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What to ask before choosing a postgraduate theatre course

RWCMD postgraduate students in a production of Betty Blue Eyes. Photo: Kirsten McTernan RWCMD postgraduate students in a production of Betty Blue Eyes. Photo: Kirsten McTernan
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A daunting array of options are available for further training. Susan Elkin asks course leaders across the country for their best advice on what students should look out for when deciding on the best course for them

Most applicants for performance and other theatre-related postgraduate courses come in one of three categories.

Some have already done a two or three-year degree course in drama or performing arts at a specialist school or university. They still don’t feel quite ready for professional work in the industry and are seeking a final year.

Another group have already taken a degree in a different field, perhaps to please parents, or in the interests of wider education. Now they want intensive training to make them industry ready. Typically, this was always the career plan.

Then there are those who have been working professionally – in the industry or elsewhere – for some years and see a postgrad qualification such as a masters degree as a form of continuing professional development or top-up training.

Often, this will be in a specialist branch of the industry such as the MA in design for performance at Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama, Royal Central School of Speech and Drama’s MA in drama and movement therapy or the MA postgraduate diploma in professional voice practice at Royal Birmingham Conservatoire. Sometimes, students in this position don’t have a first degree at all, but are accepted on the basis of equivalent professional experience.

All postgraduate students, however, are expected to be mature people who can apply themselves fully and learn quickly. “Postgraduate training is a big commitment and one of the most intensive years you will ever undertake,” says Sherill Gow, who is joint head of Mountview’s MA in performance (acting or musical theatre) alongside Merryn Owen. “Students are expected to be self-reliant, focused and able to learn and synthesise skills at a rapid pace. A great deal can be achieved in time-intensive, one-year vocationally driven actor training, but be wary of claims that three years of conservatoire training can be squeezed into one.”

If you’re considering postgraduate training, it’s also helpful to work out what you’re hoping to achieve before you start. “Think clearly about the kind of artist you want to be and whether any course you’re considering will facilitate your development,” advises LAMDA’s head of acting Caroline Leslie.

So, with these caveats in mind, what should potential postgraduate students – in all categories – be asking themselves when they select a postgraduate diploma or masters degree course?

Eight key questions to ask before choosing a postgraduate course

Is the course balanced?

Vivien Care, head of musical theatre at RWCMD, says: “Any prospective postgraduate musical theatre student needs a balance of intensive, industry- focused technical training across the disciplines alongside insight into, and meaningful contact with, the profession throughout the course.”

Does it offer value for money?

You have probably already paid for an undergraduate degree. Postgraduate training is costly. “It’s also important to know that you will be getting good value for money and the chance to build your connections on a course with strong industry links,” advises Leslie.

Is there a wide-ranging curriculum?

Scrutinise the content of the course. How eclectic is it? “Some postgraduate courses focus only on contemporary or classical or screen acting,” observes Gow. “At Mountview, for instance, our performance MA covers all three because industry-ready actors must be prepared to work across a range of mediums and repertoires.”

Can the course prove graduate success?

You need to know what previous students have gone on to do. “The best way to find out if a course is industry-facing is to research the work its alumni are doing now,” says Leslie. “Find out whether the course includes a showcase for agents and casting directors and public performance opportunities too.”

Do you get a showreel?

Check if you get a showreel. “At the end of the year, as well as having worked continually with visiting industry professionals on projects, our acting students each get a professionally made showreel,” says Gow. “We also have an in-house industry liaison department to help graduates transition from training to the industry.”

LAMDA students on the MA directors course in rehearsal. Photo: Sam R Taylor
LAMDA students on the MA directors course in rehearsal. Photo: Sam R Taylor

Can you quiz current students?

Talk to current students on the course. No good course will make this difficult. At LAMDA, for example, auditions and interviews are stewarded by current students so there’s ample opportunity to talk to them informally. “Speak to past students too,” adds Iain Tidbury, course leader of Mountview’s new MA in theatre for community and education. “What did they make of the teaching? Did they feel enough time, care and attention was given to their development?”

Are the staff well connected?

Look at their CVs, credentials and experience. “If the tutors are working professionals, that’s a good indication that the course will be running in line with current practice,” says Leslie. All of this will facilitate what Dave Bond, RWCMD’s head of acting training, describes as “the honing of physical skills and release of instinct and intuition – together with an understanding of how the industry works”.

Do you get the chance to create your own work?

Consider whether or not the course helps train you to make your own work – an increasingly important skill for anyone trying to make her or his way in the performing arts industries. “Developing autonomy as an artist and broadening the scope of performance possibilities is paramount for the contemporary performer,” says Gow.

Click here for more advice on training

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