Drama school employment – it’s worse not knowing

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Brian Attwood was editor of The Stage from 1994 to 2014.
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What’s the one thing any prospective student wants to know before they sign up for a drama college?

Simple: how much does shelling out £9k a year guarantee I will be in regular work when I graduate.

Actually, most will probably know they have next-to-no chance of continuous, well-paid acting work. They do however want to be sure that paying the extra amount the better-established schools can charge will be reflected in a serious advantage in the job market.

Of course, acting is an over-subscribed business where luck, stamina and connections are needed in addition to raw talent. So such promises are difficult to deliver on.

[pullquote]We all know the charges are high and subsequent employment insecure. The revelation would be to establish better the fluctuating pattern of an actor’s life.[/pullquote]

That much is not the fault of drama schools but, let’s be honest, there is more they could be doing to give their young recruits a better appreciation of what the future holds.

The obvious contribution they can make is to monitor the career progress of recent graduates and (subject to anonymity) share the information.

Drama UK chief Ian Kellgren has been trying to persuade his organisation’s affiliate schools to do just that. Through the sterling efforts of his colleague, the casting agent Jane Deitch, Drama UK has staged its first survey into graduate employment (read my colleague Nicola Merrifield report in this week’s Stage).

It’s a sizeable sample and a major contribution but, as those of us who took part in the afternoon conference to debate the findings were made aware, there’s a lot more detail needed before it realises its full value.

The chief shortcoming and one not of the creators’ making, is that not every college is willing to participate fully. In addition, some of us wanted to see more detail about length of contracts, rates of pay and more back catalogue of data.

Predominantly the colleges involved are part of that old ‘premier league’ of schools, the Conference of Drama School. Even had they all been active in answering surveys, that would still represent a very select sample. The prestigious Royal Academy of Music for example is not part of CDS. Nor are many newer schools that range greatly in quality and produce large numbers of performers annually.

Cast the net wider and there are the vocational colleges linked to the National Skills Academy and many more.

CDS, though, is a good launching point – provided colleges participate. Some perhaps don’t treat data collection as a priority, others one suspects don’t want to share the information.

It reminds me of the way West End producers like to state they  didn’t mind releasing box office figures but XX (previously Sir Peter Saunders and now any conveniently absent rival) won’t, so why should they do so

That’s a shame because the colleges have more to gain from transparency. We all know the charges are high and subsequent employment insecure. The revelation would be to establish better the fluctuating pattern of an actor’s life.

By chance I received a copy of a piece from our transatlantic cousin US Backstage written by Robert Curtis and entitled What Actors Can Learn from Door to Door Salesmen.

Check it out but if I can paraphrase here: salesmen keep their spirits up against rejection with the reminder that odds dictate there’s a certain number of rejections for every acceptance. Hearing another “no” brings you one step close to a “yes”.

Good employment data provides the same comfort; it doesn’t make the working pattern more secure but it does make you a little more secure about it.

14 Comments

  1. That much is not the fault of drama schools but, let’s be honest, there is more they could be doing to give their young recruits a better appreciation of what the future holds.

    Absolutely, all too often we see the figures massaged “X is working at the Edinburgh Fringe, Y has a job at the …fringe venue in London”
    – NONE OF THEM ARE BEING PAID. That’s not work, its lying to your prospective students.
    The reality is that many will go on straight away to work in fringe or set up their own theatre companies. Do the Drama Schools teach them how to run a theatre company? Apply for funding? Ensure they aren’t ripped off by venues? Set up a Ltd company, pay tax and NI?
    No, yet the majority is that MANY, MANY students will do this.
    This is the school’s failing and the reality that confronts the unprepared students. It doesn’t bode well for the long term sustainability of the theatre and theatre companies. Too many inept fledgling theatre companies run by inexperienced actors with no business wherewithal.

  2. Whilst i agree that most drama school graduates do go on to work within fringe or for low or no paid jobs i whole-heartedly disagree that it would not be classed as “work”. In fact even the Oxford dictionary cites the word work as having many different meanings, one of which being “an activity involving mental or physical effort done in order to achieve a result”. Correct me if im wrong but surely that exactly describes what happens when us actor types work together to produce a show? Dont get me wrong, in an ideal world i think everyone, no matter what career path they take, should be paid for work they do and paid well at that. However in reality that is not the way the world works, particularly when funding to the arts has been cut so dramatically.
    As a soon to be graduate of a well known drama school I am fully aware that my first job is unlikely to be a (well) paid one however i left my former career in the city to pursue acting knowing that upon graduation i would embark on an apprenticeship during which i will have to work my proverbial off in order to move up the ladder and achieve my goals and certainly this is something which has been openly discussed with us at college on many, many an occasion. Having had an entirely different areer an knowing what the alternative is work wise i.e an office job, i can honestly say that i would rather work in fringe my entire career and be happy than go back to the life i had before. As most people would probably agree, you dont become an actor for the money, you do it for the love of it and i’m sure there would be lots of actors, lesser and well known, out there who would be highly offended by you writing off their early work just because it wasnt paid.
    Finally, i can say i have been very lucky to have had the training i have because contrary to your statement above my drama school does provide extensive training bang regarding the business side of things.
    on tax, NI, ltd companies and the whole she-

