Should more actors consider top-up training to further their careers?

Students on the MA acting contemporary course at the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama perform In Extremis. Photo: Patrick Baldwin Students on the MA acting contemporary course at the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama perform In Extremis. Photo: Patrick Baldwin
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When does your training stop? When do you stop learning? The answer to the second question is, of course, never – you’re always learning – and for most people the answer to the first question would also be never, at least philosophically. But from a practical point of view most people’s formal training seems to stop in their early 20s. At least it does when you’re an actor.

What do you do if you find your career goes in a new direction, or you face new challenges? Is the training you get aged 21 still relevant when you’re in your 60s? There are, of course, some fantastic short courses and masterclasses at places such as the Actors Centre, specifically designed to top up a professional actor’s training, but what if you are looking for something more intensive, more radical?

I recently met Dan Krikler, a young actor who has decided to go back to drama school to study for an MA. What is immediately striking about Krikler is that he already has a formidable CV, working on big musicals, in jobs that many people would kill for. So why take a year out to retrain? He tells me: “I want to broaden my knowledge and understanding in an area that I feel I’m not as competent or confident in. I simply want to be a better actor.”

If that sounds idealistic, there is a practical imperative, too: “Where I’ve trained, combined with the jobs I’ve done, puts me in a box that I think is difficult, but of course not impossible, to break out of. I think people decide what sort of performer you are so quickly, often without having met you, and it can be hard to change their opinion. I believe the extra year of studying will make me both better and more credible.”

Essentially, Krikler is experiencing what many actors find: that a career in musical theatre has pigeonholed him in that world. And it’s not that there is anything wrong with musicals – it’s just that there’s more than that out there. This comes back, partly, to the choices you are expected to make at 18. Krikler admits that he “had a very skewed and biased view on which college would best suit” him. He was lucky to end up at Laines, a college with a brilliant track record of training young musical theatre performers. When choosing a course, students are often focused on the course content and the experience, but sometimes don’t look further ahead.

As he puts it: “Since leaving college I’ve thought how important it is that the school you attend feeds into the performance industry. It’s not something that really crossed my mind while contemplating colleges. I was thinking about what the courses offered and focused on.”

It’s not that Krikler regrets his decision, more that after gaining some work experience he’s seen that his initial training isn’t enough. He’s lucky that he’s had some well-paid jobs over the past couple of years, and luckier still that he had the good sense to save hard and reinvest it back in to his career.

With so much work experience there was “no way”, as Krikler puts it, that he wanted to spend three years back in education. One year was enough. “Learn new skills, take it all in, rethink, then get out there again.” After looking around he settled on an MA at the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama.

“I’m only three weeks into my course but so far I’m having a wonderful time. We’re a small class of 14, and the standard is high. It’s multinational and everyone brings their own experience. Sure there are some things I’m recapping, but I’ve also learnt a huge amount already. The course is really physical, I’m knackered. The tutors are excellent and genuine. Should be a good year ahead.”

The first part of Krikler’s story isn’t anything new. Actors feel typecast and pigeonholed all the time. What is quite rare is to meet someone who has taken the decision to save for two years, and throw themselves back into training for another year.

For many this route simply wouldn’t be possible, and yet isn’t this the point of postgraduate acting courses? Shouldn’t people be coming with some work/life experience?

The proposed change in policy that will see student loans become available for postgraduate study will no doubt help more people take the same decision as Krikler, but I wonder what more can be done to help actors continue training throughout their careers.

Those in salaried employment (including in theatres and arts institutions) will often be given opportunities to further their careers with training opportunities such as the Clore Fellowship, or via part-time MA courses funded by employers. The freelance nature of an actor’s work makes these opportunities scarcer, but it is in all our interests to have well-trained, engaged and inspired actors, so let’s find a way of ensuring that training doesn’t end at 21.