Traditional university or drama school, which route is best? Sarah Lambie speaks to lecturers, students and theatremakers about which courses are most suitable depending on interests, goals and career aspirations
If you want to study drama at undergraduate level, should you be applying to drama school or to university? There’s no short answer, but there are some relatively clear-cut factors to take into account.
League tables are always to be taken with a pinch of salt – different publications invariably rank what they are judging in different orders. However, for higher education drama courses, the Guardian University Guide, with its traditionally arts-friendly readership, is as good a place as any to start. In 2020, the Guardian ranked UK universities for studying dance or drama and released the following top 10:
1. University of Essex
2. Guildhall School of Music and Drama
3. The University of Surrey
4. Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama
5. The Conservatoire for Dance and Drama
6. Lancaster University
7. Birmingham City University
8. Royal Central School of Speech and Drama
9. Royal Conservatoire of Scotland
10. University of Birmingham
Immediately, one can re-list some of those entries by their more familiar names in this field. The University of Essex actually refers to East 15 Acting School, which merged with the university in 2000. The University of Surrey refers to Guildford School of Acting, now part of the university. The Conservatoire for Dance and Drama incorporates the Bristol Old Vic Theatre School; and Birmingham City University incorporates the Royal Birmingham Conservatoire.
In the top 10 institutions for studying drama, only two are pure university courses, rather than drama schools or conservatoires run either independently or as part of universities.
Joanna Bucknall, lecturer in modern and contemporary drama and theatre and admissions tutor for the drama and theatre arts department at the University of Birmingham, says: “The thing about university study is there’s no fixed content in terms of a curriculum.
“As a Russell Group institution, we teach through our research, so most of the content we deliver on our drama and theatre arts single honours is related to the research the members in the department are doing,” she says. “We have lots of different modules students can choose from, and they can construct their own degree based on their interests.”
Some of the modules on offer this year are: Gamification: Playable Performance; Embodied Approaches to Criticism; Performance and Identity; Blood and Guts: Spectacles of the Body; and Gender in Theatre and Performance: The Queerest Art.
It’s clear to see how this differs from the content of acting courses at drama school, and while ‘acting’ is offered as a module – so popular, Bucknall explains, that it’s offered up to four times each year to accommodate the interest in manageable groups – even that work is approached from a more scholarly angle than on a practical course at a conservatoire.
“The big difference between us and a conservatoire is we’re very much interested in scholarly engagement. We function from a place of praxis – I would say 50% of what we do is practice, but not the really detailed and intensive training of performance craft that a conservatoire would offer. We do voice and body training, but we use the practice as a way to interrogate ideas and concepts, so students build performance skills while they’re doing that, but we also get them to reflect and to think on how and why those things are functioning,” she says.
This thinking is done in large part on a self-motivated basis. As in many higher-education courses, contact hours are low and students are expected to do a great deal of reading outside of those hours. “Study options come with one or two hours attached to them in terms of deliverable content a week,” Bucknall says. Whereas students at drama schools will be taught in the building for eight to 10 hours a day, sometimes six days a week.
Fees should also be taken into account. Undergraduate fees at the University of Lancaster are £9,250 for 2020-21. They are the same for East 15 Acting School (University of Essex) and the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, but the contact hours you get for those fees are significantly higher.
In that respect, it really depends where you’re headed in your career. If you want to be an actor, even Bucknall says the university’s course alone wouldn’t be the ideal route: “Students who want to become professional performers tend to come because they know they want a broad grounding, and then we give a lot of them the support to go on to drama school as postgraduates.”
Agents told me they would find it hard to recruit students straight from university, without the showcase opportunities afforded by drama school courses. And nowadays it’s very expensive to do a master’s degree as well as a bachelor’s – so if, as for many, finance is a concern, it’s arguably best to pursue the drama school option straight up.
However, the wide-ranging nature of a university drama course can support career options in other aspects of the industry, and develop the skills for a more successful portfolio career.
Will Jackson studied on the drama and theatre arts course at Birmingham from 2014 to 2017 and is now founder and artistic director of Quick Duck Theatre, one of the New Diorama’s emerging companies in 2020 and an associate artist of the National Youth Theatre. He is also working on a commission for BBC Arts.
“I’m a theatremaker,” Jackson says, “and I’ve acted in some of my own shows, but really I love the writing and directing side of it more. Even if I had the money to do a master’s, I would spend it on making a show.”
He continues: “The course gives basic actor training, and although it’s not as intense or as nuanced as it would be at drama school, it gives you more skills overall. For example, I’m able to get temp work as a project coordinator, and I have friends who do stage management alongside writing gigs – so it’s far easier to sustain an actual career.
“It taught me how to be a stage manager and a technician, how to write and direct, as well as having an academic bent. It taught me how to do funding applications – really practical hands-on skills that I wouldn’t have had at a drama school. I make my own work and tour it, and I’m making a living from that three years after I graduated.”
As for those who do want to act, Jackson adds: “The people who get agents are also doing stuff outside of university – agents don’t come to the end of year shows, so if you want to be an actor and get an agent without doing a master’s, you need to be really proactive in your approach.”
For more training advice go to: thestage.co.uk/advice