  3. Whilst i agree that most drama school graduates do go on to work within fringe or for low or no paid jobs i whole-heartedly disagree that it would not be classed as “work”. In fact even the Oxford dictionary cites the word work as having many different meanings, one of which being “an activity involving mental or physical effort done in order to achieve a result”. Correct me if im wrong but surely that exactly describes what happens when us actor types work together to produce a show? Dont get me wrong, in an ideal world i think everyone, no matter what career path they take, should be paid for work they do and paid well at that. However in reality that is not the way the world works, particularly when funding to the arts has been cut so dramatically.
    As a soon to be graduate of a well known drama school I am fully aware that my first job is unlikely to be a (well) paid one and although not ideal i have made peace with this. However i left my former career in the city to pursue acting knowing that upon graduation i would embark on an apprenticeship during which i will have to work my proverbial off in order to move up the ladder and achieve my goals and certainly this is something which has been openly discussed with us at college on many, many an occasion. Having had an entirely different career and knowing what the alternative is work wise i.e an office job, i can honestly say that i would rather work in fringe my entire career and be happy than go back to the life i had before. As most people would probably agree, you dont become an actor for the money, you do it for the love of it and i’m sure there would be lots of actors, lesser and well known, out there who would be highly offended by you writing off their early work just because it wasnt paid.
    Finally, i can say i have been very lucky to have had the training i have because contrary to your statement above my drama school does provide extensive training regarding the business side of things, including tax and NI and setting up as a business and avoiding the pitfalls which can ensue.

  4. As the Principal of The MTA I welcome this latest call for transparency. We have an ambassador page on our website (http://www.themta.co.uk/ambassadors/) which clearly states what every single one of our students has been up to since leaving college. It’s as accurate and as up to the minute as it can be and clearly shows that the majority of our graduates are either mid contract or have recently finished a contract. In answer to Juliet we have an accountant that comes in to speak to all of our students to explain to them how self employment work and how they go about paying tax/NI etc.

  5. At Chickenshed we aim to prepare all our students for the reality of achieving paid performing work. What we have learnt and are still learning ever more is that the training of performers needs to include all possible areas of the performing arts such as teaching, delivering workshops, community-based theatre as well as concentrating on the three core skill areas of drama, dance and music.
    The best way to develop these skills is ‘on the job’ and through our mentoring method, working within the professional performing arena, our students hopefully, when graduating, are prepared for the harsh realities of seeking paid work.
    Course fees are high, so we offer a bursary for £2,000 towards the £8,000 we charge for the courses so as not to exclude students from less affluent backgrounds.
    Chickenshed has also been piloting an alternative to their accredited educational courses called ‘Young Creators’. This is a completely new and more importantly free programme. We offer young people aged between 14 and 25 vocational training and practical work experience in a variety of theatre skills to gain hands-on experience within a working theatre.
    We passionately believe that by offering these places on both our education and Young Creators programmes to those people who might not normally have access to education (for a variety of reasons), we have the opportunity to diversify the arts sector, and if no one offers young people such places then how will the creators ever emerge to deliver and represent true diversity within the arts?

  6. Completely agree with the need for beter transparancy about potential employment opportunities, but really its just the tip of the iceberg.

    Students also need to know how much business/networking training and help to get parts they will be given, e.g. will they get an individual showreel, voicereels, headshots etc. or are they largely left to do this themselves?
    If its the latter they will have a significant amount to do and pay for before they have a chance of getting parts.

  7. A late contribution, if still accepted. My view is that most Drama Schools need all their time to prepare students in their primary vocation. Yes, this leaves a gap in developing business skills. Let’s be honest, that’s not the number one subject. Students in the performing arts need to understand the basic principle of being a product themselves. If they do, their learningcurve develops into the market(s) they can reach with their product. The comparison with sales men is great, since that is the basic approach to bringing a product to market. The entire problem therefore isn’t with Drama Schools, but with the understanding of what our trade is all about: selfemployment! Guess what? Revenue always goes up and down, even without a crisis. Lessons learned. Next!!

  8. I run the MA Music Theatre course at Royal Central School of Speech and Drama. We are proud of our students abilities to both get work and make work. The issue here is the complexity of a freelance career which might involve TV adverts, short to long term contracts in theatres here and abroad or touring, creating your own company, music sessions, recording sessions, voice-over sessions, travel abroad for work and auditions, and media-based work. The concept of successful employment as a result of a course such as ours begs the question – what comprises success? We have alumna in the last James Bond Film, in at last six current West End shows, at the National Theatre, on dozens of UK tours and spread over many countries and continents. I have had students come back to see me after 4 years touring telling me how bored they are and then they want to return to further study, such as a PhD, because they realise they need the stimulation. The profession requires adaptability and, I am sorry to say, youthfulness. My concern is less on students ability to get work than for them to sustain it after the age of 35! Sadly, so much theatre is both sexist and ageist….

  9. I spoke to two recent drama graduates at the weekend. Both had attended recent castings and auditions but felt that their drama school had given them very little help or advice on preparation or approach to the practicalites of auditioning and seeking work in the profession. I wonder were they just unlucky or is this a wider problem for students in their graduate year?

  10. It is extremely interesting to read the views expressed above. At the Arts University at Bournemouth we do attempt to assist our actors to develop some level of entrepreneurial ability and basic business skills – Within our Applied Theatre unit we have formed a relationship with EdComs a leading communications and research agency based in London which produces education projects. We have trialed a live pitch model in the unit during which the actors have to work in teams to pitch a TIE performance to EdComs staff. They must target a specific client, budget the tour (using the ITC rates of pay) and work out the logisitics. They have to prepare a written information pack and then present live in front of a panel. It has proved both effective and popular with the students – as an added bonus two of our alumni are working with the EdComs Live team this Autumn!

  11. I believe that supply and demand are clearly unbalanced in this industry and TV talent shows are contributing to the believe that fame and lifelong employment is only an audition away. Speaking as a parent: all in the industry urgently need to come together and draw a much more realistic picture about being an actor.

  12. Agreed! As a British Asian artist, there was v little acknowledgment of ethnicity or the British Asian work out there, when I trained. However, if colleges gather data, it may benefit them to know how ‘creative’ some of their alumni have become, to source work..

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