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So what if you don’t get into drama school?

Participants on a National Youth Theatre course. Photo: Ambra Vernuccio Participants on a National Youth Theatre course. Photo: Ambra Vernuccio
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If you work with young people in the performing arts, the most common question you get asked is: “How do I get into drama school?” The second most common question is: “What do I do if I don’t get a place at drama school?”

It’s long been known that drama schools, unlike standard universities, tend to favour slightly older students. This isn’t always the case these days, but there can still be a gap between school and drama school, and it leaves many students wondering: what now?

In recent years, drama schools have started promoting foundation courses to those not initially successful, and this can seem like a fantastic option for a young actor – something that gives them a year-long taster of the drama school experience. But the thing about many foundation courses is that they are incredibly expensive. You’ll be looking to raise more than £10,000 before you even get on to a three-year course. Foundation courses are also extremely variable in the quality of tuition, and even established and respected drama schools don’t always provide the same level of tuition on a foundation. Whatever you do, if you go down the foundation route, check out the course properly and don’t rely on the good name of the school in question.

For those who can’t afford a foundation course (which is probably most of us), it poses a problem. Most young actors want to keep acting, and also want some guidance and training to help them get in to drama school.

My answer is to look to your local youth theatre. It used to be the case that youth theatres catered only for very young children or teens, and that by the age of 18 you’d have outgrown the programme of work. These days, ‘youth’ means anyone under the age of 25, and accordingly youth theatres have increased both the age and ambition of their programmes.


Two great young companies

Age groups: 11-18 and 18-25

Projects: A range, from classes to full productions

Royal Exchange, Manchester
Age groups: 14-21 for actors, 18-25 for Young Creatives schemes

Projects: Young Company Productions, tours and skills-based workshops

Four years ago, I saw a youth theatre production at Ovalhouse. It was one of the National Theatre Connections plays, and it sat in the 33% Festival, a series of works created and curated by young people, which is described as a bridge between youth arts participation and professional arts practice. In the production was a young actor, Ted Reilly, who was also noticed by a couple of agents. Off the back of that youth theatre show, he was cast in Vera Vera Vera at the Royal Court, and this week was revealed as the new Johnny Carter in EastEnders. Reilly had been filling his time between school and drama school with participation projects at Ovalhouse and at the Lyric Hammersmith. In Reilly’s case, he never did get to drama school, as the work started coming in before he got round to auditioning. That wouldn’t necessarily be desirable for everyone, but it goes to show that the standard of these projects can be very high.

In London, there are a whole range of theatres offering exceptional young companies with ambitious participation programmes. Alongside Ovalhouse you’ll also find brilliant work with young people happening at the Lyric Hammersmith, the Almeida and the Tricycle, as well as the Young Vic.

Much of the work of these participation departments is targeted at the immediate local area. The funding for them may be specific to one particular borough, and therefore not open to all in London. The good news about these programmes is that they tend to be free or very affordable to the participant and, as they are part-time projects, you can work around them.

For those in London, or those wishing to move to London, these projects are a great way to build some structure and some experience into your life, and they are the best way of meeting like-minded people. Many of the programmes offer opportunities beyond acting – for writing, directing or producing – so they can be a great way to expand your horizons.

If you’re outside London, there are lots of other fantastic participation projects, and the best place to look first is your local theatre. The Royal Exchange has a brilliant programme of work for young people (as well as groups for adults). The young company at the Exchange get to work with some really great professionals; its last production, Brink, was directed by the Exchange’s associate director, Matthew Xia, and there are also a whole range of masterclasses available given by writers, directors and actors. Recent masterclass leaders at the Exchange have included Maxine Peake and the writer Chris Urch.

The Royal Exchange is just one example, and all across the country you will find young companies attached to regional theatres doing great work. The Liverpool Everyman’s Young Company, for example, won school of the year in 2015 at The Stage Awards.


Two great places for masterclasses

National Youth Theatre
Age groups: 15-25

Subjects: Week-long masterclasses in audition technique, Shakespeare and screen acting
Cost: £299 for one week


Act Up North
Age groups: adult classes

Subjects: Wide range of classes, including acting for TV drama and finding an agent
Cost: £15 (average) for a two-hour session

It is worth noting that none of these programmes are designed purely to help you get into drama school. Youth participation programmes have a whole range of aims. They are not always geared towards any formal training, and the majority of participants won’t be considering a career in the theatre. But that is also what makes them so valuable to an emerging actor – instead of spending a year cramming for one audition and learning countless monologues, these participation programmes open up a whole range of experiences and can offer a range of productions in which to take part. It’s much more holistic than a foundation course.

But if you do want more tailored classes, then those are available as well. The National Youth Theatre runs regular, week-long masterclass courses, including courses in audition technique, screen acting and performing Shakespeare. These courses tend to run in London and Manchester. Most drama schools offer part-time evening and holiday courses that are also a little more affordable than a foundation course, and Act Up North offers excellent professional masterclasses in Manchester, Liverpool and Leeds.

If you don’t get into drama school, think twice about an expensive foundation course; a range of experiences are out there that may well serve you better and cost you less. The most important thing is that you continue to stretch your acting muscles, and that you start to build up a support network of other young actors, writers and directors. Participation programmes can offer the chance to be part of brilliant productions and inspiring masterclasses, so get in contact with your local theatre.