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Degree courses that can push you towards a theatre career

The Media Factory at University of Central Lancashire, where its musical theatre course is taught; UCLan students performing in Urinetown. Photos: UCLan/Brian Slater
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Though university degrees offer fewer contact hours than drama schools, they can provide a firm grounding in theatre for school-leavers who are not ready for intensive training. Susan Elkin looks at some available options

Most universities offer degrees in subjects such as drama, theatre studies, musical theatre and performance. These can be a good first step for anyone with a passion for theatre who is not quite sure where to go with it.

Amber Whitehouse, 22, is now a student at the Musical Theatre Academy in London. She realised she wanted to become a musical theatre professional performer having originally studied at the University of Central Lancashire on the BA (hons) music theatre course.

“I chose it because of the range of topics that we got to learn about and also because it didn’t force me into one specific career path,” says Whitehouse.

She considered studying for a master’s degree in teaching afterwards, but musical theatre beckoned. “We did a musical theatre show each year and I really enjoyed the devising modules,” she says.

Gradually, having decided that musical theatre performance was the way forward, she realised that she would need more training elsewhere if she were to fulfil her ambition. “I also knew that I was going to need more than a one-year intensive post-grad course,” she adds.

University courses can be a useful springboard for many related careers, but few of them train industry-ready performers. The exceptions are drama schools, which used to be independent training providers but now operate with a certain amount of autonomy from within the universities they have merged with. Examples include Guildford School of Acting (University of Surrey), East 15 (University of Essex) and the Royal Birmingham Conservatoire, of which the former Birmingham School of Acting is now part (Birmingham City University).

One of the main differences between a standard university course and conservatoire training is the number of teaching hours. Anyone aiming for a performance career needs 30 hours a week of face-to-face, practical teaching. While drama schools provide this, universities typically offer less than half the hours.

“Parents are pretty clued up these days,” says Louise Pieri, principal of Performance Preparation Academy in Guildford, a drama school validated by Leicester’s De Montfort University. “Most of them soon work out that drama school is usually far better value for money.”

Anyone aiming for a performance career needs 30 hours a week of face-to-face teaching

So why do so many students opt for university if they really want to perform and parental pressure is not leading them to what may turn out to be the wrong decision?

“I interview all our foundation course students who are applying elsewhere for vocational training,” says Pieri, whose school also offers two degrees and a three-year diploma. “Good drama schools are very oversubscribed. It is much easier to get into university. The students – despite everything we tell them – often fail to understand the difference and are excited simply to have been offered a place.”

She continues: “I don’t think the universities are mis-selling their courses. Most of them are very clear about what they’re offering.”

Pieri stresses that students are often reluctant to acknowledge the difference between university and drama school. “There is often a culture of ‘I got in’ which stops them looking any further.”

University drama and other performing arts degrees have much about them that is excellent, but students (and parents) need to be clear about what they want and look closely at what they’re getting.

Jeni Boyns, now 37 and a drama teacher at the Hundred of Hoo Academy in Medway, embarked on a university degree with the intention of doing vocational training afterwards.

“I went to Warwick, which runs one of the best theatre and performance degrees in the country,” she says. “I intended to complete a postgrad performance degree and become a performer after uni but life had other ideas.”

For Boyns, the degree turned out to be excellent preparation for teaching. “It introduced me to a diverse range of playwrights and theatre practitioners, which has been invaluable when choosing texts as a BTec teacher. We can choose what we like to suit each group of students rather then being limited by set texts.”

Whitehouse is full of enthusiasm for her university course, saying it makes students “drama school-ready” rather than “industry-ready”. It is effectively a three-year, in-depth foundation course.

As with any performing arts foundation course, a few students manage to sail into the industry without further training. Boyns reports that one or two of her contemporaries at Warwick now work as performers. In general, though, it’s a starting point rather than a finishing point and, as Whitehouse says: “You are never too old to go back into education.”

Boyns agrees: “I advise my students to go with their hearts. If they have that ultimate burning desire then they should go for drama school because they won’t regret it. It definitely gives the best training for most people who want a career in performance. But anyone who wants a fallback should go for university and follow it up later with a postgraduate drama school course, if they are still passionate.”

University options

Many UK universities offer drama and performance degrees, of which the following have been particularly recommended by current and former students.

University of Central Lancashire
BA (hons) music theatre

University of Warwick
BA (hons) theatre and performance studies

University of Kent
BA (hons) drama and theatre

University of Hull
BA (hons) drama and theatre practice

University of Chichester
BA (hons) drama and theatre

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