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University vs drama school: Which is right for you?

Third-year drama and theatre studies students at Aberystwyth University, who worked together on the production Magnificat. Photo: Gareth Evans
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Thousands of budding performers are turned away from drama school every year and face a difficult choice: reapply the following year, take an alternative training route, or go to university.

One of the many benefits of training at a drama school is that it offers an intensive three-year (usually) course that prepares students physically, vocally and mentally for a career as a performer. At the end of the degree (usually in acting or musical theatre), students perform in a showcase attended by agents. Not only are drama school graduates given world-class training and industry contacts, they are also entitled to full membership of Equity on completion of their course.

However, getting into drama school is highly competitive and most who apply don’t get in.

Across the UK, 146 universities offer performance-related degrees. These courses tend to be more theoretical than drama school and prepare students for a variety of careers. Andrew Filmer, senior lecturer in drama, theatre and performance at Aberystwyth University, says: “A university drama and theatre degree is about preparing you for a range of possible careers on and beyond the stage.”

Although making it as a performer with a university degree is relatively rare, there are exceptions. Alan Mehdizadeh, who studied drama at Wales University, is appearing as Don in the West End musical Kinky Boots, and has previously played Big Davey in Billy Elliot.

Mehdizadeh says: “What it did for me was put me in a rehearsal room for 12 hours a day, six days a week, finding my limits, learning what I was good at and finding just how much I enjoyed ‘the process’. It gave me the foundations to go away and build on. I am under no illusions that had I gone to drama school, I would possibly have had some of the opportunities I’ve been lucky to have much earlier.”

Mehdizadeh advises university graduates that “when you leave uni, realise that in the real world, some casting directors will look at a CV, not see a drama school, and may well put your CV to one side in favour of someone who does have that credit.”

One benefit Mehdizadeh attributes to university is that “you are afforded, I feel, a certain freedom to do your own thing”. It was at university that Mehdizadeh founded his own musical theatre company, Curtain Call, which is still running today, 11 years on.

There tends to be more freedom at university to create your own theatre. Nicolas Whybrow, head of theatre and performance studies at Warwick University, says one of the purposes of his course is to “equip students to develop their own independent practice and to nurture their capacities to engage broadly and critically with issues around the art forms of theatre and performance, as well as the wider world.”

Some universities offer very exciting opportunities. To name just a few: the University of Birmingham’s drama and theatre arts department is enjoying a collaboration with the Royal Shakespeare Company; students at Lancaster University are tutored by Tim Etchells, director of Forced Entertainment. And many universities participate in the Edinburgh Fringe.

Successful actors who studied drama at university include Mathew Horne (right), currently appearing in The Miser in the West End with Griff Rhys Jones and Saikat Ahamed. Photo: Tristram Kenton

Universities tend to offer broader programmes of study than drama schools. Students are given more choice, from being able to choose the modules they study, to having the flexibility to take a joint honours degree. The latter allows students to pair up drama and theatre with other subjects such as film studies, theatre design, English or creative writing.

Drama schools offer a focused and practical approach to training, while universities provide a more broad and academic approach to study.

However, the practical-versus-academic gap is slowly narrowing. Drama schools are now closely linked to universities in order to validate their degrees, which has increased the academic side of drama school courses, while some universities have become more practical, offering a wider range of practical courses, including, acting, musical theatre, performing arts and acting for film.

Doug Cockle, actor, principal lecturer and course leader of the BA (hons) acting course at Arts University Bournemouth, says: “Universities have more and more been recognising the value of ‘practice as research’, which means the ‘academic’ study is based in actual performance and reflection on that performance.”

How practical or academic a course is depends on the university.

Cockle explains: “Our course here is actually a funny mix of the traditional perceptions of both drama schools and university drama courses. There is a strong academic element to the course, but most of the classes are practical and designed to prepare students to work as performers. Whereas at Exeter University, the courses are more academic with some practical explorations.”

Cockle’s acting course at Bournemouth has some notable alumni, including Harry Reid, who graduated in 2013 and now plays Ben Mitchell in EastEnders.

Some university graduates who want a career as a performer later go on to train at drama school. Dominique Planter, who is performing in the West End musical The Lion King, took the BA (hons) acting course at Bournemouth University and went on to train at Liverpool Institute of Performing Arts. Patsy Ferran, who played Portia in the 2015 Royal Shakespeare Company production of The Merchant of Venice, took a BA (hons) in drama and theatre arts at Birmingham University and then went on to train at RADA.

However, with fees now averaging £26,000 for a three-year degree, enrolling on a second degree, or even a postgraduate course at drama school, is financially unattainable for most. With only one shot at training or study, prospective students have to be more certain than ever that the degree they choose is the right one for them.

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