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How to choose your three-year drama course

Third years in rehearsal at LIPA. Photo: Jon Super
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The Federation of Drama Schools’ membership includes 20 of the UK’s foremost training institutions. But what makes the offering at one school different from another? Susan Elkin investigates what to look for when deciding where to apply…

The 20 institutions in the Federation of Drama Schools, formed in 2017, all run three-year courses in acting. The focus across the federation is firmly on conservatoire-style vocational training. But what differentiates one course from another?

Almost all of these courses are presented as BA (hons) degrees. Some are accredited by independent universities: RADA’s degrees, for example, are accredited by King’s College London, Drama Studio London’s by De Montfort University in Leicester, LAMDA’s by the University of Kent, LIPA’s by Liverpool John Moores University and Italia Conti’s by the University of East London.

Others have become (or, in the case of Manchester School of Theatre, always were) departments within universities. So, the Royal Birmingham Conservatoire, whose drama section is the former Birmingham School of Acting, is part of Birmingham City University; Guildford School of Acting operates within the University of Surrey and East 15 sits within the University of Essex.

Rose Bruford College is unusual in that it has successfully applied for degree awarding powers, which means that it can design and award its own degrees with university-level autonomy. It is also entitled to accredit the degrees of other institutions.

Students taking a degree course, of whatever sort, are entitled to student loans with which to pay their fees.

Oxford School of Drama, which has a unique rural location in former farm buildings on the outskirts of Woodstock near Oxford, is unusual within the group in that its three-year acting course is not a degree, although there is funding available.

Most FDS schools set their annual tuition fees at about £9,250 per year, which can be covered by a student loan. Some schools, however, charge higher fees. For example, Mountview’s fee for UK students for 2019/20 is £13,160 – and at Arts Educational Schools London, it’s £14,910. This means that students may have a funding shortfall although there are scholarships and bursaries to apply for.

Any UK student at a FDS school may also apply for maintenance loan the level of which depends on location and whether or not the applicant is living in the family home. The maximum is £11,672 per year for a student in London living away from home.

Rose Bruford students performing in Vernon God Little. Photo: Robert Workman

What should an aspiring student be looking for? David Zoob, who directs Rose Bruford’s BA (hons) three-year acting programme, suggests asking: “Will this course give me the relevant craft skills and will it enable me to develop as a person and an artist? Is it informed by developments in contemporary performance? Will it help me to become self-reliant and able to create my own work?”

Some drama schools (RADA and Oxford, for example) stress their emphasis on ‘classical’ acting which tends to mean Shakespeare and live theatre but, equally, there’s a strong emphasis on film and TV. ArtsEd prioritises screen acting and a working understanding of all aspects of a film or television.

There is likely, in reality, to be more work in screened media than on stage in the 21st century.

On the subject of Shakespeare and classical acting, Sally Ann Gritton, Mountview’s director of academic affairs and head of undergraduate performance, makes an interesting point. “Mountview keeps its audition requirements current,” she says. “We encourage applicants to audition with any contemporary speech and a verse speech from any culture in the world – not just Shakespeare, which is an exit requirement rather than an entry requirement.”

All students on any of these courses will learn something of the methods of the great practitioners such as Meisner, Brecht and Stanislavski. The latter is especially present in the thinking and pedagogy of Rose Bruford College because the college holds the UK’s Stanislavski archive – lots of scope for RBC students to do detailed research if they wish or need to.

Drama schools are not sausage factories turning out dozens of identikit performers. Look for emphasis on individual development in courses because no two actors are the same.

“At LAMDA, we offer a bespoke training which looks at the creative needs of the individual student while maintaining a strong focus on the ensemble and a sense of community within creative work,” says LAMDA head of acting Caroline Leslie.

Kit Thacker, managing director of Drama Studio London, agrees. He says: “We take every student through a process of discovering their own strengths – something they are themselves sometimes unaware of – and well as their individual needs. Then we offer the student a range of processes and help them to choose what works best for them. We are not prescriptive about any particular method.”

Learning to create your own work and acquiring the skills to run a business – as a self-employed freelance or managing a production company – are important components of good three-year courses.

‘Look for a rich, creative environment that speaks to you as an artist’ – Caroline Leslie, LAMDA

LIPA is especially good at teaching the nitty-gritty of business management and developing a wide range of skills in its students. “We produce actors who can not only create their own employment but also employ others,” says Will Hammond, head of acting. “Our training recognises that students are artists as well as actors. As actor-artists they are able to gain additional skills associated with acting such as writing, directing, musical theatre skills and producing.”

