From those who studied a non-theatrical undergraduate degree, to those who have no degree at all – a master’s could be the gateway into the career they have been looking for. John Byrne finds out more
Beth Hinton-Lever’s first realisation that theatre was a career path she wanted to explore came at the National Student Drama Festival. Although attending the event as a choreographer, the BA degree she was just about to finish was in Classical Archaeology and Classical Civilisations at University College London. This didn’t stop her successfully securing musical theatre work after graduation, but by the end of her second contract, she felt her vocal stamina wavering. “That was when I decided to apply for the master’s in musical theatre at Mountview,” she explains.
There are many reasons and motivations for considering postgraduate study in performing arts. Like Hinton-Lever, some prospective students may already have completed a degree in an entirely different subject. Others will have taken an arts-related degree at university or drama school, but want to ‘top up’ their training before entering the industry, or perhaps explore a specific aspect of theatremaking in depth.
There are also applicants who have never studied at BA level, but have substantial work experience in theatrical or related fields. A further – and expanding – category of applications to the many and varied postgraduate courses offered by drama schools and universities around the UK comes from international students who are keen to experience the UK theatre and arts scene.
Whatever journey a participant takes into MA training, it is important to be aware of the differences to studying at undergraduate level. Shorter and more intense course durations would be a key example, with one-year full time or two years part-time being the typical time frames.
“There is an assumption that postgraduate students will have the capacity and stamina to assimilate a great deal of work in that short space of time,” says Dave Bond, director of Performance (Drama) at Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama. “Work ethic and application has to be there from the start.”
Julie Spencer, director of the School of Acting at ArtsEd, says another gear shift from study at undergraduate to postgraduate is the level of further research and practical development of creative ideas that is required. “That’s why most MA courses prefer you to have undertaken some work in the profession, so that you can begin to engage critically with whatever aspect of the creative industry you’re interested in.”
Richard Hazlewood’s interest in performing began as a teenager, when he was given a Carry On DVD. “Falling in love with Kenneth Williams’ tone of voice and enunciation was what got me into performing. After working in many plays and musicals, I decided, at 27, to give up my plastering job and take the step into drama study. I applied for the three-year BA course at ArtsEd, but probably due to my existing experience, the panel decided the MA would be more suitable. The industry professionals were superb in their approach to teaching mature students. The course paid particular attention to the voice and its characteristics, to the body and physical expression and how the two work together. Nine years on, I’m still a more sensitive and instinctive actor and human being as a result.”
Sam Benjamin, who has appeared in Doctor Who, Peaky Blinders and will shortly be seen in a BBC adaptation of War of the Worlds, comes from a family with no theatrical background.
“Nobody in my immediate family had gone to university before I went there to study history. By the time I graduated I knew it was acting I wanted to devote myself to. I started researching accredited drama schools, while working in a bank to earn money. The one-year acting course at Drama Studio London felt like the best fit for me, because of the focus on acting as a job, not just an art form. It was one of the most challenging years of my life in terms of hours required and skills being tested, and it took me on one hell of an emotional journey. Everyone’s path is different but postgraduate training can be a great way to improve your craft, add to your experience and open doors in terms of industry contacts.”
With or without a paying job to help with costs, postgraduate funding can be challenging. Since 2016, government postgraduate study loans have been available, but there are limits to eligibility both in terms of courses and applicants. Loans only apply to first-time MAs, no matter how unrelated previous MA courses may have been. For many students, total finances are painstakingly assembled from a combination of applications to official funds, trusts and bursaries in tandem with crowdfunding contributions from family, friends and, occasionally, industry benefactors.
Although students are expected to take the lead in raising their fees and living expenses, individual institutions may be able to point applicants towards possible help. For instance, Carmen Levick, lecturer in theatre at the University of Sheffield, says the university provides competitive MA grants. Sheffield’s MA in Theatre and Performance usually offers two Maisie Glass bursaries (of £2,000 each) to cover part of the fees for applicants with an impressive performance record. Josephine Machon, programme leader of the MA in Theatre Arts at Middlesex, says even applicants who have the financial resources to undertake postgraduate study can benefit from early engagement with courses they are considering.
“Our own cohort includes British and international students, people who come to us with experience in theatre and other fields and applicants with and without previous academic qualifications. Entry processes vary depending on institution, but, for my own course, I feel it is important to have a proper discussion with prospective students either in person or via Skype to make sure we are right for them and vice versa.
“I also recommend that applicants reflect on why they want to join a particular course. Take advantage of open days and visits to the campus. Whatever area you choose to specialise in, you will spend a lot of time focusing on it and often doing self-directed work. Visiting the place where you will be working, seeing the facilities and meeting the staff who will be supporting you will help you decide if a course has the resources you need to help you reach your goal.”