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UK vs US: how is drama training different?

Photo: Sean Pavone/Shutterstock
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Identifying the differences between drama training in the UK and in the US, it is impossible not to acknowledge the traditions out of which each system has flourished. Broadly speaking, British classical training remains rooted in Shakespeare and the traditions of the theatre, while American drama technique is synonymous with the silver screen and its founding father, Lee Strasberg.

UK drama training is predominantly structured towards preparing students for the stage, for sustained performances, achieved through consistent solid technique, vocal discipline and physical and mental stamina.

Californian-born actor Kevin Shen
Californian-born actor Kevin Shen

In the US, the focus is largely on screen acting. The two require different approaches and the pedagogy reflects that. If you’re going to achieve brilliant performances eight times a week on stage, classical technique is your friend. Film is an entirely different landscape, requiring a subtler, more life-like realism. Delivered in the moment, screen performances are more ephemeral; once you’ve nailed a take, you’re not going to be required to replicate it over and over again. Method acting starts to make a lot more sense for the film genre, hence its proliferation in the states.

Across the pond, the lack of formal conservatoires means that, for the most part, US students receive their training via the drama departments of US universities. In a list of the world’s top 25 performing arts schools, compiled by the Hollywood Reporter, 16 of the 19 American schools that make the list are affiliated with a university. A glance at the TES’ list of the most successful drama faculties (in terms of Oscar nominations) reveals, in descending order: New York University, Harvard University, Yale University and Stanford. A comparative lack of theatres in the US has meant that the universities, with their wealth and facilities, have become associated with the best in US drama training. Schools with the best reputations include, for acting, Yale, Juilliard and NYU; and for musical theatre the Hartt School, Boston Conservatory and Ithaca College.

Back in the UK, there has long been an impressive association between Cambridge University’s Footlights and the gatekeepers of the global stage and screen. For the most part, though, it is our conservatories (sometimes affiliated to universities), with which acting success is most closely associated, and the UK’s top drama schools – RADA, LAMDA and the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama – remain the envy of the world.

US actor Julia Eringer
US actor Julia Eringer

The US’ hothouse for acting coaching is LA’s unique ecosystem of actors’ studios. Actors juggle part-time work alongside their classes and the Golden State is still considered by many a Hollywood hopeful as a fast track to stardom and success. Four years at drama school is apparently not time well spent when the local currency is youth and time is of the essence. The concept of a complete novice arriving in LA with the sole intent of becoming an actor is, according to Californian-born actor Kevin Shen, one that still prevails.

Shen says: “I think LA still has a reputation for attracting the starry eyed in pursuit of the Hollywood dream. You still get plenty of people flocking to LA without training to make the most of their youth, trying to be discovered while they still fit the profile of Hollywood’s next big thing.”

The American dream is alive and kicking, but it is not just young ingenues taking advantage of LA’s abundant actors’ studio scene.

US native actor Julia Eringer explains that many American actors regard training as an ongoing process and tap into the studios to keep things fresh.

“In the US, actors spend some time at one studio then move to another learning different things from different coaches,” she says. “This doesn’t stop and you often see working actors and even big names taking classes in acting studios all over Los Angeles. In the UK, the focus is very much on a two or three-year training, where you are supposed to learn everything you need to know and then you are spat out into the world. There’s not a lot of ongoing training in the UK.”

In a throwback to the old studio machine, the LA film industry still seems to be in the business of finding movie stars rather than actors. Shen explains: “An LA film company will typically want to hire you for being you – bringing you to the set.”

Eringer adds: “In the UK, there’s a greater emphasis on an actor’s ability to play characters who are different from themselves… being able to walk their walk, talk their talk.”

UK-based actor Charlie Walker-Wise. Photo: LJ Photography
UK-based actor Charlie Walker-Wise. Photo: LJ Photography

The current influx of British (especially male) actors being hired by American directors seems to reflect a UK drama system in the lead.

UK-based actor Charlie Walker-Wise says this is a twofold phenomena: “Classical theatre training still provides an unbeatable foundation. Those trained for the stage can make the crossover into film, but it doesn’t necessarily translate the other way round. You’re more likely to find untrained actors on screen where pure instinct can be directed moment to moment. There’s less room to hide on stage, you’re totally exposed. It’s much harder to recreate brilliant stage performances without some sort of formal training.

“In addition, the fundamental change to the onscreen landscape with the emergence of HBO, Netflix and Amazon Prime has created a global audience – the US entertainment industry is not just catering for a domestic audience any longer and that is being reflected in the choices casting directors are making… and at the moment that is playing out to the British actor’s advantage.”

Eringer, who trained both in the UK at Drama Centre and at the Carter Thor Studio in LA, is very grateful for the skills both schools gave her as an actor. “I would say that Drama Centre gave me my grounding and foundation,” she says. “We had a jam-packed schedule with voice classes, movement, acting for camera, acting and devising. Carter Thor shook me up again, out of old rhythms and patterns and out of my methods and emotional comfort zones.

“I was required to use my instincts rather than techniques and I learned to rely on myself as an actor in any given situation, whether I’m needed to cry on set in 30 seconds having sat around waiting for hours, or if I have a cold read and need to make some quick decisions about a scene or character.”

In her professional life, Eringer observes the contrasts between UK and US actors: “UK actors are highly regarded in LA; they’re known for being on point. They know their lines, they work hard and they’re not messing around. In general, I find US actors a little looser, perhaps not quite as sharp or on point, but as a result they often have very fluid emotional lives and can have very magical moments.”

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