Can short courses be a stepping stone to drama school?

Students on RADA's foundation course in acting 2012/2013. Photo: RADA Students on RADA's foundation course in acting 2012/2013. Photo: RADA
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Short courses aimed primarily at preparing students for drama school have mushroomed in recent years. They feed a lot of income into the organisations that teach them, but just how useful are they to students and what are the pros and cons?

The thinking is that few secondary school drama departments have the expertise to coach students in audition techniques, which is why so many of them fail to get into drama school at the first attempt. They simply don’t know how to present their own potential convincingly enough for a drama school panel to spot it.

So someone had the bright idea of running short – usually nine months within a single academic year – foundation courses to make good the shortfall. When it’s done well it clearly works. Dorset School of Acting, based in the Lighthouse in Poole, ran one-year part-time courses for several years three days a week and reported a 100% success rate in getting its participants into accredited schools. Liam Jefford, 20, for example, is now in his first year at RADA. “I was turned down by every school I applied for in 2013. Then I did the DSA foundation course and 12 months later I had offers to choose from,” he says.

People drop out of drama school because they had no idea just what hard work it is

On the other hand, not every foundation course boasts that sort of success rate. Many drama schools, including RADA, LAMDA, Rose Bruford and Manchester School of Acting, now run their own foundation courses. Of course, there is no guarantee of a place on the provider’s two or three-year course at the end of it, although some students do progress from one to another. And there are always some in any group who apply successfully to different schools. On the whole, though, the number of students moving on to the next stage is low.

“A foundation course can act as a taster,” said the principal of one drama school, who asked not to be named. “We have students who come here and enjoy the work for a few months before realising that this isn’t what they want to do full-time, so they go off and do something different at the end of it. And that’s fine. It’s a useful lesson learned.”

A student added: “Yes, I think it’s a rip-off when you look at how many people drop out of standard drama school training because they had no idea just what hard work it is. A good foundation course makes that clear at the start.”

I’ve met students who treat a foundation course as a “year out” project between school and university. They like the performing arts and think the skills will be useful but have no intention of becoming professional actors. Royal Central School of Speech and Drama even offers a course called a gap-year diploma alongside its part-time foundation diplomas in acting and musical theatre, specifically to accommodate the “year out” types.

Students on RADA's foundation course in acting 2012/2013. Photo: RADA
Students on RADA’s foundation course in acting 2012/2013. Photo: RADA

The majority of foundation course students, though, have a yearning hunger to work professionally in the industry and see the foundation course as a first step on the ladder.

Although you usually have to audition, these courses often aren’t as difficult to get on to as full-blown vocational ones because, in general, providers need to fill the places. The downside, however, is funding. Foundation courses often aren’t covered by the student loan or grant schemes and – apart from one or two scholarships offered by providers – participants have to self-fund which, for a full-time year, is likely to mean £6,000-£9,000 plus accommodation and subsistence.

That’s why an increasing number of foundation courses are offered part-time. Mountview, for example, runs a one-year foundation course in acting part-time three evenings a week, enabling students to work at the same time in order to fund it. The fee for this is currently £2,150 for nine hours a week across three terms. This was the route Samantha Hull chose in 2008.

“We had all the facilities the full-time Mountview students had, including the same teachers and a showcase at the end. It gave me an insight into what the industry is like before committing to three years and a lot of money,” she says. In the event, after her foundation course, Hull did the two-year accelerated musical theatre course at Musical Theatre Academy, graduated from there in 2011 and has been in near continual employment ever since.

Oxford School of Drama has a full-time foundation course which runs for just six months, to give the students the opportunity to work to fund the course during the other half of the year. There are also rep-style companies – such as Fourth Monkey – offering on-the-job foundation training, although you still have to pay a fairly high tuition fee: £6,000 for Fourth Monkey’s one-year course at present.

One of the most interesting foundation course options of all is probably Peer Productions in Surrey. Their free – yes, free – one-year actor development programme for 17-23-year-olds involves training through making and taking productions into schools and the community as well as some academic assignments. Graduates of the programme have gone on to Guildford School of Acting, East 15, Rose Bruford, LAMDA, Liverpool Institute for Performing Arts and the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama, as well as to schools in the US.

So, as with so many options in this industry, you can’t generalise about foundation courses because they come in many forms. And there’s no doubt that for some of the larger schools the income from them helps to balance the books. Are they, in general, a useful contribution to the performing arts training industry?

Let Samantha Hull have the last word: “Yes, I think so. A foundation course can be a good stepping stone from college, school or amateur dramatics – as long as you go into the course knowing that only two or three of you are likely to get on to a full vocational course.”