With so many drama schools to choose from, how do you decide which is for you? Many top institutions are members of the Federation of Drama Schools, but is this a crucial requirement?, asks Susan Elkin
For every one of the famous 20 schools that form the Federation of Drama Schools, founded in 2017, there are probably half a dozen more colleges and courses promising to train performers and performance creatives to the highest level: Midlands Academy of Dance and Drama in Nottingham, Arden School of Theatre in Manchester and Falmouth University, which specialises in the creative industries, for example. But how, without the FDS badging, can a prospective applicant assess these schools?
“My advice is always to attend open days, public performances and showcases,” says Michael Moor, former head of musical theatre at Guildford School of Acting and now an agent. “A great indicator of a rip-off course is a poor showcase or no showcase at all”. Moor also advocates researching the careers of recent alumni.
Josh Boyd-Rochford, also an agent, adds: “Check the mental health policy of any school you’re interested in. In this industry, it’s essential. Otherwise, look for good all-round training. It should include screen work and you should, if the school is up to the mark, come out with a showreel. Every graduating performer needs one.”
It is often claimed that companies, casting directors, agents and others who are instrumental in performers getting work will consider only graduates trained by the best-known FDS schools.
Julian Chenery, who runs Shakespeare4Kidz and tours mid-scale children’s shows extensively in the UK and Middle East, refutes this heartily. “I tend to look at people who are prepared to combine their talent with hard work, wherever they trained,” he says.
As well as employing performers from FDS schools such as GSA, Mountview and Rose Bruford, Chenery has often hired performers who trained at other schools including the Performance Preparation Academy in Guildford, American Musical Theatre Academy in London, the Brighton Academy, Laine Theatre Arts, the University of Chichester and the Musical Theatre Academy. “And we’re huge fans of London School of Musical Theatre too,” he adds.
Blackeyed Theatre, which is currently touring Jane Eyre until June 2020, takes the same view. “In recent years we’ve worked with some brilliant actors from non-FDS schools including the University of Northampton, Arden School of Theatre, Liverpool John Moores University and City Lit,” says artistic director Adrian McDougall.
Moor says he has “huge respect” for MTA, Emil Dale, Fourth Monkey, Associated Studios, Identity School of Acting and Birmingham Ormiston Academy, adding that aspiring students should beware of FDS schools “which use the reputation of their top-rated courses to recruit students to obscure courses”.
The only slight caveat to this policy of training-blind casting is that actors from the most famous schools have to jump hurdles to get in there in the first place, which might possibly affect the pre-filtering process. “Colleges such as RADA are more likely to have graduates of higher quality because of their audition processes,” says Chenery. “It doesn’t necessarily mean the best students are in the best colleges, though. There are many other factors at work.”
Decent agents don’t care where a prospective client trained. Moor talks about castability and “a certain authenticity” as mattering much more when he considers representing an actor. “It’s only when we discuss life experience that it may at times include education or training,” he says.
“I am not in the least influenced by where a student trained when I’m recruiting clients,” adds Boyd-Rochford. “The only thing I learn from your having trained at an FDS school is that you had the money to go there. And not all those schools are good.”
Boyd-Rochford stresses that when he interviews prospective clients he is looking for commitment and passion and an understanding that professional success is moving from job to job, finding your own path and making enough to pay the bills. “It might include cruise work, cabaret, devising, making your own work and lots more – the West End isn’t the pinnacle. But that’s a philosophy not taught in most drama schools.”
So it seems that if you tread carefully there is some worthwhile non-FDS training available and – if you have the talent and the attitude – you stand a good chance of getting both agent representation and work.
There is a major problem, though: funding. If you train on an accredited course in an FDS institution you will be eligible, despite Boyd-Rochford’s scepticism, either for a student loan or a Dada award (there are a limited number of these) to pay your fees, depending whether the course is configured as a degree or not. You can also apply for a maintenance loan. Student loans for acting or drama – as for maths or history – have to be repaid once you start earning more than £25,716 a year, but for most actors, performers and creators that’s probably a long way into the future.
If you train at an independent college or other training organisation that is not part of a university, you will probably have to self-fund. Even career development loans, which until recently could be accessed for this purpose, have now ended. Some colleges offer a few scholarships, but there is little or no financial support for the vast majority of students. That is why some of these courses operate on a part-time basis to allow students to work at the same time. Others run very intensively over a shorter time span to keep costs down.
As usual with training, it’s a case of caveat emptor or buyer beware. Nothing is straightforward. Yes, there are some good non-FDS courses available with a good track record for producing industry-ready graduates – if you can find a way of funding them.
On the other hand, excellent as many FDS courses are, the badging is not a universal indicator of excellence, according to people who hire or find work for actors.
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