With myriad options available it can be difficult to know where to begin when it comes to choosing musical theatre training. John Byrne spoke to students and course leaders from a variety of schools to find out more
Many performers still remember the moment they first realised their interest in music and dance could translate into a career. For Rebecca Jardine that catalyst was seeing the musical A Chorus Line with her parents. It seems appropriate, years later, that her search for the right training – to win a place in real life chorus lines – culminated in a decision based on the “one singular sensation” she experienced during a particular audition.
“I had a vague list but I did not want to set my sights on a specific course or college until I had a feel for the place. While I enjoyed all my auditions, at Laine Theatre Arts something just clicked. I could not stop smiling and knew that was where I wanted to be,” she says.
Stephanie Callow had a similar light-bulb moment. “I auditioned for 10 different courses in my first year, for both acting and musical theatre. Mountview was the school I had a real emotional connection to and I was genuinely upset when I didn’t get in. I applied again the following year but was still questioning whether I wanted to do musical theatre or acting. At my interview, the principal and artistic director Stephen Jameson asked me: ‘Where does your heart lie?’ Suddenly, the answer was simple: musical theatre. Mountview became my main goal for that second year and I was overjoyed when I secured a place.”
In any art form, where passion and emotion are such important elements, it is not surprising that the heart often plays a big part in musical theatre course selection. However many of the people who run the country’s top musical theatre courses stress that practical and long-term considerations are just as crucial.
“Research the schools you are interested in and see where their current students are heading in their careers,” says Chris Hocking, principal and director of theatre at Arts Educational Schools London. “Pay attention to what each school is producing at their end-of-year shows. Go along to these shows and get a feel for things. Find out what is right for you.”
Shopping around carefully is also one of the recommendations from Annemarie Lewis Thomas, principal and chief executive of the Musical Theatre Academy. “Training is expensive, but you’re the customer so find out exactly what your money will buy you. Don’t assume anything. Have questions ready and don’t be afraid to ask them. Ask about contact hours – they are everything. Check if there are additional costs. Find out what performance opportunities are guaranteed. Ask about the stats (such as how many former students now work in the industry) and not only about last year’s, but with a view to longevity.”
Eddie Gower, Mountview’s musical theatre foundation course leader, also believes students should have no illusions about the commitment that undertaking a course – and a career – in musical theatre requires.
“Musical theatre training is extremely intensive. The triple-discipline requirements place enormous demands on the student. There are some incredible courses across the drama school sector that specialise in musical theatre, but you should make sure the training and institution fits you. Training is the start of an amazing journey and it is important to start that journey at the right place. Each school will do things slightly differently. Make sure that when you are at auditions you try to get a feel for the school and how it works. Remember you are auditioning the school as much as they are auditioning you,” she says.
Having founded Laine Theatre Arts 45 years ago, principal Betty Laine has a lot of experience on the other side of the audition table. Her advice for turning your preference for a particular school into an actual offer includes demonstrating “energy, personality, rhythm and vocal ability”. She also looks for “the ability to emote and bring lyrics from the page into reality”.
Potential for progression and development is high on Gower’s list. He adds: “It is not about finding the finished product, but seeing an artistic instinct and identity, combined with a level of ability across the disciplines. There will always be someone who has a slightly better voice, is a better dancer, or connects to character in a deeper way – but no one else can be ‘you’. It’s you I’m looking to see.”
“At MTA we look for a strength in two disciplines and the ability to be taught the third,” says Lewis Thomas. “We’re a tiny college [it has a maximum of 44 students at any one time], so we’re also looking to see if you’ll fit in with our current cohort. We offer a two-year course meaning we’re pretty full on all year around. It’s evident at the audition that some people would be better suited to the slower pace of a traditional three-year course.
“We watch out for people who take notes on board quickly so we can see from the audition day that they get our way of working. We only audition in groups of 15 and spend the day with the applicants so we can really get to know them – and they can get to know us.”
Hocking feels an effective audition process looks at the whole individual rather than just musical ability. “We look for individuality and potential, but also someone with many strings to their bow. We ask: what are they truly interested in? How trainable is this person? The more interests the person has, from writing, singing, dancing and even marketing and photography, the more they can contribute to a business and hopefully for the long term.”
As the MTA principal reiterates, an awareness of the potential opportunities and challenges a long-term career can create can be one of the best yardsticks for choosing your course. “No college can guarantee you a career – but some can really put the odds in your favour, so don’t limit yourself and don’t be seduced by the idea that you need a degree in our industry to be successful. We are a vocational industry so ultimately it is not necessarily the qualification itself, but the quality of your training that will advance your skill set and create work opportunities.”