Some schools are very large and offer a wide range of courses within which the three-year acting course sits. This means that at, for instance, Royal Central School of Speech and Drama Acting students have the opportunity to mingle with, learn alongside and work with a range of students including stage designers, prop makers, sound and lighting designers and trainee voice coaches.

That is also the case in conservatoires such as Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama, Guildhall School of Music and Drama, Royal Birmingham Conservatoire, Royal Conservatoire of Scotland and Guildhall School of Music and Drama. In these five institutions, music is taught at the highest level as well as acting. This means that acting students and music students can work on combined projects. If, for example, three actors devise a piece that cries out for a cello accompaniment, there will probably be a cellist at the next table in the eating area to make friends with. Similarly, for a production of Amadeus, music students could be engaged rather than using a recorded sound track.

Mountview students performing in a production
of Boy

ALRA is unique among the 20 FDS schools in that it has two separate but closely linked parallel schools: ALRA South in Wandsworth and ALRA North in Wigan. Given the success of this model, it is rather surprising that none of the other schools has latched on to this idea and established its brand in the North East, where there is a bit of a drama school desert.

Although bricks and mortar matter a great deal less than the quality of the teaching and the outcomes for graduates, the building is inevitably part of the character of the school and therefore a unique selling point.

Some schools, Italia Conti, for instance, operate in quite humble premises. Others, such as GSA and East 15, have fine new facilities provided by their adoptive parent universities. Mountview has a glittering new building behind Peckham Library in south-east London, which enables it to deliver what Gritton describes as “inclusive training framed around the three key precepts of curiosity, commitment and courage”.

Bristol Old Vic Theatre School – which has no on-site theatre but works in venues all over the city and regularly tours student productions around the West Country – occupies two large Georgian houses in Clifton. Its Link Building (completed in 2016) creates a single venue for the school and provides additional studios and teaching space. The school retains a homely atmosphere while maximising the space available. BOVTS also has premises nearby: former BBC studios, where film and TV are taught.

They may have formed a Federation but there is no such thing as a “typical” drama school. Each is unique – it is impossible to generalise. The key thing for anyone deciding where to apply is to, in Leslie’s words: “Look for a rich, creative environment that speaks to the potential applicant as an artist.”

Federation of Drama Schools members

The theatre at ALRA North. Photo: ALRA


Locations: London, Wigan
Alumni include: Miranda Hart, Denise Gough

Arts Educational Schools London

Location: London
Alumni include: Catherine Zeta-Jones, Laura Haddock

Bristol Old Vic Theatre School

Location: Bristol
Alumni include: Olivia Colman, Patrick Stewart

Drama Centre, University of the Arts London

Location: London
Alumni include: Simon Callow, Colin Firth

Drama Studio London

Location: London
Alumni include: Olivia Vinall, Pip Torrens

East 15's new library building
East 15 Acting School’s new library building

East 15

Locations: London, Southend
Alumni include: Ayoola Smart, Daniel Ezra

Italia Conti

Locations: London, Guildford
Alumni include: Karla Crome, Jessica Ellis

Guildford School of Acting

Location: Guildford
Alumni include: Brenda Blethyn, Daniel Boys

Guildhall School of Music & Drama
Guildhall School of Music and Drama. Photo: Hugo Glendinning

Guildhall School of Music and Drama

Location: London
Alumni include: Michelle Dockery, Lily James


Location: London
Alumni include: Chiwetel Ejiofor, Benedict Cumberbatch


Location: Liverpool
Alumni include: Jamie Lloyd, Adam Penford

Manchester School of Theatre

Location: Manchester
Alumni include: Julie Walters, George Bukhari

Mountview Academy of Theatre Arts’ new building in Peckham


Location: London
Alumni include: Laura Pitt-Pulford, Sharon Small

Oxford School of Drama

Location: Oxford
Alumni include: Claire Foy, Jude Owusu

Rose Bruford College

Location: London
Alumni include: Joseph Millson, Clare Perkins

The new course will builds on RADA's current week-long summer course in musical theatre. Photo: RADA


Location: London
Alumni include: Ben Whishaw, Imelda Staunton

Royal Birmingham Conservatoire

Location: Birmingham
Alumni include: Helen George, Iris Roberts

Royal Central School of Speech and Drama

Location: London
Alumni include: Cush Jumbo, Andrew Garfield

Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, which has the highest percentage of non-white teaching staff
Royal Conservatoire of Scotland

Royal Conservatoire of Scotland

Location: Glasgow
Alumni include: James McAvoy, Alix Austin

Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama

Location: Cardiff
Alumni include: Eve Myles, Aneurin Barnard

How to find your dream drama school

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