For school leavers wishing to pursue a career in the performing arts or actors keen to brush up their skills, a foundation course can be a great way of dipping your toe in the water before committing to a degree, writes John Byrne
Whether for school leavers who want to get into the performing arts but have little experience, or actors keen to explore specific areas of training, a foundation course can be the ideal testing ground before committing the time and financial investment a full degree course requires.
Pepa Portabella was in the former category after completing an acting module at her high school in Barcelona. She had a strong desire to study at degree level, but confidence was a different matter. “I did know I wanted to travel, so a foundation course in London seemed like a good option,” she says.
“I arrived at the London School of Dramatic Art with a lot of self-doubt and only a very general idea of the world of theatre. Thanks to the training I received, I was able to face my insecurities and learn about the work that really goes into building an acting career. I am now back in Barcelona on a BA acting course.”
Leicester-based actor Suraj Shah was offered a place on the foundation course at the Royal Birmingham Conservatoire – then Birmingham School of Acting – and feels that getting up at 5am each morning to commute was time well spent.
“The course included classes in movement, text, improvisation, audition prep, singing, ensemble singing and stage combat,” Shah says. “It also allowed me to explore areas that I didn’t think I liked, such as comedy and reading large pieces of texts. It was a great set-up for anything you wanted to do in the future, and I am now getting ready to move to London to start a BA at Mountview.”
Usually running over two or three terms, foundation courses are offered by many accredited drama schools as well as an increasing number of independent providers across the country. Although relatively short compared with degree courses, time spent on a foundation course typically covers a wide range of performance-related skills, often with a focus on auditioning, and gives students a taste of what longer-term drama training might be like.
“An actor’s developmental journey is a life-long process and a foundation course is a fantastic start,” says Eddie Gower, head of short courses at Mountview. “As well as increasing artistry and skills, it can provide an opportunity to ask: ‘Is this for me?’, before committing to a three-year training course.”
For those who have already decided to try for drama school, Mark Westbrook, studio director at Acting Coach Scotland, believes that a good foundation course can increase the chances of making that, often difficult, goal a reality. “We worked out that there’s less than 1.1% chance of being a successful applicant for drama school. But what if you’re in the top 3% to 5% of applicants? You’re probably very good, but still lack experience, maturity or awareness. A foundation course is a safe, encouraging place to get the training that could help elevate you to the next level.”
Westbrook, in common with all the course leaders interviewed for this piece, stresses that no foundation course can guarantee acceptance on to a degree course. “Plenty of students complete foundation courses in major drama schools only to find themselves without a BA acting place later. You have to have realistic expectations of the experience. I always think it’s good for students to have decided some tangible goals for themselves.”
Students who want to study on a BA or MA course should also remember that a foundation year isn’t just “one long audition”, according to Paloma Oakenfold, head of foundation at the Academy of Live and Recorded Arts. “It is a time and space for you to experiment, make mistakes and learn. Your tutors are not there to judge your ability for further training, they are there to guide, support and facilitate your discoveries,” Oakenfold says.
“For those who are using the year to figure out what they want to do next, I would encourage you to not make rash decisions immediately. Talk to tutors and current students. See which strands of the course you enjoy most.”
‘An actor’s developmental journey is a life-long process and a foundation course is a fantastic start to that journey’ – Eddie Gower, Mountview
Robert Miles, head of foundation acting at Royal Birmingham Conservatoire, reminds potential students that although short, foundation courses can be intense. “Our full-time course runs for five long days a week for 20 weeks of the year. In addition to the classes, there is also a responsibility to work outside sessions in order to prepare work both independently and with fellow students. The more a student gives, the more they benefit.”
Tim Pike, senior music lecturer at Liverpool Institute for Performing Arts, believes that full engagement with both the course and any additional opportunities arising out of it is key to getting the best value from foundation training. “For example, LIPA music foundation students can perform in open mic nights, observe studio recording sessions, or take part in performance projects and shows with students from other years and courses.”
Pike also advises that research into what different courses offer is important: “Students should check that the module descriptions match what they need in terms of learning.”
For Amy Richardson, registrar at LAMDA, it is important for potential students to find out about contact hours with staff when shopping around for a foundation course. “Also, look to see if there is a crossover with staff who teach on other courses. Do you get taught by the same people as the BA and MA courses? Look at what past students are doing now – have they gone on to pursue full-time training or gone on to professional careers in the creative arts?”
Oakenfold says: “You get the best out of a foundation course by using it as a year to let go, open up, trust, explore and play.” She adds: “Past destinations from our own foundations include BA courses at ALRA North and South and other schools, as well as students going on to study collaborative and devised theatre, American theatre arts, stage combat and film studies. Other routes can include professional work, university or even starting your own theatre company – the world is entirely your oyster.”