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Is drama school really the only route to a career in the performing arts?

If only drama school were always like this… A scene from Fame, touring until October 19, 2019. Photo: Tristram Kenton If only drama school were always like this… A scene from Fame, touring until October 19, 2019. Photo: Tristram Kenton
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Performer Jon Dryden Taylor didn’t train, but did he miss out? He talks to a casting director and another performer who did not attend drama school to find out

I have a confession to make. I don’t have an animal.

When conversation between actors turns to the hours spent in zoos observing the movement, demeanour and behaviour of their chosen creature, I fall silent. I don’t have much to offer in conversations about final year showcases or Meisner classes either. I’m one of those actors; the ones who just barged into the industry without permission. In short: I didn’t train.

After 20-plus years in the business, I’ve discovered that whether or not one attended drama school is a very ‘grass is greener’ situation. Typically, those who did train will often claim it wasn’t necessary, while those like me who didn’t will say they wish they had.

Anna Francolini, currently starring in Strictly Ballroom in the West End, says: “I dearly wish I had gone to drama college instead of my uni course. My course was hardly practical and I reckon I would have thrived being a drama student, it would have been right up my street.”

Not having trained doesn’t seem to have held up the progress of Francolini’s career, though: she was still in her early 20s when her breakthrough role, as Marta in Sam Mendes’ production of Company, came along. But many untrained actors share my own experience: spending their 20s trying to get a foothold in the industry, a process which is (rightly perhaps) easier for those who have attended drama school.

Take agents, for example: I was 29 and had already worked in the West End before I was ever represented, whereas most drama school graduates will at least hope to have picked up an agent before they finish their courses. Does that point towards an industry preference for younger actors to have been trained? Now that I’m 45, nobody bothers asking me where or whether I trained any more. But a good training, for obvious reasons, still gives a leg-up to those just starting out.

“It totally depends on the project,” says Annelie Powell, lately of the Royal Shakespeare Company and currently a freelance who is head of casting for Nuffield Southampton Theatres. “With Shakespeare and theatre I think it’s very useful to have had text and voice training, and for musicals a more in-depth focus on the singing and dance.”

This isn’t, she adds, always the case.

“Earlier this year Samuel Hodges and I cast Lorna Fitzgerald in The Shadow Factory at Nuffield Southampton Theatres. She hadn’t officially ‘trained’, having grown up on our screens as Abi Branning in EastEnders. We supported her with some voice classes, but her sheer hard work and talent saw her nominated for The Stage Debut Awards this year.”

Possible, then, if not easy. But just as drama school graduates, understandably, aren’t hugely keen on hearing about triumphant performances from untrained actors, so we untrained actors love the odd drama school horror story.

There’s the story of a 5ft 10in woman on a postgrad course who didn’t play a female role the whole year as her class was short of boys

And they are legion – the 5ft 10in woman on a postgrad course who didn’t play a female role the whole year because her class was short of boys; the entire class spending a three-hour rehearsal hearing a tutor drill one actor on one line throughout; the actor who overheard her course director refer to her as “one of the ones we forgot to put back together…” Actors love a moan, and drama school is where some of the best moaning is learned.

Actors also love appearing in front of audiences, and it is here that I will claim a genuine advantage available to the untrained. One thing I hear over and over from drama school grads is that there isn’t enough time in front of audiences, especially in the first couple of years. The schools will doubtless claim that it would be harmful to expose their students to that kind of judgement before they’re fully ready for it, but many would feel that the place to learn about being on stage is on stage.

Anna Francolini in Our Town at the Almeida Theatre, London, in 2014. Photo: Marc Brenner
Anna Francolini in Our Town at the Almeida Theatre, London, in 2014. Photo: Marc Brenner

Thanks to an inability to say no, which afflicts me to this day, I performed in more than 30 shows as an undergraduate. There’s no doubt that the general standard was way lower than you’d get from a drama school, and I was probably pretty poor in some of them.

But by the end of my degree I knew much more about how to read an audience than I would if my main experience of live performance had been high-pressure showcases.

One actor friend of mine described her final year at drama school as “a year of press nights”, and, as all performers know, press nights aren’t exactly comparable to the rest of a run.

What untrained actors miss out on, of course, is the training itself – and that’s not quite as banal an observation as it sounds.

“As for actually being trained for the craft, it’s difficult to tell,” says Francolini. “I know I’ve spent years learning stuff. I don’t know if I would have had a shortcut to that if I’d trained.”

Meanwhile, how we define ‘training’ feels too narrow for Powell anyway: “What’s happening now is that the very idea of training is changing. Or to be more specific, being trained isn’t just confined to the conference of drama schools. The university courses, the Actors Centre, the part-time courses, Oxbridge, youth theatres, working in telly from a young age, learning on the job, National Youth Theatre: these are all forms of training. I trained at Middlesex University and the Oxford School of Drama and both parts of that training absolutely made me the casting director I am today.”

When I find myself talking to young people who have failed to get into, or can’t afford to go to, drama school, I always reassure them that it’s not the only way into the profession. Probably the best, but not the only. Sometimes I even believe myself. But it’s certainly true that once you’re in the room, it’s your talent and character that’s under scrutiny far more often than your technique.

Or, as Powell puts it: “After all, you are unique. And that’s the bit that interests me.”

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