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Making the right training choices can determine your future career

Students at Liverpool Institute of Performing Arts. Photo: Pete Carr Students at Liverpool Institute of Performing Arts. Photo: Pete Carr
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There is no one route into professional acting. Nothing is certain – or even likely – in this industry. What works for one person may not work for another. And we all know that almost every trained actor faces long periods of unemployment. But that tends to put off nobody except anxious parents and teachers. A young person who is really hungry to get on stage or screen will often persist until the right route presents itself.

So what are the choices? Let’s consider the four main options before we look at a few less obvious ones.

Three-year courses

Most trained performers do a three- year vocational course as offered by institutions such as the Liverpool Institute for Performing Arts, LAMDA, Manchester Metropolitan University School of Theatre, Arts Educational Schools London, Mountview Academy of Theatre Arts and Guildford School of Acting, among others. There are 18 schools of this type – although they are all different – working under the Drama UK umbrella.

Initially, the backbone of the course is classes in voice, movement, combat and other subjects. There will be lots of shows to rehearse and stage, especially in the final year. At the end of the course, students mount a showcase – usually in the West End – and there’s a reasonable chance of being signed by a reputable agent.

Many, but not all, three-year courses lead to BA degrees because the drama school has merged with a university, or because it has an accreditation arrangement with one. Some schools (such as LAMDA) offer a two-year course presented as a foundation degree as a shorter alternative. All first degree courses in accredited schools are eligible for the usual student loans and the funding arrangements that support undergraduate programmes in all subjects, including performing arts.

Postgraduate courses

Many students take an undergraduate degree first and then move on to drama school for a shorter – typically one year or two – postgraduate course. A post-graduate qualification can be a master’s degree or some sort of diploma. Many providers – particularly of diplomas – carefully specify “postgraduate or post-experience”, so you don’t necessarily need to have done a first degree. You will, however, need to be over 21 and have enough experience of life and learning to be able to progress rapidly.

Many actors firmly believe that this is the ideal form of training. Alex Jennings, an alumnus of Bristol Old Vic Theatre School, told The Stage last year that he wishes that’s what he had done because drama school immediately after secondary school can be rather insular.

The big disadvantage of postgraduate training is that there is little or no funding for it. Some schools offer scholarships and students can sometimes get career development loans from banks. Sadly, though, most postgraduate performing arts students are self-funded, and that can seem daunting, especially if you’ve just completed an undergraduate degree and already have the prospect of a student loan to repay in the future.

New repertory

Possibilities of training in a repertory theatre company are beginning to re-emerge – in a 21st-century take on the traditional route for actors from all backgrounds, which has pretty much disappeared. Getting on the right drama course, learning the skills you need for your future, making important contacts – these things are essential for building the foundation of your career.

National Youth Theatre has established a very successful one-year rep company that is bursary-funded

The Cygnet Theatre in Exeter has used the repertory training model successfully on a small scale for some years. Fourth Monkey Theatre Company was founded by Steve Green five years ago to “deliver innovative, relevant and affordable training to all” and to “lead the rebirth of contemporary rep training in the UK”.

National Youth Theatre, winner of The Stage 2014 school of the year award, has established a very successful one-year rep company in which every one of the 15 or 16 student participants is bursary-funded. It culminates each year in an autumn season in the West End – Wuthering Heights, Consensual and The Merchant of Venice are showing at Ambassadors Theatre until December 4 this year. Watch for other examples of this growing trend.

No training

Against all the apparent odds, there are still people who get into the industry and succeed without doing any formal training at vocational level. Names such as James Corden, Keira Knightley and Sheridan Smith spring to mind. It goes without saying that they are almost always exceptionally talented, with masses of flair. They are also very fortunate and will usually tell you they had a lucky break by being in the right place at the right time – and that’s not something you can rely on.

You need to be spotted by an agent or casting director, and that means doing as much school, youth theatre and other non-commercial work as you can, because you never know who might be in the audience. You should also be prepared to do any-thing in a theatre or on a film set so that you can mix with people who might turn out to be useful contacts. Volunteer to be an usher in a theatre, or offer to wash up in the cafe – not very glamorous, but you’ll be the right side of the theatre door, with the potential to rub shoulders with the people you need to know. It’s a hit-and-miss route into showbusiness, but it definitely works for some.

