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How university theatre courses differ from drama schools

Students on the BA in Theatre and Performance course at Guildford School of Acting, which merged with the University of Surrey in 2009 Students on the BA in Theatre and Performance course at Guildford School of Acting, which merged with the University of Surrey in 2009. Photo: Mark Dean
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While universities have traditionally offered more academic programmes compared with more practical training at drama schools, the lines between different institutions are beginning to blur. Susan Elkin investigates


Schoolteachers may tell you that it is best to train as an actor on a university drama course that will give you a ‘proper’ degree, as opposed to drama school ‘luvviedom’. But over the years many students, regretting making the wrong – and very costly – decision, have told me that this is outdated, ill-informed careers advice.

“Conservatoire and university programmes have traditionally worked according to different models of learning and teaching,” says Adam Alston, lecturer in theatre and performance studies and programme leader for the University of Surrey’s BA in Theatre and Performance. “A conservatoire programme builds on intensive rehearsal periods and requires adherence to a rigorous programme of practical training in highly tutored settings.”

In contrast, Alston says: “Many university degree programmes in the arts focus less on leading students through a training process, and more on encouraging students to become leaders; they encourage students to become independent, to produce creative practice in reflective and highly informed ways, and usually place emphasis on experimentation.”

This means that you can expect more face-to-face practical teaching in a conservatoire than in most other courses at higher education institutions. And if you want to perform, you need 30 hours a week of in-depth tuition and direction. Graduates of courses like Alston’s – now part of Guildford School of Acting, which merged with the University of Surrey in 2009 – are well equipped to work in the industry as marketers, publishers, researchers and theatremakers. Some do become actors, often after a one-year postgraduate acting course. “But our degree programme does not offer a showcase because it is not really geared to the kind of career that requires an agent,” explains Alston.

“However, our degree does equip students with the necessary skills to set up their own theatre company, or to become independent theatremakers. Over the past couple of years we’ve even had students have their assessments at the Brighton Fringe Festival, which seems to us a very concrete means of setting students up as theatre makers exploring their own practice. Our programme doesn’t really offer the kind of training that actors in many commercially-run West End shows would require, but it does offer students plentiful opportunities to pursue a career as a practitioner – indeed, a kind of practitioner that we’re likely to see a lot more of in a rapidly evolving theatre climate and context.”

Since 1996, Rose Bruford College has offered a part-time, distance-learning degree in theatre studies. From next year, there will also be a full-time route. “The programme is not specifically vocational but an increasing number of students work in theatre-related areas,” says programme director Jayne Richards. A range of industry practitioners, teachers, trainee teachers and returning learners form the programme’s “international cohort”.

The differences between training options are not cut and dried: it is no longer as simple as choosing a vocational drama school if you want to perform or study technical theatre, and a university if you want to work in the wider industry. With effect from the current academic year, all the University of Surrey’s performance-related work is part of GSA, which Alston dubs “a university conservatoire”. The edges are blurring as they are in a number of other institutions. That makes the decision for aspiring students even trickier.

The options for non-conservatoire courses fall into three broad categories:

Universities offering drama as a purely academic discipline

These tend to be at Russell Group universities. Such courses encourage students to be what Alston calls “independent, critically aware thinkers and doers” able to “pursue innovative means of making and producing exciting, challenging work”.

But they do not train actors and face-to-face tuition hours are limited. However, in vibrant university cities there are abundant opportunities to take part in and learn from extra-curricular drama – as did Dan Stevens, John Cleese, David Wood and Emma Thompson, for example.

Universities offering a practical element alongside the academic

Many theatre practitioners have trained at institutions such as the University of Kent, which has a strong track record in developing theatre technicians and actors. There is an on-site theatre, cinema, concert hall, high-quality studios and a vibrant arts culture. Bath Spa and the University of West London are among others whose alumni include many practitioners and Middlesex University has long been excellent at practical training that complements academic studies.

University courses seeking to rival drama schools

Over time, certain university courses have evolved to include more practical training than academic. At Falmouth University, which styles itself “a specialist university for the creative industries”, there are acting and technical theatre degrees, as well as a separate BA in Theatre and Performance. The acting programme, led by Klaus Kruse, is an “industry-focused practical course”. Students are promised 15 to 18 hours of tuition a week – less than a conservatoire drama school but much more than many university courses – which rises during the rehearsal periods for the frequent shows that are part of the work. Several other universities have rebranded themselves along similar lines, including St Mary’s Plymouth and Arts University Bournemouth.

A number of newer universities are making professional drama training central to their way of working. The University of the West of Scotland was one of a handful of higher education institutions to be recognised as a provider of vocational training by the now defunct Drama UK. It offers degrees in performance, technical theatre and production. Among others, Bolton, Bedfordshire and Wrexham Glyndyr universities offer similar programmes.

This article was updated on June 30 to better reflect the nature of training given at the University of Surrey and on July 10 to remove an inaccurate reference to courses at the universities of Birmingham and Bristol.

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