Whether a follow-up to a first degree or an academic boost for seasoned performers, a master’s course can be a stepping stone to industry success. Sarah Lambie answers the questions you need to know before applying
Drama schools across the UK offer excellent postgraduate courses, and it’s never too late to follow a calling to the stage. Indeed, many highly successful performers retrained after years in a different profession. But with the variety of courses out there, what should you expect, and how do postgraduate courses differ from undergraduate ones?
Courses are between one and three years, ranging from one-year top-ups for people with relatively significant professional or amateur performing experience, to full, three-year courses for those who wish to pursue a more thorough training.
Some institutions such as Guildford School of Acting and the Royal Birmingham Conservatoire offer a one-year MA or a two-year MFA. At the RBC, these courses follow the same path for the first two terms, “investigating through practice the key developmental stages of British theatre performance, with particular focus on Renaissance theatre, Restoration theatre, and the Well-Made Play, as well as contemporary playwrights”. After this, students on the one-year MA move straight on to a final production and showcase while those on the MFA undertake a third term of workshops and a second year incorporating “the demands of non-naturalistic dramatic texts and forms of theatre of the British tradition” before moving on to final public performances.
At other drama schools, only one MA course is available, but some last one year (Arts Educational Schools London, Drama Centre London, East 15, Liverpool Institute for Performing Arts, Mountview and the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland), while others run longer (the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama and ALRA have courses spanning 13 and 15 months respectively). Some, such as LAMDA’s, take two years full-time, and Guildhall School of Music and Drama offers only a three-year MA in Acting, where students take the same practical course as those on the BA but with additional tutorials “in support of achieving master’s-level outcomes”.
All postgraduate courses in acting focus on practical training, in which the fundamentals of voice and speech, movement and acting skills will be covered. In that sense, they’re often very similar to undergraduate courses, only shorter – perhaps incorporating fewer performances. Like BA courses, all offer some kind of showcase at the end, in which graduating students can show their skills to agents and casting directors to help launch their professional careers.
Jonathan Kemp, head of acting on the postgraduate diploma courses at Drama Studio London, explains how these differ from undergraduate courses: “First, one is starting from a much higher base – assuming a working knowledge of British and European Theatre History, the basics of psychological realism and how to approach a text. That’s not to say those areas aren’t covered, but they’re approached at speed and expected to be ‘in the bones’ in a matter of weeks rather than months.
“In general, everything is focused on preparing actors for the industry. On a postgrad course, they work with outside professionals – directors, voice and movement specialists – from the third month of training. On the degree that doesn’t kick in until the third year.”
For many, a postgraduate course is an opportunity to specialise – either because some form of training has already been taken at undergraduate level, or because professional or semi-professional experience has led a student to identify an area in which they wish to train more specifically.
The Royal Central School of Speech and Drama offers three separate MA courses – Acting for Screen, Classical Acting or Contemporary Acting – while at Rose Bruford, MA (13 months) and MFA (24 months) courses are available in Actor Musicianship. Postgraduate programme director Jeremy Harrison explains this is “designed to support students interested in exploring how to integrate live music-making in performance”.
The cost of courses can vary, depending on length and location. Some indicative figures:
• Guildford School of Acting
MA Acting: £16,600 for a year
MFA Acting: £15,900 for the first year, with a 4% rise expected for the second
• Rose Bruford
MA Actor Musicianship: £14,500
MFA Actor Musicianship: £23,000
• Royal Birmingham Conservatoire
MA Acting: £12,700
MFA Acting: £10,600 per year (two years)
Fees for international students are higher on all courses, often about £18,000 a year.
Government support for funding postgraduate study has improved: you can now take out a loan of £10,906, which must be repaid once your income hits the threshold of £404 a week or £1,750 a month. Course providers also offer some grants and bursaries based on individual need or merit.
While a first degree in a relevant subject is usually expected, individual circumstances will be considered if, for example, you have no first degree but have substantial professional experience, or can demonstrate exceptional talent at your audition – something all applicants must undergo to achieve a place.
On how postgrad applicants are expected to differ from their colleagues under 21, MA/MFA programme leader Jaq Bessell at GSA says: “We are looking for individuals who already know who they are: we don’t adopt a cookie-cutter approach to training, and we appreciate the range of experience that postgraduate students bring to the space. We seek individuals whose first instinct is to collaborate, rather than to compete. That’s what making theatre is all about.”
Kemp of DSL warns that postgraduate students can come to training less “raw”. He says: “If there is a common issue to address it is that the postgrad cohorts can be ‘head-centred’ – they look for ‘right’ answers (which rarely exist), and need help to access the core and find instinctive choices.”
But for Merryn Owen, head of postgraduate performance at Mountview, there are many positives to training through a higher degree: “Life experience helps hugely with the ability to engage empathetically and imaginatively with experiences outside your own. Postgraduate students are expected to be self-reliant, focused and able to learn and synthesise skills at a rapid pace. Working this way, a great deal can be achieved in a time-intensive, one-year vocationally driven actor training.”