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How to become a professional actor without drama school training

20 Stories High Young Actors Company. Photo: Wesley Storey 20 Stories High Young Actors Company. Photo: Wesley Storey
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Is it possible for aspiring actors to make it when they can’t afford drama school? Samantha Marsden talks to those who have succeeded in the industry about their routes to building a strong career without formal training


When actor Zephryn Taitte was asked: “How did you train yourself to become an actor?”, he replied: “Youth theatre and life were my teachers.” Taitte is currently in the West End in Bitter Wheat and is a recurring character on BBC1’s Call the Midwife. He says: “It’s a business at the end of the day, and one that requires relentless activity with or without drama school. You’re still competing for the same jobs, so don’t be put off. It’s a marathon, so treat it as such. Learn as much as you can and see as much as you can.”

Zephryn Taitte (right) with John Malkovich in Bitter Wheat

Young actors’ companies

Actor Paislie Reid trained with 20 Stories High, a young actors’ company. Reid began her career in CITV’s The New Worst Witch and has since performed with the Royal Shakespeare Company, Frantic Assembly, and at Liverpool’s Royal Court. 20 Stories High offers a free programme for aspiring actors aged between 18 and 25. Each week, guest artists deliver workshops in physical theatre, beatbox, poetry, as well as many different acting techniques.

Reid says: “The fact that it is completely free allows many young people, who wouldn’t usually get access or opportunities in theatre, to benefit from high-quality training. 20 Stories High still support me massively with my career and professional development to this day.”

There are many young actor companies across the UK and they vary greatly. Some are the next step up from a youth theatre, others have professional training programmes, and there are those that are more like a rep company. And some are youth theatres with the title of young company. Some young companies are free, whereas others can cost as much as drama school training. Young companies vary in quality and with what they can offer. Before joining a young company, try to get to one of their shows for a quality assessment, and don’t be shy to ask about what training you will receive.

NYT Rep Company

The National Youth Theatre Rep Company is inspired by the traditional repertory theatre model and was set up by Paul Roseby in 2012 to provide a free alternative to formal training. The course offers free, practical, industry-based talent development in drama and performance over nine months to 16 NYT members.

Last year’s NYT Rep cast included Aidan Cheng, who appeared in Harlots for ITV and Hulu. Previous NYT Rep company members include Isabel Adomakoh Young, who has performed in Venice Preserved at the RSC; Kwami Odoom, who is in The Half God of Rainfall at the Kiln; Seraphina Beh, who is in the new series of Netflix’s Top Boy; and Sope Dirisu, who has played Coriolanus at the RSC and will star in Gangs of London for Sky Atlantic.

Sope Dirisu: ‘Being back at the RSC as a professional feels like validation’

Classes

“Be prepared to have to educate yourself and find classes in different disciplines,” says actor Tallulah Greive, who has worked professionally for nine years and is currently starring in BBC iPlayer’s Flatmates. Greive says: “I was once told that if I didn’t go to drama school, I had to be ‘prepared for everyone to see my mistakes’, as everything that I did would be out there forever, and not always protected by the confines of a rehearsal room. If you don’t go to drama school, be prepared to have to educate yourself and trust your instincts: find classes in different disciplines, read every play in your local library, work in a theatre and watch everything you can, apply for every youth membership that you find (the British Film Institute’s 16-25 membership is a good example), trust your gut and chase down anything that lights a fire in you.”

With classes, you can design your own programme – and they are the perfect solution for those who need to work while training. Many of the traditional drama schools run evening, short, and weekend courses. Other notable classes include those offered by:

The Actors Centre, London

The Lir National Academy of Dramatic Art, Dublin

Met Film School, London

Caspa Arts, London

Generation Arts, London (which offers free training for young people in the margins in London)

The International School of Screen Acting, London

Identity School of Acting, London

The Mono Box, London

Yorkshire Academy of Film and Television Acting, Leeds

Both Feet, Leeds and Manchester

The Actors Class, London

Associated Studios, London

Anthony Meindl’s Actor Workshop, London

Acting Classes with Tracey Street, Birmingham

Write to casting directors

Actor Grace Hogg-Robinson explains how she got her lucky break: “I secured my first professional audition aged 13 by writing a letter to casting director Fiona Weir, who was casting the final Harry Potter film.”

Hogg-Robinson trained at the Jackie Palmer Stage School in High Wycombe, and completed the 10-week course at the Actors Class in London. She has just finished shooting a series with a regular role in Flesh and Blood for ITV, with a cast that includes Imelda Staunton and Russell Tovey.

Hogg-Robinson recommends the course at the Actors Class “wholeheartedly”, adding: “Mary Doherty runs phenomenal 10-week courses for actors who want an opportunity to play and learn both craft and business skills, in a supportive and safe space. The confidence and sense of community this has given me is invaluable.”

She advises: “Stay savvy. Remember as many names and faces as you can, and always do your research. Try as many different classes and workshops as possible to find what works best for you.”

The Television Workshop – Nottingham and Salford

The Television Workshop is a BAFTA-winning independent charitable organisation that trains children and teenagers for stage and screen.

Notable alumni include Vicky McClure, whose credits include This Is England, Broadchurch and Line of Duty; Joe Dempsie, from Game of Thrones, This Is England and Skins; Toby Kebbell, who was in The Escape Artist and Dawn of the Planet of the Apes; and Aisling Loftus, from The Borrowers and Mr Selfridge.

With bursaries available, and some half-price places, to those unable to pay, the Television Workshop prides itself on representing those from all backgrounds.

Actor Holly-Robyn Harrison, a former student, says: “The workshop leader at the time introduced us to industry-standard practices such as self-taping really early on. It was how most of us got our first jobs. We’d all work on our lines together, then shoot self-tapes individually in a ‘safe space’ environment that meant we were open to hands-on learning and whatever feedback might be on offer. Alumni and directors would also often visit, keeping the doors open to our little pocket of working-class talent.”

College

Many regional colleges offer courses in performing arts. Actor Karen Fishwick – whose credits include playing Juliet at the RSC, Our Ladies of Perpetual Succour, and Wife at the Kiln – trained at Motherwell College (now New College Lanarkshire).

Fishwick recommends that you “throw yourself at every opportunity wholeheartedly – whether it’s to do with ‘the business’ or not”, adding: “Whatever the outcome, you’ll gain invaluable skills and experiences that will prep you for anything.”


For more training advice, go to: the stage.co.uk/advice; For more information on alternative routes into acting visit getintotheatre.org

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