Surely we are training too many students?

Students in a class at LAMDA. Photo: Richard Hubert Smith/LAMDA
Students in a class at LAMDA. Photo: Richard Hubert Smith/LAMDA
Susan Elkin
Susan is Education and Training Editor at The Stage
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Are we training too many students?

It’s the showcase season – and there are dozens and dozens of them. I see at least one a week and sometimes more at this time of year although I cover only a small section because The Stage has a team of people to review showcases.

The truth is, of course, that we are training far too many students to perform. Almost every time I attend a showcase some agent or casting director makes a muttered comment along the lines of “These poor kids. Many of them will never work in this industry. There just aren’t enough jobs for all these people.”

Well, nobody goes into the performance world expecting to work full-time. Everyone knows that for almost every actor, even a fine one, there will be gaps. The work will be spasmodic. On the other hand it is hardly fair to set up cruelly false expectations when it is quite obvious that some of these new graduates are unlikely to work at all. Ever. What is even worse is that they're at least £27,000 poorer if they’ve just completed drama school.

Any showcase regular will tell you that the standard on display is perennially patchy. In some cases it is woefully obvious that the course was filled with some students for reasons other than acting potential and excellence. This often applies to males, especially if they have ethnic minority backgrounds because admitting them ticks inclusion boxes. It also, far too often applies, to overseas students.

So really, in a sensible, fair world, the schools would be reducing numbers and selecting against very rigorous criteria relating only to ability and potential.

But they’re not and instead many existing schools continue to expand and hopeful new schools start up all the time. Several of the big players run several slightly different parallel courses – foundation, undergraduate/diploma, postgraduate or whatever. And every year there are new ones. Why? Well, call me a cynic, but  I have to point out that every one of these students comes bearing, from one source or another, £9,000 and (helpfully for the school or college) usually more if they’re from overseas. Some schools have turned into big business.

Of course, I’m generalising to make a point. And it’s my job to be provocative. Some of the large schools – RADA, LAMDA and Bristol Old Vic for example – have fine records of alumni in employment. But given that there is only a finite number of job opportunities, it must be that there are even fewer chances for graduates of other courses. We are still training hundreds too many overall.

Actually, I think Britain’s actor training does a magnificent job in educating and developing articulate, thoughtful, competent people. A young man or woman who’s completed a two or three year course in a good drama school is likely to be employable at almost anything. But she or he didn’t choose to go to drama school in the first place with the intention of using those skills in, for instance, PR or teaching. We’re conning them and it’s time we stopped. It’s also time someone confronted this issue aloud.

24 Comments

  1. A really interesting and thought-provoking piece. It is the elephant in the room, what you try to brush under the carpet so you can moan about the horrible people out there who try to exploit you at every occasion. The truth is, if there’s a constant increase in supply whilst the demand stays the same (or decreases even), prices are bound to go down. And actors are fully aware of what their price tag is right now.

  2. So you’re genuinely telling me that ethnic minority actors are being accepted in droves just to tick boxes? If so, why the dearth of ethnic minority actors on stage and TV? Or are you implying that most ethnic minority actors are merely bad actors? Are you sure about this? Can we quote you on that observation?

  3. There are many weak performers in the showcases I see – non minority, black, Asian, overseas. It is my observation that sometimes there is an imbalance of weakness amongst minority groups. That could be because schools sometimes put inclusivity before excellence. That is all. And you may quote that but in context please and don’t put words into my mouth.

  4. ‘an imbalance of weakness amongst minority groups’

    Susan, that’s not putting words in your mouth. You’re saying that a greater proportion of ethnic minority actors are ‘weak’ than non-ethnic minority actors. And your presumably objective vantage point allows you to make this distinction, I guess.

    I’ll direct you to research into the Racial Empathy Gap. In sociological studies conducted by researchers at the University of Milano-Bicocca and the University of Toronto Scarborough, researchers have ascertained that, ‘The human brain fires differently when dealing with people outside of one’s own race.’

    The degree of mental activity when white participants watch ethnic minority men performing a task was significantly lower than when they watched people of their own race performing the same task. To conclude: ‘In other words people were less likely to mentally simulate the actions of other-race than same-race people.’

