What you need to ask before choosing a technical course
So, you want to go to drama school to learn about working backstage and making shows. Fair enough: a lot of people do. The technical training available in the UK has grown enormously over the last decade, perhaps driven by the perceived need for qualifications in the face of the increasing number of rules and regulations applied to theatre.
Of course, more options means more choice – and more decisions to be made – about what you’re interested in learning, about how you go about learning it. The trouble is, it’s hard to know just how different the courses will be, or which might best suit you until you’re in the middle of it, at which point it might be too late to change.
The best advice I’ve ever been given is that you can never know everything, but you can know people to ask. So I’ve been asking around, among current, recent and long-ago students, plus a few who never went to drama school at all. What do they wish they’d considered, asked or learned?
1. The best course is the one that matches your interests. What are you most interested in? Do you want to focus on that or specialise in it within a broader course?
2. Find out how the course is taught: is it an academic course with lots of background (for example, a lighting course that spends a long time talking about visual art, less time hands on with the lights), or a more hands-on one? Which approach suits you best?
3. Who does the teaching – just college staff? What’s their experience? How long have they been there? How often do they reconnect with the real world beyond college? Are there visiting guest lecturers? Do they pass information on or simply talk about their work? Which guest speakers have spoken recently?
4. Does the course teach the history of your subject, or just the present and the future? The history often helps explain why things are the way they are now.
5. What is the ratio of teaching to doing? When doing shows, what roles do you get to take and when? How are you supported – by in-house staff, or external mentors?
6. Who else works on the shows? Look up which directors and designers have been on recent shows. Are they interesting people that you’d like to work with and learn from?
7. What is the scale of the shows, where do they take place and what’s the time-scale for getting them on? Is it a rush to opening night or is there time to talk and learn? What equipment do they use? Is it all in-house or is there a budget available to try new things?
8. What facilities does the college use for teaching and staging shows? It’s hard to learn about counterweight flying, automated flying or the correct use of safety harnesses if only a small studio space is available.
9. Are the in-house facilities comprehensive and up-to-date? Is the college an early adopter of new technologies, or does it wait until they’re established before using them?
10. How much teaching is in-house versus on placements outside of the college? Having spent so much money to be there, some students dislike being ‘palmed off’ on outside companies. Others enjoy seeing a real-world environment and making new contacts. Be clear about your expectations. Does the college organise placements, or is it up to you? Are they at big companies or will you work with individual practitioners in your field?
11. Where there are placements, do they cover areas that would be hard to replicate in college: larger-scale productions, touring shows or productions outside traditional theatre shows?
12. It shouldn’t all be about work, so where is the college? Is it a nice place to be, and in a style that you like (in a city centre or on a campus, for example)? What else is there to do around there? Is it an interesting and affordable place to live? Ask current students.
13. What other useful things does the college teach beyond the core of your subject? For example, about tax and VAT and the other joys of being self-employed? Accounting? Finding work? The health-and-safety regulations we increasingly work under? First aid? Other languages (even if only the ‘backstage lingo’ plus please and thank you)?
14. If you get part-way through the course and realise that either it’s not quite right for you or that some other course looks more interesting, are you able to switch?
15. Even if you do specialise, make sure you don’t lose sight of everything that goes into making a show.
16. The qualification is less important than the people you meet. That includes the other people on your course, others already working in the industry, plus everyone on other courses in the college: the next generation of every theatremaking craft, directing to designing to acting, is there alongside you.
17. You get out of the course what you put into it, and the more proactive you are – at asking questions, contacting people, asking to be involved or volunteering to help – the more you’ll learn, and the more you’ll be rewarded. Several people said they had never got a job because of their qualification, but work almost continuously with people they met while studying for their qualification.
18. You don’t know everything when you get out of college: no one does. We’re all on a constant journey to learn new things. Don’t be the student who thinks that finishing your degree means you’re ready to production-manage the biggest shows on earth. Instead, seek out those who do and learn from them.
Remember that you don’t have to go to drama school. There are still plenty of other routes into working backstage, whether apprenticeships with suppliers or theatres, or just starting out at a local theatre and working your way up – taking the money you’d spend on college and investing it in yourself.
But drama schools should offer one key thing: old-fashioned academic freedom to learn through experimentation. It’s hard to do that out in the real world, where there is always pressure just to get the show on. So here’s one last question for you: how does the college encourage and support that freedom?
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