performers on how to get the best out of the dynamic with their future employers. And while they're about it they could usefully spend a bit less time teaching their students how to find their 'motivation' and a bit more teaching them how to fill in a tax return and explaining to them how to go about booking digs. It is a constant source of amazement to me how ill-prepared for the exigencies of life drama school graduates can be...

If the above if a reflection of Julius' experience of actors fresh out of training, then I suspect it's one that is replicated for producers across the business.

But what about actors? Do you feel that your drama school experience has prepared you fully for being a jobbing actor? Or, did you find yourself wishing that your course had addressed a few more of the practical, mundane aspects of the trade?

After all, with the disappearance of the repertory companies, the opportunity for actors to 'learn on the job' has also diminished steadily over the years. Do drama schools need to do more to fill that gap?

How to produce a West End show is published by Oberon Books, priced at £14.99


  1. In all fairness, I spent a year at a conservatoire – the Royal Northern College of Music – on the opera course and they have a learning strand called ‘Professional skills’, which covered everything from how to fill in your tax return to how to write a biography, lectures with employers/practitioners about the industry which included little tips included having a personalised answer machine message can often mean employers will bother to leave a message! I think drama schools should follow suit if they aren’t doing already.

  2. Of course drama school doesn’t prepare you for that. We had one session where an accountant preached at us about tax, completely baffling us so that we end up saying “ok, we’ll just pay you to do it.”
    Drama school doesn’t teach you about dealing with people, it’s just a given. All they teach you is how to use what you have. Anything else you pick up is existential. From my experience, people learn from asking actors who have done it before. It’s the only forum to learn from. But the most important thing I feel that isn’t taught in schools is what to do when you’re not working. What can we do to utilise our skills when we’re not acting. It is just as important! It is so rare that a graduate will work forever more and never be out of work.
    Schools should invite alumni to hold a Q&A where students can address any issues that they are worried about when they graduate.

  3. What worries me is the altitude of so many of the students. I have often encountered them saying “we do it the **** way or the #### way because it is the best, all others are ‘rubbish’ (or words to that effect!). It is good to have pride in your work and college but they will have to work well in a team from all backgrounds and experience. With this attitude they will, hopefully, have problems! Also the general behavior in the schools is failing to reach desired targets with regular abuse of fellow students over LGBT and disability issues remaining unchallenged by faculty. I truly hope that this will not follow them out into the ‘real’ world. This industry can have such a positive effect on these issues that this generation of students can’t be allowed to push us back into the dark ages.

  4. Tina, I wholeheartedly agree with you. I was on a production recently where one of the actors was making comments that came across in a homophobic and derogatory manner. What is even more disconcerting is that his attitude doesn’t belong in an industry where there is an overwhelming percentage of LGBT people. I challenged him on this attitude and he actually tried to justify it. Surely in a profession where liberal thought is supposedly encouraged, we shouldn’t have to deal with this sort of bigotry?

  5. Is this not true of a lot of educational institutions, not just drama school? When I came out of school, I felt ill-prepared for the practical ‘living-away-from-home’ side of university life such as bills etc, and equally when out of university I felt ill-prepared to deal with my tax, understanding PAYE and other elements of employed life. I’ve always felt schools should have some lessons in general practical (and often financial) issues that you are likely to come up against, and this should be extended to more specialist knowledge shared for institutions claiming to train students for a vocation.

  6. I am just coming to the end of a 3 year technical course at Drama School in Liverpool. A lot of our time in the 1st two years was spent as a year group (including actors, musicians and dancers along with the techs and designers) in lectures called Professional Development. They were designed to look at aspects of the industry that the courses on an individual basis did not, and try to create rounded practitioners, who could for example book digs and complete tax returns.

    As a technician we are taught in more detail about these tasks, and although I can’t vouch for all of the other disciplines, I feel I will leave drama school with a good knowledge of the tasks which although may not be central to the job that I am undertaking are important non-the-less.

    It seems that each different school places a different emphasis on this area, for us we spent a lot of time making sure we were as prepared as possible.

  7. This is true of most areas of higher education. Given that this situation has been the same for decades, the bad news is,its unlikely to change in the very short term. Predominantly in my view because there simply isn’t a powerful motivating factor to make it happen.
    The good news is that Students can, and must(!), do something about it themselves. After all education involves a 2 way flow of knowledge and we can’t just expect the ‘educator’ to do everything.
    So Students, speak up! Ask Educators for sessions on areas you eed, e.g. explaining the structure of the Industry (the relationship between Casting Directors, Agents, Producers, Directors), how to promote yourselves, networking etc.

  8. My drama school did give us lots of information and dedicated classes on the business side of show business. It was a very small part of our training, but I’m glad it was that way. I found out the rest myself, which is easy to do. Graduates need to take responsibility for what they know and don’t know. Yes, drama schools should educate students in the basics, but the students themselves should also be switched on enough to go and investigate, find out everything they can before they graduate and not just later ‘blame the drama school’ as many seem to do. Also it disturbs me, as Tina says, that some graduates appear to make their whole identity as an actor about where they trained. It doesn’t make sense to me, it doesn’t make for better actors and it closes doors. The beauty of acting is that one can learn, grow, diversify and improve with every step one takes in the business, if the attitude is right.

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