How clearing can be a great route into theatre

Students at Staffordshire University studying Greek drama. Photo: Andrew Billington Students at Staffordshire University studying Greek drama. Photo: Andrew Billington
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Looking for a last-minute university place? Whether you didn’t get the results you were hoping for or have decided late in the day that you want to study for a degree, John Byrne has the rundown on how to secure a spot through the clearing process…

While most actors relish the thought of their name being in an awards envelope at some point during their career, for some 18 and 19-year-olds with their hearts set on drama study, the envelope containing their A level, BTec or other equivalent results will bring less happy news.

This was the case for Ashton Matthews, currently a second-year drama student at De Montfort University, Leicester. “I planned on attending the University of Lincoln. I don’t quite remember why, but there had been a moment when I fell in love with that campus.” Unfortunately, without the necessary grades, love in itself wasn’t enough to secure the conditional place offered. “I felt lost and hopeless. All over social media were people posting about how amazingly they had done, and there was me sat at home crying.”

Fortunately, this is a typical situation in which the system known as clearing comes into its own. Run by the University and College Admissions Service (UCAS), clearing is the means by which universities fill course places still open for the new academic year, including many that are drama and theatre related.

In turn, applicants who have not got the results they needed can explore and apply for alternative study options. UCAS provides a wide range of methods, from online videos to helplines to social media chat, in order to help aspiring applicants through the registration process. From there, as with any ‘match-making’ service, it is all about exploring potential options and then contacting the most likely results to see what is possible.

That was the course of action Matthews chose. “I sat at my computer, considered my options and chose De Montfort University. I called, answered the questions they asked me and had a place by the afternoon. Honestly, it was the best thing I could’ve done. Having a place by the end of the day was the most amazing feeling. My plans had fallen through, but I had a new start to look forward to.”

Although accessing the system sooner rather than later is advisable (the number of available clearing places decreases as each one is taken up), Tracy Cruickshank, head of drama at DMU, encourages potential students not to panic.

She explains: “Clearing is an opportunity, not the last-chance saloon and, while there are time pressures, you need to take the time to look into courses and to talk to academic staff in your discipline. Some courses – like ours – will require you to have a conversation with a tutor in drama. Be prepared to talk about what it is about drama that interests you most and why it is that you want to study at degree level. Visit the university if you can (and make good use of virtual tours online if you can’t). Don’t be afraid to ask questions.”

Robert Marsden, co-course leader and senior lecturer for acting and theatre arts at Staffordshire University agrees that the information-finding process doesn’t need to be daunting. “The people on the other end of the phone lines are human beings who want to help find the best course for you. If you are still looking for a place and are interested in a particular course at a particular institution, then pick up the phone and begin a conversation.

“At Staffordshire University, we’d have an informal chat to get to know you before we take it further to an audition interview. There’s definitely no judgement made in relation to your marks. As a clearing specialist university, we will give you all the information you need to make an informed choice that is right for you. The course is key. It is an important, challenging and often life-changing three years of your life. You need the course to inspire, engage and creatively stimulate you. Do your research into courses as well as the university and the town or city in which they reside.

“The types of questions you might want to ask at the clearing stage include: how much contact time is there? What is the ratio between academic and practical work? How many public productions might I be involved with? How much recorded media training is there? Who are the staff that will be teaching me?”

It was asking these sorts of questions and also being willing to think outside the box that helped Abbie Fogg make her final choice. “My original choice had been close to home in Kent. When that didn’t work out, my teacher at the time talked me through the clearing process, got up a few excellent choices and let me narrow down the final choices. He called a university in London specialising in musical theatre but they required an interview and an audition a few weeks later. I knew this process would take longer without a guaranteed place. My next choice was Anglia Ruskin University. As soon as I was on the phone, a man answered who sounded around my age. Instantly, I felt comfortable and relaxed and from then on the decision was easy.”

Not having the required marks for a course already applied for is not the only situation in which clearing can help, as Ann Akin, a former pupil of the Brit School, explains.

“I wanted a break after school so I took two years out. Toward the end of my second ‘gap’ year, I woke up one day really wanting to go to uni to study drama. I had a friend at the University of Bedfordshire and decided to apply for a place on the media performance course. The sudden urge to go was the reason why I applied last minute and clearing helped me get the place.”

Helpful as clearing can be, it is by no means a magic hat that produces the ‘perfect’ course on demand. Many drama schools that are not part of universities do not take part in clearing at all. Cruickshank also points out: “It is important to understand the differences not just between courses, but also between drama school and studying drama at university. For instance, as part of your course at DMU, while you will develop skills and understanding in (and of) acting, and have the opportunity to work with professional actors and directors during your studies, we won’t train you to be an actor. Graduates do a wide variety of theatre-related work, ranging from teaching to workshop leading to PR or media. Some also go on to do postgraduate courses in acting at drama schools, and then on into professional acting.”

The university experience can also provide other career advantages. Since graduating, Akin has founded the successful Harts Theatre Company. “The great thing about doing a drama course at university is you have access to so many types of people and facilities, such as editing suites, TV studios and photography courses. In some ways it’s more reflective to what the industry will be like when you leave. When I first started my company, I called upon a lot of my friends to help with practical and technical things. These were all people I met at university.”