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Careers Clinic: Should I study what I love, or what I excel at?

John Byrne. Photo: Catherine Usher John Byrne. Photo: Catherine Usher
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I’m an A-level drama student and soon I’ll need to start making choices about university and drama school courses. I adore musical theatre and performing arts, but unfortunately the only area I can really say I excel at is acting. I am getting singing lessons, and my dancing is passable, but should I apply for acting courses because that’s where I can play to my strengths in the audition?

My hope would be to find a course that also includes a couple of modules in musical theatre. At the same time my heart is pushing me to ‘go for it’ and apply for full musical theatre or performing arts courses. Getting on to one would be my dream, but I am aware the competition from stronger musical talent at audition stage will be much tougher and I have more risk of failing. What should I follow, my head or my heart?

John Byrne’s advice

For anyone unfamiliar with the way drama training works, the logical answer would probably be to apply for both types of course and see how you get on. Sadly, our industry is still one in which the more applications you make, the more audition fees you are likely to have to pay on top of the travel and other common costs. There is no denying that this remains a major barrier to inclusion and diversity, as well as limiting your odds of success.

While there have been recent and welcome initiatives by some drama schools and independent funds to address this ongoing issue – either by reducing charges, waiving them or holding regional auditions – on the whole, we are still nowhere near where we need to be. This being the case, I understand why you feel torn.

On the one hand, you need to make sure the auditions you can afford ‘pay off’ as much as possible, and on the other you have the perfectly legitimate desire to train in the area you are most passionate about. Self-awareness is an excellent quality in any aspiring professional, but it can be difficult to judge our abilities independently. Is your current assessment of your singing and musical skills is based on gut feeling or comparing yourself to the trained professionals you see on stage or screen? If it is either of these, bear in mind that what you are seeing in working professionals is the result of training, and not necessarily what they were like before they started.

That’s not to say that even the best training course in the world can manufacture talent if it is not there in the first place, but make sure you are supplementing your self-assessment with feedback from teachers and coaches who know the standards required in drama school auditions, and can suggest what you need to do to get closer to those standards. Remember that drama school auditions are there to assess potential rather than a finished product. Do detailed research on what each course offers, whether in acting or musical theatre. Often the elements with which you resonate most will be the ones you can best communicate your enthusiasm about when it comes to personal statement and audition time.

Ultimately, rest assured that whatever course of study you embark on won’t mean saying goodbye to the other path irreversibly. Musical theatre actors can and do successfully transition to acting work, and vice versa, especially if they embrace the idea of lifelong learning, which should be part of every working actor’s life no matter where they originally trained.

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

John Byrne is also a writer, cartoonist, performer and broadcaster. Read his advice columns every Wednesday at thestage.co.uk/author/john-byrne

How to choose the university drama course for you

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