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How to pursue a stage career without going to drama school

Natasha J Barnes in Funny Girl. Photo: Paul Coltas Natasha J Barnes in Funny Girl. Photo: Paul Coltas
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Becoming a professional actor without conventional training can be tough, but with hard work, determination and luck, success is possible. There are many excellent part-time drama schools and performance-based university courses available and paths into the industry are diversifying. Samantha Marsden speaks to actors enjoying rewarding careers without a traditional drama-school background

Natasha J Barnes

Natasha J Barnes

In 2016, Natasha J Barnes went from understudy to West End star after stepping in for Sheridan Smith in Funny Girl. Since then, she has starred in many shows and recently released her first single, Supermodel, with Sony Music.

Barnes planned to take a gap year after her A levels and then go on to train full-time at drama school. However, when she was 18 she attended an open audition for a West End show and got the part.

Although Barnes hasn’t taken a full-time drama school course, she explains: “I always take classes and find out where any new ones are happening.” She recommends anything at the Actors Centre, especially its masterclasses, and West End MT (for 12 to 25-year-olds), of which she is a patron.

On advice for aspiring actors who haven’t trained at drama school, she says: “It’s about dedicating set amounts of time to physically improving and also to reading blogs and newsletters to find out what’s coming up.”

Barnes also recommends a subscription to The Stage and says: “Any course is worth it if you have the attitude that it is what you  make of the training, not what the training makes of you.”

Martin Delaney

Martin Delaney. Photo: Michael Wharley
Martin Delaney. Photo: Michael Wharley

An actor with extensive experience in theatre, TV, film and voice work, Martin Delaney is best known for his work in Zero Dark Thirty, Judas Ghost, Beowulf and Grendel, and Amar Akbar and Tony.

Delaney gained representation from an agent at a young age. Although he has never studied acting full-time, he explains: “Over the years I’ve worked with various one-to-one coaches, both in London and Los Angeles.  I’ve also taken part in multiple group sessions and classes.

Identity School of Acting is amazing. It’s a part-time drama school that also has a showcase, so the actors are placed firmly in front of the relevant people who will decide their future. Its alumni include John Boyega [known for playing Finn in Star Wars]. There are also useful classes at Anthony Meindl’s Actor Workshop.”

Delaney adds: “Any route into the industry is equally valid, if the reason is sincere, and I don’t have any preference as to how the roads lead to Rome, as it were. I would always start any journey of great importance with the question: ‘Why?’. If your ‘why’ is important enough, you will find a way.”

Peter James Smith

Pete James Smith. Photo: Brad Buckman
Pete James Smith. Photo: Brad Buckman

Having worked extensively as an actor in theatre, film and TV, Peter James Smith is best known for his roles in The West Wing, Westworld and Castle.

When asked about the decision not to train at drama school, Smith says he asked himself: “ ‘Do I want debt from school or debt from living off credit cards by moving directly to LA?’

“I chose the latter. I do feel I learned mostly by being on the job, which is different from a school education. I don’t think one is necessarily better than the other, but I do think that the real-world experience would also be necessary in addition to a school education.”

Smith also explains that he attends writers’ workshops and ‘cold reads’ roles in pieces of new writing. He believes that through his willingness to offer his services he has managed to secure opportunities that he wouldn’t have had otherwise.

Emma Williams

Emma Williams

The four-time Olivier-nominated actress is soon to play Alice Fitzwarren in Dick Whittington at the London Palladium, where she made her debut aged 18 as Truly Scrumptious in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.

Williams explains: “I went to a local drama school, Stage 84 – The Yorkshire School of Performing Arts, from the age of 14 to 18.” Williams was supposed to be on a gap year before university, but she auditioned for Chitty Chitty Bang Bang and within two weeks had been contracted and launched to the press.

She advises people who are starting out to get involved in local amateur dramatics, read The Stage, get involved in online communities and take classes at the Actors Centre.

Williams says: “Read aloud, film yourself and watch it back – don’t be afraid to critique. You can only improve by examining what does and doesn’t work. Above all, practise and push yourself out of your comfort zone.”

Read our interview with Emma Williams

Nabil Elouahabi

Nabil Elouahabi. Photo: Dan Rabin

Nabil Elouahabi is known for his work in EastEnders, Only Fools and Horses and Zero Dark Thirty. He is currently playing Hassan Asfour in the Tony award-winning play Oslo at the National Theatre.

He fell in love with drama while studying for his GCSEs, but he points out that “not everyone has the means to go to drama school” and it can be “painfully exclusive”.

Elouahabi prefers the US style of learning, which favours continual learning, whereby actors take classes throughout their careers. He praises practitioners such as Lee Strasberg, Uta Hagen, Constantin Stanislavski and Sanford Meisner.

He recommends classes with the Impulse Company and the Actors Temple, explaining that it’s always important to stay open-minded and engaged. Elouahabi says: “Get rid of dead skin and exfoliate. If you’re not growing, you’re dying.”

Read our interview with Nabil Elouahabi

Alan Mehdizadeh

Alan Mehdizadeh. Photo: Chiron Cole
Alan Mehdizadeh. Photo: Chiron Cole

Having appeared on stage and screen, Alan Mehdizadeh is currently playing Don in West End musical Kinky Boots and has previously played Big Davey in Billy Elliot the Musical.

Mehdizadeh studied drama at the University of Wales. He attributes particular benefits to studying at university: “You are afforded, I feel, a certain freedom to do your own thing.”

Nevertheless, he explains: “It’s very hard to be seen without a drama-school accreditation or an impressive CV. In my case, I had to start with low-paid work, and had to build my CV up slowly.”

When advising actors who want to get into the industry, he says: “Don’t ever think you’re too good for any particular type of work. Get out there and get yourself seen for anything you can. If you’re hardworking, determined, passionate and focused, you’ll find the work out there (but it won’t ever find you).”

Mehdizadeh had two agents after leaving university, but he explains that “sadly, both wanted to only put me up for roles such as bouncers, security guards or criminals”.

After “maturing a little”, he nevertheless managed to find the perfect agent and is enjoying a very successful career.

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