    ‘Human brain recognizes and reacts to race, UTSC researchers discover’ by April Kemick, 4,26,2010 http://ose.utsc.utoronto.ca/ose/story.php?id=2135

    So I posit that, actually, your objective assumption is due to the Racial Empathy Gap and not an objective assessment of quality.

    That there may be poor actors in theatre schools is not an issue I contend. But it wasn’t necessary to continue to perpetuate the idea that ethnic minority performers are somehow worse than white performers–especially given the huge lack of representation in theatres, on TV and in films in the UK.

  5. Having been on audition panels the odd time, the sense is more that given that there is a lack of well trained actors from many ethnic minorities, when you audition an actor from an ethic minority there is a willingness to positively discrimination, based on the fact that there may well be a better chance for that actors to go out there and fill roles that casting directors struggle to fill – i.e. actually make a career for him/herself. Sometimes that means taking someone who has more potential than proven ability, and where that ends up three years later is hard to predict. So While I agree that the thing your seeing sometimes exists – in terms of weak performances – I think the intention in taking those actors is more to do with trying to broaden the pool of well trained actors rather than ticking boxes.

  6. I graduated from one of your named drama schools. Let me advise you, the problem is not that we are training too many. Arts funding is being cut. Very little new writing is being commissioned. Paid acting jobs are decreasing. The BBC and ITV keep commissioning shows such as The Voice and X Factor. BBC Three is being cut. Plays that do pay well will only cast ‘established’ actors. Many of our big stars of stage and screen were cast without going through training. So where would you like me to work? Where should my first breakthrough role come from when all opportunity is being steadily removed? Don’t blame your actors. Bring back rep theatres and producing playhouses, arts funding and opportunities.

  7. As a professor of theatre and a graduate of two conservatory programs, I’ve had the opportunity to see and experience both sides. The fact is that programs HAVE to meet numbers (and while I haven’t had to experience) “tick boxes” to justify staying in good with standing with administrations. Is it fair? No. Not fair to the teachers who have to accept students who may not have the talent, and not fair to the student to sell faulty hope. However, programs can and should guide students to other possible opportunities within the field.

  8. I think the point Elkin is trying to make, is that these schools are businesses. These institutions will accept a foriegn candidate purely to keep the cogs of that business moving. The canditate might be talented and posses all the required attributes, but ultimately they are a financial ‘sure thing’.

  9. I think Susan has made a very brave and honest observation here. I say observation, because everything she has included in this article is precisely what we are all seeing. However, what I find much graver, is what I see from the perspective of a director, on the other side of the audition table…

    Now, I love discovering new talent. In fact, I have a production company dedicated to doing so. I often regularly work with theatres totally committed to the next generation of theatre makers. Yet, why do we have thousands of actors auditioning for a whole multitude of different roles that simply cannot act? But they all seem to be coming from accredited drama schools? From a purely selfish point of view, it’s a total waste of everyones time. I always wonder if they are this bad after spending three years in an intensive training, how bad were they when they first auditioned for the school? Were the blind? Or did the actor just have a certain look that the school thought might mean they would work. Or did they just think they were nice enough to get along with and they’ll pay £30K.

    I respect the opinions in this thread that quite rightly acknowledge that this system will always supply to demand. However, I really take umbridge that this type of industry is not just about creative ability, but for many it’s about ‘doing what they love’. And with that, what will nearly always happen is exploitation. Business makes a lot of money out of dreams. But, what becomes even more chilling, is after some of these students have spent three years being convinced that they are going to be ‘a professional’…

    Nothing happens. Except they finally realise that their dream isn’t going to happen. But it’s too late by then. By then they can be in serious financial crisis and for many (and as I am frequently witnessing) they are in need of serious professional help as the only joy in their life was from performing and what direction should their life turn to.

    It seems that year groups are bursting in size and still getting larger, new courses and schools are being built and someone has to speak up and say that this industry does not have enough jobs for all those being pushed towards it. I admire Susan for quite rightly raising the issue as it’s something that I feel very passionately about too. Hearing of the thousands of graduates saturating London every year through showcases is like watching lambs going to the slaughter, yet as we all know, to truly survive those kinds of situations, ones must be able to play the wolf.

