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Is US drama training a realistic option for British students?

Top left: AMTA students in Legally Blonde. Top right and bottom left: students at Pace University. Bottom right: students at the University of Minnesota/ Photos: Scott Wynn/Dan Norman Top left: AMTA students in Legally Blonde. Top right and bottom left: students at Pace University. Bottom right: students at the University of Minnesota/ Photos: Scott Wynn/Dan Norman
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America, the land of opportunity… but is that the case when it comes to studying for a career in the performing arts? Susan Elkin speaks to students and course leaders about the pros and cons of crossing the Atlantic

Most vocational drama training in the US takes place in conservatoires at universities where students study for a bachelor of fine arts or a master of fine arts degree.

The Tisch School of Arts, for example, is part of New York University. It trained Martin Scorsese, Angelina Jolie, Woody Allen, Anne Hathaway and many more.

Tisch Drama claims “to prepare you for a sustained career in the performing arts and related fields”, and offers a curriculum that is a mix of vocational and more academic components. It offers training in acting, directing, musical performance, production, design and stage management and says students “will experience collaborating in a variety of productions and rehearsal projects led by world-famous theatre artists and faculty”.

The fly in the ointment is cost. To graduate at the end of the four-year course you need 120 credits, some of which, in the case of US students, are carried over from a two-year “associate” degree that is broadly similar to a UK foundation degree. At Tisch, a single credit costs $2,247 (£1,700 at current exchange rates) for the academic year 2019/20, although there is a sliding scale, so the more you do concurrently, the less the cost. Nevertheless, if you do 120 credits at Tisch, it’s likely to cost in excess of $250,000 (£196,000) plus extras and subsistence over four years.

And Tisch is only an example. It’s a broadly similar picture at Yale School of Drama, which trained Meryl Streep and Paul Newman, American Conservatory Theater, San Francisco (Denzel Washington, Winona Ryder) University of California, Los Angeles (James Coburn, Ben Stiller) or DePaul University, Chicago (Gillian Anderson, Judy Greer) and dozens of others. The University of Minnesota’s department of drama and theatre arts, however, which has a partnership with the Guthrie Theatre, comes cheaper – about $25,000 dollars (£19,600) a year and less, as is usual in US universities, for residents of the state of Minnesota.

“American universities run more like businesses [than comparable UK institutions]” says Amelia Bryant, a US national currently studying in the UK on Rose Bruford’s American Theatre Studies course. “That has its advantages because it is usually well-organised and prepares you for the business of theatre.”

How to choose your three-year drama course

American universities operate a liberal arts programme, which keeps the base wide because you are obliged to take credits in subjects in addition to your ‘major’.

“Not only will you get standard actor training classes such as voice, speech, movement etc, but you get a whole new perspective,” says Bryant. “A history class could be even more telling than a Stanislavski technique class. It offers a key element that all actors need.”

As in the UK, some of these drama departments have evolved to become part of universities. The Actors Studio in New York City (alumni include Julia Roberts, Montgomery Clift and Eli Wallach among many others) has had Lee Strasberg, Stella Adler and Sanford Meisner on its staff in the past. In 2006, it became part of Pace University. The tuition fee is $44,714 per year, which equates to about $180,000 (£144,000) over four years and there are charges in addition to accommodation and transport costs.

Kenneth Avery-Clark is a Canadian-born actor. Nine years ago in 2010, he co-founded American Musical Theatre Academy in London with Christie Miller “to bridge the gap between the creative ideals of the West End and Broadway.” Today it operates in New York, Belfast and Rome as well as London.

He has reservations about the standard US four-year programmes. “Those interested in a performance career should look at shorter options, because breaking into the industry young is important,” he says, adding that AMTA offers one and two-year programmes that focus on musical theatre industry readiness.

What does the industry want from musical theatre graduates?

Avery-Clark came from a musical family, played a variety of instruments, started performing professionally at 15 and began touring the US at 18.

“I learned a lot by doing along the way,” he says. “That is why I think it’s so important teachers should be currently in the industry and fully conversant with how things work.”

The other US option is private studios. “They tend to be in major markets such as NYC, Chicago, LA and San Francisco,” says Richard St Peter, assistant professor at Northwestern State University of Louisiana. “Actors there often continue their training even if they already have a performance degree.”

Of course, training in the US – especially in California – tends to be more film-focused than its UK equivalent. Outside the university offering, there are actors’ studios spread across Los Angeles that offer coaching.

Baron Brown Studio, for instance, which specialises in Meisner technique, boasts Dustin Hoffman, Halle Berry and Tom Hanks among its alumni. The system is a cross between film-related training and continuing professional development and there are still many starry-eyed young hopefuls who turn up in LA in the hope of enrolling in such classes and being “discovered”.

But Avery-Clark offers a word of warning to UK students hoping to train in the US and launch a screen career. “You should really train in the country you are going to work in. If you don’t have a green card [an American work permit], you won’t be able to work in the States anyway, so there’s no point in training there if you’re then going to work in London.”

A selection of US training opportunities

• Tisch School of the Arts, New York City; tisch.nyu.edu
• Yale School of Drama, New Haven; drama.yale.edu
• American Conservatory Theater, San Francisco; act-sf.org
• University of Southern California, Los Angeles; usc.edu
• University of California, Los Angeles; ucla.edu
• Juilliard School, New York City; juilliard.edu
• DePaul University, Chicago; depaul.edu
• Syracuse University School of Drama, New York City; syracuse.edu
• University of Minnesota, Minneapolis; twincities.umn.edu
• Northwestern State University of Louisiana; nsula.edu
• Carnegie Mellon University, Pittsburgh; cmu.edu
• AMTA, New York; theamta.com/us
• Baron Brown Studio; baronbrown.com
• California Institute of the Arts, Valencia; calarts.edu

How to choose the right drama school for a technical theatre career

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