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Careers clinic: ‘Which sixth-form should we choose for our daughter, an aspiring actor?’

John Byrne. Photo: Catherine Usher John Byrne. Photo: Catherine Usher
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Our daughter will be turning 16 and has her heart set on working as an actor. She started at stage school a year or two ago, and has been loving it. She is now thinking about her sixth-form options, and, beyond that, of drama school.

Of course, the drama schools she most wants to go to are the very famous ones. She feels her best chance of getting there is to go to a particular performing arts school, which is very far away from where we live and quite expensive. Neither of us are in the industry ourselves or know enough about what we should be looking for to make a judgement either way.

Drama was one of my favourite subjects as a child, but my own parents were having none of it. I suppose this is one of the reasons I want to support my daughter in following her dream. At the same time, if she goes to drama school it is likely to be expensive, so we are wondering if splashing out on boarding fees now is the best use of our resources?

JOHN BYRNE’S ADVICE I hear from a lot of parents who want to support their offspring’s performing arts ambitions but “know nothing about the business”. They often say this like it is a bad thing, but it can also be an advantage. I get asked privately by quite a few professional actor friends to advise their own children, not because these parents don’t know the business (in some cases they are well-known names) but because training and entry routes have changed so much since their own early days.

Being an outsider allows you to come from a fresh perspective and do your research in the same logical way you would check out any other expensive purchase. I’m deliberately describing training in such unromantic terms, because, as a supportive parent, that is often the best attitude to adopt.

For entirely understandable reasons, teenagers may be led more by emotion in their training plans. It would be worth gently probing as to how your daughter has come to the conclusion that this particular school is “the best one”. Did their favourite actor go there? Is it because the website is impressive? It might be the school all their friends in stage school are talking about. I’m not suggesting all 16-year-olds are starry-eyed and can’t make considered decisions, but I often hear the above reasons when doing career Q&As with young people (and sometimes from older performers). You’ll find wide and varying opinions as to what the ‘top’ drama schools in the country are, but anybody serious about drama will agree that this is not a business where any particular institution can guarantee success. It is less a question of the best school and more about which training gives each student the best chance of achieving their individual goals.

Drill down beyond “I want to be an actor” to help your daughter consider exactly what kind of actor. Work back from “what type of actor?” to “which drama schools offer that type of drama course?” rather than “which drama schools have famous names gone to?”. Then find out as much as you can about the auditions for those schools and what is required. Entry to your “dream drama school” is never guaranteed, but the sixth-form curriculum that is closest to the ethos of the desired third-level course will certainly help with preparation. Ultimately, it will be how well applicants audition, not the name of the school they went to before, whether boarding, day school, full-time or part-time, that decisions will be based on. I hope that helps you and your daughter look beyond the promotional material and make your best decision. 

Contact careers adviser John Byrne at dearjohn@thestage.co.uk or @dearjohnbyrne

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