    Andrew Keates
    Director

  10. The elephant in the room is that some of the larger colleges have a ‘quota’ of overseas students to fill within every year group…far be it from me to suggest that this is because they charge them considerably more than the UK students. Indeed Drama UK have even made it a policy to encourage and support this practise? So if this article is correct (and I believe that it is) – why are we not capping the numbers in all colleges (and the overseas ‘quota’ falls within this ‘cap). Well the simple answer is finances. Which then leads to the bigger elephant in the room which is – does a college exist to train or to create a profit for its share holders? I run a college so could be accused of being a hypocrite as I am one of the people ‘churning out’ yet more lambs to the slaughter, except that The MTA only takes a maximum of 22 students/year. Every single one of our graduates have left having gained agent representation and on average at any given point 72% of our graduates are in work. Oh yes..and our overseas students are charged the same as our UK students. I believe that a college is there to train not to be a business…and we are run as by a charity therefore are unable to make large profits. All of our profits have to go back into our Hardship fund to help those students who aren’t able to train with us due to financial restraints. The issue is when drama training became a profitable business and colleges started running more and more courses and upped their quota of student intake. However as we have proven it doesn’t have to be like that…and the business model can work…and more importantly so can the graduates

  11. Susan, thank God someone had the temerity to say it (the headline info I mean — I’m steering clear of the ethnic minority issue, which is a minefield).

    At best, the whole thing’s naive and ill-judged — at worst it’s profoundly immoral and exploitative.

  12. Outstanding article and almost mirrors my thoughts exactly. It’s all very well going on about “ethical training” and “non profits” etc but the most unethical thing of all is taking £30,000 from a young performer who has no hope and deluding them that they have so they can fill their course.

  13. Just a quick response to Martin Williams as I believe that The MTA is the only college that only ever claims constantly to have opened to provide ‘ethical training’…and just to explain that statement as it is actually in complete agreement with Martin’s comment. The MTA opened under an ‘ethical training’ policy to only accept students that we believed would be industry ready within 2 years and as our statistics can now prove 5 years in that is exactly what we have done. Therefore we can prove that we didn’t take take (in our case) £27,000 off any student without knowing that they had the potential to have a long term career in the performing arts industry. That is why I opened a college with just 13 students and have kept our numbers small and not increased our numbers with each passing year, despite a pressure to do so. What has shocked me is the amount of young people who literally beg to be accepted on a course such as ours..and even when I tell them that I would be ripping them off as I don’t believe that we would get them ready within the confines of the course they still try to persuade me that ‘it’s ok’ and they could ‘prove me wrong’. Our policy is very clear and unwavering…and we never lower our standards, however if Susan’s observations are correct then maybe other colleges aren’t holding such a strict boundary line? Therefore I currently have 41 students at The MTA and not one of them are deluded – as every show and every statistic proves they are all them on their talent and merit. Therefore we can in all good conscience talk about ethical training, and the business model allows the profits to be ploughed back into the college to help those students facing financial hardship. We also have a policy of open book accounting so my staff and students can see exactly where every penny goes – therefore I do feel that we can talk about ‘ethical training’…and back that up with cold, hard facts.

  14. Extremely offensive article towards ethnic minority actors. There are so many talented non-white actors that fail to gain places at Drama UK schools due to the fact that there is usually only one space for an ‘ethnic minority’ actor in that year. It’s disgusting to allude that actors are weak because of their ethnic background. If inclusivity was put before performance you’d see many more ethnic actors graduating from drama schools. Unfortunately I’m starting to question the credibility of Susan Elkin’s articles more and more.

  15. The numbers of ethnic minority actors on screen in the US is far more progressive, accurate and representative that the industry in the UK. Is the training better over there or is there a problem with British born and based ethnic minority actors only?

  16. I started to get very uncomfortable with the idea that we were training talented young actors for a profession that could not support them when I joined the faculty of a major drama school for a short period a few years ago.

    But then I remembered how much I had desperately wanted to go to drama school myself when I was young, how my hard won place at Rose Bruford was my ticket out of the life that was expected of me, how much I learned about life the universe and everything by studying and performing authors like Chechov, Gorki, Edgar, Sondhiem, & Miller who’s work I never would have encountered otherwise and who have enriched my life ever since.

