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How to choose the university drama course for you

Students at Bath Spa University. Photo: Nick Spratling Students at Bath Spa University. Photo: Nick Spratling
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Considering studying drama at university? It can be difficult to know which course is best. Samantha Marsden asks: how can you tell the difference between practical training and degrees that are more academic?

There’s a huge range of undergraduate performing arts-related courses on offer at universities. From BA (hons) degrees in drama, to acting for film, to musical theatre. Whatever you choose, make sure you are well informed so that you have no regrets. Some university degrees have become highly practical, but others are more theoretical. These are the questions that will help you tell the difference.

What is the course title?

If the course has the words: ‘acting’, ‘dance’ or ‘musical theatre’ in it, chances are it’s a more practical course than a drama or theatre studies degree.

Who are the tutors?

If the university shares tutors with a drama school then this is a good sign the course will be practical. Ellen Larson, third year student on the BA (hons) Acting Course at Bath Spa University, says: “I truly believe the training I get is on par with what I would have received at a drama school. Many of our lecturers have worked at drama schools, we put in the same hours and leave with the same degree.”

Do graduates secure agent representation after graduating?

Siana Smith, past student on the BA (hons) Acting for Film at the University of Chichester secured representation from the agent Nici Rice at the Gradz Agency through her BA. Smith explains: “I have secured a number of auditions since leaving and I believe my training has helped me go into these auditions prepared. Although drama school might be the right path for some, I believe university is up and coming, especially the Acting for Film course in Chichester. They are able to teach you in the most intimate way to deliver a performance finely tuned for the camera. I absolutely loved my training in Chichester and would recommend it to anyone wanting to be an actor in TV or film.”

How university theatre courses differ from drama schools

What are the class sizes?

At drama school, students benefit from small classes and plenty of individual feedback. Some universities also offer this. Ask about class sizes and individual attention when looking at universities. Sophia Amy Evans, second-year student on the BA (hons) in Musical Theatre at the University Centre Colchester, explains: “Studying at Colchester has benefitted me as a performer, the small class sizes mean I receive plenty of individual feedback and an incredible amount of support from my teachers.”

Is there a graduate showcase?

Some universities offer a graduate showcase at the end of the course. Third-year student Emma Shears, on the Musical Theatre Performance Course at the University of Chichester, explains: “University degrees are seriously underestimated in the industry. These courses are improving every year and train students with some serious talent, who maybe were offered positions but weren’t fortunate enough to afford a place at a drama school. I’m very proud of my course and the training it provides. We are provided with multiple opportunities, from productions with professional creatives, workshops with industry professionals and a graduate showcase in London.”

Can you stage your own work?

One thing universities tend to offer more than traditional drama schools is more scope to get creative and put on your own work. Conrad Murray, who has run the Battersea Arts Centre Beatbox Academy for 10 years, studied a BA (hons) in Drama at Kingston University. He praises the university, saying: “I was able to stage my own performances, which were professionally toured and performed while in my second year. Originally, I never thought uni was for me. I didn’t know anyone who had gone. One exceptionally inspirational lecturer was extremely kind, overlooked whatever failings I probably had and spurred me on.”

2018’s best advice from theatre industry professionals

If it’s a musical theatre course, is there dance training?

Sommy Echezona, who studied Music Theatre at University Central Lancashire, explains: “The downside of university is that it concentrates more on the acting and singing, but does not incorporate the dance teaching that drama school does. It also lacks the intensive training that drama school has, because they’re normally training all day, five times a week. However, uni course show that there are many other career paths than just musical theatre/stage. It shows the opportunity for traditional routes such as teaching as well as straight acting and directing, devising, and my university especially explored choral singing, which helped us to sight-read music. With these added extras we are more adaptable for different jobs in the industry.”

What modules are compulsory and which are optional?

One of the highlights of a university course is that you can tailor the course to suit your interests and needs. Don’t be afraid to ask for detailed breakdowns of the modules on offer, finding out which are core, and which are optional. Sebastian Farr, a recent graduate of the University of Lincoln where he studied a BA (hons) in Drama, explains: “The core modules had a performance and research element and the optional modules often combined the two, though some modules were purely research or purely practice.”

What is the ratio of practice to theory?

Some universities will explain practical to theory ratios in their course details, but with others you may need to ask directly. Andrew Wright, programme leader of the BA (hons) in Musical Theatre Performance at the University of Chichester, explains: “The first year is 75% practical/25% written, the second year is 80% practical/20% written and the third year is 95% practical. The final year is specifically geared towards preparing the students for the industry with regular sessions on audition technique and mock auditions, with the addition of talks and Q&A sessions with representatives from Spotlight, Equity, various agencies and regional producing houses.”

Whether you are going to drama school or university, it’s really important to get as much information as possible so that you know you are making the right choice. You get one student loan, so spend it wisely. Remember: you are the customer and you have a right to ask questions. Wherever you choose to study, you should feel the course is the perfect fit for you.

Visit thestage.co.uk/advice for more details on drama training

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