For anyone wanting to pursue theatre training after their university degree, there’s a bewildering range of options across the UK. Students and course leaders tell John Byrne how to find your ideal master’s course
While three-year acting courses at drama school are a common route into the theatre industry, they are by no means the sole pathway into a successful career in the performing arts.
The broad range of specialist postgraduate theatre courses offered across the UK and overseas encompasses a much wider view of the industry, taking in direction, production, dramaturgy, scenography, backstage, arts management, applied theatre and many other related fields.
Except for the requirement to be over 21, the range of applicants is equally diverse. Along with former acting graduates, MA applicants might originally have studied English, other arts, sciences or teaching. Being a graduate is not essential – relevant professional experience is almost always acceptable instead.
Postgraduate courses tend to be shorter than undergraduate degrees. This can make them more viable for those already working in the industry. One year is typical for full-time courses, or two years for part-time.
It is worth remembering that you usually are only able to get student loans for your first higher education qualification, although there are other options when it comes to funding, ranging from government-backed post-graduate loans of up to £10,000 (if the course is eligible) or career development loans via your bank. Bursaries and scholarships may also be a possibility depending on the institution and field of study chosen.
The first task, of course, is to choose your area of study. Here is a small selection of the options available.
The value of a postgrad theatremaking course often lies not just in the quality of tuition, but also the industry connections made. When Julia Mucko graduated from the theatre and professional practice course at Coventry, her main focus was acting. Working with a local theatre company sparked a growing interest in producing. “I decided to do an MA because I recognised that there was a large gap in my knowledge,” she says. “Although I had already done some work experience, I chose the creative producing course at Mountview because I wanted to learn the basics. I knew I could work on the projects that I wanted, without being thrown too far into the deep end.”
Debbie Seymour, senior tutor for the MA directing course at LAMDA, agrees. “A specialist postgraduate course can act as an antechamber to the profession, providing a bridge between an undergraduate experience and the world of professional work. It provides access to industry professionals within the context of an educational environment. It can be a unique opportunity to develop the exploration of an individual’s artistic process and craft alongside peers, drawn from a diverse, international pool of talent. Postgraduate students often build creative relationships that they take into their professional careers.”
Coventry University’s collaborative theatre-making course is a good example of this. It is run in association with leading practitioners Frantic Assembly. Current student Nicola Chambers, a teacher of performing arts, youth theatre director and professional singer, had been feeling burnt out in her job.
“The Coventry course has pushed me academically and reawakened my love of learning,” she says. “It is a realistic industry experience which means I can now look to work in a much wider field and feel ready to do so,” she says.
As with many postgrad students, Chambers found the choice to take an MA brought with it practical as well as academic challenges. “The course is often intense and time management can be difficult. I have managed to work part-time alongside the course, but had to find work that is flexible and tends to be at the evenings and weekends.”
Given the wide variety of differing backstage and technical specialisations offered across the UK, Ian Evans, who oversees the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama’s stage management and stage and event management courses as well as the lighting design pathway advises detailed research at the outset.
“Ask what the course can give you, how many productions will you work on and which positions would be available during your time on the course. What are the work placement opportunities? Where are the potential placements and how many within the duration of the programme?”
Diana Favell, RADA’s head of wardrobe, suggests self-assessment as a good starting point. “Think about what your passion is – have you tried making costumes but don’t have the confidence to do it professionally? Or are you an organiser, enjoying being in the thick of the production, finding and fitting costumes on the actors and then organising the costumes and all the people involved in bringing the costumes together for the show?”
Once accepted, many students are able to choose their own pathways. The MA in design for performance at RWCMD is one such example. A one-year, full-time course, with an additional work-based module, it offers specialist pathways in scenography, set design, costume design, costume construction, puppetry, lighting design, sound design, as well as scenic arts and construction for stage and screen.
Some of the most popular postgraduate choices involve exploring how theatre is used in community and educational settings. The Royal Central School of Speech and Drama’s applied theatre MA, as with many such courses, encourages further specialisation. Participants at Central can focus on drama in the community and drama education or, alternatively, on drama and the criminal justice system.
Topic, content and the individual student’s career goals will always be important factors in the final choice of course, but Jessica Bowles, leader of Central’s MA/MFA Creative Producing course recommends that other indicators should also be considered.
“Search out open days and taster events,” she says. “Learning environment, teaching staff and fellow students can all make a difference. Postgraduate study welcomes people from a huge range of backgrounds so there is not one type of person that we are looking for.
“You are most likely to be accepted if you get across what you are passionate about and are clear about what you want to achieve. If in doubt, apply anyway; you will always learn a lot from the interview itself and the people you meet on the day.”