    I had three “safe” years to learn and dream in.

    Why shouldn’t institutions provide that little piece of heaven to any student prepared to make the considerable sacrifices necessary to pay for it?

    Everyone on their first day at drama school knows it’s a stupid idea and has heard over and over again that there’s no work out there – but they also believe that they’ll be the one to “make it” against the odds.

    Why would anyone want to slam the door in their face before their life has even begun? They have the rest of their lives to get disillusioned, cynical and bitter why suffocate them with your negativity in their twenties?

    I think providing students with the space to dream and grow is an honorable profession. Give them the best start in their professional life you can. Keep them grounded but permit them to hope.

    And actually, do you know what? Some of them WILL make it, just a few. And it probably won’t be the one’s you expect…

    …and it may well be one of the kids that the doom and gloom merchants want to “help” by denying them training.

  17. Surely the issue is though Phil, that drama schools don’t have any sort of monopoly over that sort of artistic nourishment and development of self-awareness (and there are plenty of different educational fora where you’d encounter the writers and playwrights listed).

    Rather than going to drama schools — which are by definition a vocational training (albeit with some transferable skills) — these young people could be doing something which allowed them a similar process of emotional flowering and mind expanding, whilst also being educated in something that is of far more use to them in their lives.

    I really don’t think it has much to do with slamming the door in their face — it’s really more about encouraging them to look through different doors.

  18. I agree with most of this article. Most of it…

    There is an abundance of students studying acting, musical theatre, theatre arts, etc. at UK drama schools. But it isn’t just accredited drama schools; there are countless courses which aren’t accredited, not to mention all the Universities which offer some form of actor training. And I whole-heartedly agree, it’s a lot of people graduating into an industry where there aren’t enough jobs to support them.

    However, let’s not assume that all of those graduates want to pursue an acting career. I didn’t – I knew after three years that being an actor was not my calling – and a few of those who graduated with me were no longer interested in being in the industry. It’s not a bad thing, it happens with a lot of graduates, regardless of their subject. But I had 3 years of great times and found that while I still wanted to work in the theatre, being on stage wasn’t the place for me.

    Then there are another breed of performance students: the lazy. These are the ones who talk the talk, but don’t walk the walk. These are the ones who go around everywhere saying that they are actors, complaining about the lack of work but who don’t have an equity card, don’t check spotlight or have never contacted an agent. These are the ones who squandered their time at drama school, moaning that all of our classes were a waste of time rather than trying to get the most out of them. Again, my year was filled with them and in some cases, they were the talented ones of who Susan Elkin speaks.

    So, who are the people from my year that ARE working as actors? The ones who work their back-sides off! So I agree with you Susan – and some of those who have commented before me – that the recruitment processes for drama schools needs to change. But perhaps people shouldn’t be placing such an enormous emphasis on “talent”, which is no sure fire way of getting someone who can actually do the job and be a good person to work with. Perhaps drama schools need to take a much stronger look at work ethic instead, and choose their candidates based on who will make the most of their training, whether they go on to be actors afterwards or not.

  19. John I agree with you insomuch talent is just a percentage of what makes a successful career (which is why we spend a full day getting to know a candidate)..we are also trying to an idea of their personality type/work ethic so that they have a greater chance of success after spending all that money on training with us. I have to take issue with Phil’s statements. If you have nearly £30,000 to spend on an experience then it’s great, but then the course that you sign up for should be renamed a ‘life experience and performance course’ not touted as a professional training route into the industry. I’m not trying to slam the door on any young person’s hope and aspirations I’m just not prepared to take £27,000 on a punt that they’ll get there against all the odds. If that’s what other colleges are doing then I hope that they are naming that to the students and telling them that they’re chances of success are slim BUT that they are wanting to be proved wrong. My issue with Phil’s Utopian (and very expensive) vision of young people ‘living the dream’ for three years is that we’re actually setting them up for failure as these colleges are not telling them the truth…they are selling them a lie. There will of course be the ones that make it that surprise you but I don’t want to take nearly £30,000 off a family on a gamble – that to me and feels corrupt. In today’s overcrowded industry it feels enough of a gamble with students that I’m confident of succeeding let alone with ones that I don’t think have anything special to start off with. Sorry but I just couldn’t sleep at night.