Beyond those four main pathways are four further possibilities to consider:

Rose Bruford students performing Britain Ltd, a piece devised with Theatre Ad Infinitum. Photo: Robert Workman
Rose Bruford students performing Britain Ltd, a piece devised with Theatre Ad Infinitum. Photo: Robert Workman

Drama degrees

Many universities offer drama degrees, and parents and teachers are inclined to encourage their young people to apply for them, usually on the mistaken assumption that these courses are just as good as drama school but somehow more respectable. They are, in fact – in most cases – quite different from drama school.

Typically, there will be far fewer contact hours than the drama school minimum of 30 per week. There will be more academic work and less prac-tical teaching. And staff are much less likely to be current or recent industry professionals. Such courses can be ideal for people who want to write plays, teach drama or theatre studies or even direct, but for anyone who wants to act professionally, these non-vocational drama courses are not usually a wise choice.

Other vocational training providers

Secondly, there are many independent schools outside Drama UK offering vocational training. It’s a route well worth investigating, but buyer beware. Some, such as Midlands Academy of Dance and Drama in Nottingham or the Music Theatre Academy in London, are excellent – as good as anything on offer in an accredited school. Others are very poor and few students are industry-ready at the end. So choose with care. Ask lots of questions.

Foundation courses

Third, if you have failed to get into drama school, feel you’re not ready for the full works, or you’re not quite sure whether this life is for you, a foundation course might be the right choice. Many of the accredited schools run them, and a number of independent schools, such as Dorset School of Acting in Poole and Read Dance and Theatre College in Reading, provide only these.

There are others, such as Performance Preparation Academy in Guildford, that run foundation courses as part of their overall provision. It usually lasts about nine months – so it can work as a year-out project between school and college.

A good foundation course teaches skills, develops confidence, provides a useful taste of what vocational training is really like and, crucially, trains students in audition technique – because the main aim for most is admission to drama school at the end of the course. Foundation courses are almost always self-funded.

Part-time training

Lastly, if full-time training is practically or financially out of the question, you might investigate part-time training such as that offered by Giles Foreman Centre for Acting, based in London’s Soho; the three-evenings-a-week foundation course at Mountview, or the sort of training offered at City Lit. The Poor School, at King’s Cross, runs intensive evening and weekend training so students can work to keep themselves at the same time.

Backstage training

Many of the major accredited drama schools, such as LAMDA, Guildhall School of Music and Drama, RADA and Bristol Old Vic, run degree and other courses in technical theatre. These range from stage management to design, from lighting to prop-making, and many more.

In some cases, all students start, for example, a scenic arts programme by sampling all disciplines in the first year, before specialising in subjects such as costume design or set-building.

A school that runs technical courses in parallel with performance training can offer backstage students lots of chances to work on and learn from the student shows it stages during the year. And there are almost always placements in professional theatres towards the end of the course.

There are apprentices learning on the job in every aspect of backstage theatre – there’s a sense of immediacy

Funding for these courses works in the same way as funding for performance degrees in accredited schools. Some schools also run very specific short courses, usually in the summer, when students can learn the rudiments of some aspect of technical theatre, or top up their skills if they’re already experienced.

The other main route into non-performance professional theatre work is via an apprenticeship. Many organisations and venues employ and train apprentices, from the National Theatre and the Royal Opera House to regional theatres like the Marlowe in Canterbury and York Theatre Royal. The Ambassador Theatre Group has an apprenticeship scheme that runs across all its venues. Opportunities range from lighting and sound to front of house and marketing.

I have probably, on my travels, spoken to apprentices learning on the job in every conceivable aspect of backstage theatre. The National Theatre even has an apprentice in concrete management – and that isn’t a metaphor. It relates to the concrete the grade I-listed building is made from. Apprentices are taught skills by experienced, on-the-spot professionals as the day-to-day work proceeds. That means working on real shows so there’s a genuine sense of immediacy. At the same time, many aspects of technical theatre involve theory and the acquisition of competency certificates.

There is a great deal of important health and safety involved behind the scenes in theatres. Apprentice-employing bodies work in partnership with local colleges to enable this part of the training to take place. The usual arrangement is for the apprentice to attend college one or two days a week and to be in the theatre or workshop the rest of the time.

Apprentices are paid a wage and there are no tuition fees, making this a more affordable training option than college. The national minimum wage for apprentices under 19 is currently £3.30 per hour rising a little in the second year. It’s more for over-19s and most employers pay above the minimum.

Creative and Cultural Skills, part of the National Skills Academy, works very hard to help employers to create more apprenticeship opportunities and has an impressive training centre at Purfleet in Essex. For details of Creative and Cultural Skills, see www.ccskills.org.uk. For information about apprenticeships, see www.apprenticeships.org.uk.

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