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Two-year courses: the future for drama training?

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In response to government thinking on the length of degree courses, Susan Elkin says despite misgivings drama schools should reconsider their one-size-fits-all approach

In February, the government announced a plan to axe the requirement that a full degree must be studied over three years. In future, the statement said, there would be an option to study the same material intensively over two much fuller years, thereby saving the student a whole year’s subsistence costs, even though tuition fees would be the same in total as a three-year course.

Although none of the mainstream drama schools have yet taken the plunge and introduced a two-year degree course, some of them, such as LAMDA, already offer a two-year foundation degree. This is a lower qualification – and students taking it must, by law, be offered a top-up pathway to bring their degree up to full honours level by studying for a third year.

That works very well for some. “Our two-year foundation degree in professional acting is designed for those who have prior higher education or professional experience,” says LAMDA principal Joanna Read, adding that Rory Kinnear, Ruth Wilson, Katherine Parkinson and Chris O’Dowd are all graduates of this programme.

Also making waves are accelerated two-year non-degree training programmes in independent vocational schools such as the Musical Theatre Academy, which this year won school of the year at The Stage Awards for the second time. It runs a four-term year with very short breaks. Although the fees are almost as high as they would be elsewhere over three years, the students have the advantage of being industry-ready a year earlier and, of course, they have saved a year’s living expenses. MTA’s outcomes in terms of sustained graduate employment in the industry are impressively high too.

Students on LAMDA’s two-year foundation degree course in Blood Wedding, in 2016. Photo: John Haynes
Students on LAMDA’s two-year foundation degree course in Blood Wedding, in 2016. Photo: John Haynes

Two years, however, really doesn’t seem long and many people remain unconvinced. Dave Bond, head of actor training at the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama, for example, says: “Many students don’t begin to find their feet until the end of Year 2. It’s not just about pushing the content of a course, it’s about young people being allowed to experiment, develop and change. All this should be given time.”

Michael Earley, principal of Rose Bruford, has misgivings too. “The scheduling of productions, industry placements and other modules would make it difficult to condense an honours degree into two years. There would also be less opportunity for personal development as the curriculum would be so compressed.”

There are also worries that there would be serious practical problems in attempting to teach a degree course in two years.

“You would need to find the staff, because if you use ‘regular’ staff they would be working without a break,” observes Mark Featherstone-Witty, founding principal of the Liverpool Institute for Performing Arts. “Either that or everyone would have to work a shift pattern and that would mean changing contracts. And you would need facilities too. At what point in the year could you fit in portable appliance testing, for example?”

On the other hand, colleges have to be pragmatic.

“We are aware that we need to respond to market and industry demand and to students who want to enter the industry sooner,” says Earley. “For example, we have seen the growth in popularity of our non-degree acting part-time and acting foundation courses, which suggests an appetite for shorter training, particularly for both pre-degree and mature students. Students from both of these courses have progressed straight into industry as well as on to three-year degrees. So we certainly think that new training models can sit comfortably beside three-year degree study.”

And, as Featherstone-Witty points out, since there have always been actors who have good careers without any training at all, it must be possible – for some – to get everything they need from a two or even one-year course.

However, there is, arguably, a strong case for not trying to pack the training of non-performing theatre creatives into a shorter time.

Sean Crowley, director of drama at RWCMD, insists: “I think for our courses in production and design, a two-year course would not be desirable.” He continues: “We believe in a fundamental grounding in a broad range of skills and do not promote any specialist pathways in RWCMD production and design. Without the breadth of knowledge acquired in the first year, we feel our graduates wouldn’t have the understanding and empathy within their subject field that creates the rounded RWCMD production and design graduate.”

Earley admits that he and his colleagues at Rose Bruford are keeping an open mind, although there are no immediate plans for change. “In response to government thinking we are naturally exploring the future possibilities of degree study,” he says cautiously.

“Gaining taught degree awarding powers gives us the opportunity and flexibility to work with partner organisations to explore various delivery models that meet industry and prospective students’ needs and willingness to pay tuition fees.” This, he explains, would not be possible for most other drama schools whose degrees have to be externally validated.

The two-year degree could probably work for some subjects, although vocational training for work in the performance industry isn’t an obvious candidate given the time some students need to blossom. There is, however, wasted time on a three-year programme, especially in the very long breaks, and principals would do well to look seriously at alternatives as student needs and willingness to incur debt change. A one-size-fits-all attitude is unlikely to be the best approach.

More details at: lamda.org.uk; themta.co.uk; rwcmd.ac.uk; bruford.ac.uk; lipa.ac.uk

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