  20. The key thing to consider is the quality of the training that is being offered. At The Dorset School of Acting, on our foundation course we are very clear about the realities of the business. And unlike the majority of foundation courses that the recognised drama schools have to boost income, we focus on preparing students to get in to a recognised course with 100% success in doing so to date. Also students from the foundation course have managed to get professional work as a result of the professional studies sessions they have had with us. As Phil Willmott says we should take into consideration the aspirations of the young people who have dreamed of going to drama school but we also have the responsibility to ensure they have a realistic understanding of the realities of the industry. The point of training is employment, if you don’t think an auditionee will be able to work once they graduate from your course then you shouldn’t give them a place. Unfortunately a lot of the courses out there are capitalising on the students’ desperation to get into drama school. Part of the issue is that young people need to realise that Drama School is a means to an end and not an end in itself and that can only come from education. A lot of young people who are coming to audition for drama school are members of youth theatres and a lot of those youth theatres are purporting the dream machine of show business.This is where they should be reminded of the realities of the industry but the message “we can’t guarantee you will be a star and the business is an horribly difficult career path and the majority of you will end up working in McDonald’s” doesn’t really sell! Being lucky enough to have youth courses attached to our drama school, we do tell young people what to expect and my only caveat to telling them to expect disappointment is that if we can’t put them off then they are probably made of the right metal to embark on such a difficult profession. The bottom line is that there are thousands of hopefuls out there and our responsibility as drama schools is to prepare our graduates and support them in their chosen profession as best we can. If that includes being ruthlessly selective then so be it. The unfortunate thing is that the one’s that we reject will probably find a course that will accept them on the strength of their ability to pay and not their talent!

  21. I’m very glad to see this being discussed in the public domain.

    Low wages, a huge pressure to work for free on the fringe and only very occasional CV’able work is the story of too many lives in our industry.

    I was asked to contribute to a round table discussion of graduating lighting designers eighteen months ago, and was horrified to discover that there were as many lighting designers in the room as there are in regular employment in the theatre industry. And all of them have accrued c. £40k of debt to get their training.

    The huge oversupply of aspiring actors and other theatre professionals in their 20’s feeds a lower quality of life for everyone in the business. Over supply pushes down wages. It’s all of us who pay the price, not just those who fail to find the work they dream of.

    I think the scale and power of the drama school industry has a lot to answer for.

  22. Having read some of the article and some of the comments, it has made me rethink my choice to go to drama school. I have always known it would be a difficult application process, but when you see how strict their criteria is and how many people they audition, it almost seem impossible that you’ll get in. Some people have to audition three or four years in a row, experience that rejection and being disheartend each time, before they are finally given a place. Perhaps not on talent but commitment. But surely that’s not fair. I believe that there are other ways to be educated and gain experience other than drama school. Volunteering in all aspects of theatres and auditioning as much as you can and showcasing yourself on Spotlight, and getting yourself out there and in the industry as soon as possible has got to be more beneficial that 3 years of practice. I want to get in a do it, start local or fringe with unpaid and volunteer roles, networking and working your way up. I think you get further in three years that way. What do people think?

  23. Hi Holly,

    I think you are very misguided to think that unpaid work is a route to finding yourself paid work in this profession. Actors are working extremely hard to stamp out unpaid work and all you are doing is walking headlong into it undermining their efforts. I appreciate to you its a chicken and egg situation but when/if you ever reach the other side you’ll be wondering why the HELL there is SO much unpaid work about that you can’t sustain a living with.

    Don’t do it, its a false hope. Listen to those on the other side, we’re drowning in unpaid work and can’t make a living.

  24. I am currently auditioning for drama schools, and there is no denying that the standard of boys is weaker. The ratio of boys to girls applying doesn’t match the ratio that get in, and I hear from so many students that some of the boys on their course just aren’t up to the standard of the girls.
    Something I feel must be said is that drama school are not deliberately ripping you off. All higher education costs £27,000 now, there is no way drama schools could cost less, infact before drama schools got government funding they cost £45,000. This money doesn’t have to be paid back until you’re earning £21,000, and, let’s face it, very few actors will earn this money. All training, acting or otherwise, costs this much now, so we might as well do something we love.

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