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How to choose your drama school 2016

LAMDA principal Joanna Read rehearses with a student. Photo: Richard Hubert Smith
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Our resident careers adviser John Byrne answers the most common questions posed by aspiring drama students…

How essential is drama school to my career?

Given the high cost and long time commitment required of full-time drama training, it is perhaps not surprising that variations of this question are among the most frequently asked, especially in the careers context. “Training is not the same as working” is a frequent mantra heard on internet forums, along with exhortations to make your own work and examples of successful stage and screen actors who have had no formal training. I fully agree that actors, trained or untrained, should always be proactive, but drama training has some very clear career benefits. This is beyond the fact that, notable exceptions aside, the vast majority of regularly working actors do have a formal training history of some sort.

Technology has made it increasingly possible to grab a smartphone and make your own movies: I have seen numerous very high-quality, self-produced stage and screen productions by actors with no formal training. But it is simple human nature that our own projects will tend to focus on our existing strengths and communicate our personal passions. Good training will build on those skills and support us in reaching our personal goals, but the actor will also be challenged and stretched to explore skills and work in genres they might never have touched on by choice.

Royal Conservatoire of Scotland production of Cabaret. Photo: Royal Conservatoire of Scotland
Royal Conservatoire of Scotland production of Cabaret. Photo: Royal Conservatoire of Scotland

The experience of taking on board these new challenges is an excellent grounding for an industry in which you neither know where your next casting is coming from nor what kind of project it might be.

It is also true that talent alone is unlikely to sustain an actor through a three-show a day panto run or eight shows a week in a West End musical. The techniques ingrained while at drama school often form the foundation that keeps an actor healthy and able to work effectively throughout the rest of their career.

How can I choose the right drama school from a career point of view?

One of the benefits of good all-round training is the discovery of strengths and career directions you may not have considered before getting fully immersed, so an actor can often enter with one career ambition and leave with an entirely different one.

That said, just as every area of performance has different skill requirements, every drama course offers a different approach. If you feel drawn towards a particular area, do your research on those who already excel in that field – preferably performers who are just a few years rather than whole decades of experience ahead of you. Where did they train and, more importantly, what did they learn when they trained?

Research the casting professionals, directors and producers in this field, too. What are they looking for from their actors? Now do your research on the courses available to you that focus on similar areas.

Students rehearsing at Mountview. Photo: Mountview
Students rehearsing at Mountview. Photo: Mountview

How can I raise funds for my drama studies?

For every “How do I get into drama school?” query that arrives to the Careers Clinic, there is almost always another with the even more pressing question: “I have been accepted into drama school. How on earth am I going to pay for it?”

The traditional funding route involves checking out what loans, grants and scholarships might be available, and especially scholarship schemes run by or in conjunction with the schools you are interested in applying to. The sooner you start this research, the more time you allow yourself to complete application requirements and hit submission deadlines, and compile the supporting material that can often make the difference to applications.

Just a few years ago, setting up a crowdfunding campaign might in itself have been ‘alternative’ enough to attract attention, but with numerous dedicated websites and social media apps, this type of fundraising has become increasingly popular, so standing out from the crowd is the key to success. Genuinely attractive or engaging rewards for different levels of funding (which can be imaginative rather than expensive) can make a difference, as can well thought-out personal video messages.

Many students who fund their own training have to do so from a combination of several different sources and donations. Don’t let technology make you forget how effective an old-fashioned personal letter can be, if sincerely written and sent to the right person. Rather than the usual high-profile names, think about approaching people and organisations with whom you may have a particular resonance or connection. While a cheque arriving by return of post is the ideal – but less likely – result, even a letter of support or a signed item of memorabilia can be a valuable contribution to your own fundraising efforts.

Is it too late for me to go to drama school?

Graduating students at Bristol Old Vic Theatre School. Photo: Stewart McPherson
Graduating students at Bristol Old Vic Theatre School. Photo: Stewart McPherson

A mature student may once have been an unusual sight on drama courses, but that is less the case now. It is also true that actors who study at university before going to drama school often find that their first qualification, however unrelated, can open up useful streams of income when they turn their focus to full-time performing. The decision to go down the drama school route later than usual needs to be balanced against the more practical reality that if you secured government funding or grants for your primary degree you may not be eligible to cover your postgraduate training in the same way.

Getting the best from an MA course will require time investment and commitment. This can be a challenge if you have to juggle it with working to fund your studies but as long as you are clear on what you want from your course, it is a perfectly viable choice for many actors.

What if my drama school application is unsuccessful?

It might not be the greatest consolation when you are still feeling the sting of rejection, but this is a disappointment quite a few actors have experienced, including many who have gone on to have successful careers.

In some cases, those actors reapplied for the same course in subsequent years, using the experience of the first attempt as a guide to preparing for the second go. Others have found alternative routes into the industry, ranging from joining local youth theatres to exploring part-time or weekend courses.

The key attitude for dealing with an unsuccessful audition, whether for drama school or for a regular casting, is to turn any frustration and hurt feelings into positive rather than negative action.

Certainly, don’t let the experience put you off your long-term goals. See more theatre not less – including graduate productions of the courses you want to apply for. Seek out and connect with existing and past students on your preferred course rather than avoiding or resenting them. This includes friends who may have been successful when you weren’t. They may not have been ‘more talented’ than you, just better at auditions, and their insights might be exactly what you need to help you prepare for your own next application.

Contact careers adviser John Byrne at dearjohn@thestage.co.uk or @dearjohnbyrne

Read more advice on drama schools

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