Drama school employment – it’s worse not knowing

Brian Attwood was editor of The Stage from 1994 to 2014.
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What’s the one thing any prospective student wants to know before they sign up for a drama college?

Simple: how much does shelling out £9k a year guarantee I will be in regular work when I graduate.

Actually, most will probably know they have next-to-no chance of continuous, well-paid acting work. They do however want to be sure that paying the extra amount the better-established schools can charge will be reflected in a serious advantage in the job market.

Of course, acting is an over-subscribed business where luck, stamina and connections are needed in addition to raw talent. So such promises are difficult to deliver on.

[pullquote]We all know the charges are high and subsequent employment insecure. The revelation would be to establish better the fluctuating pattern of an actor’s life.[/pullquote]

That much is not the fault of drama schools but, let’s be honest, there is more they could be doing to give their young recruits a better appreciation of what the future holds.

The obvious contribution they can make is to monitor the career progress of recent graduates and (subject to anonymity) share the information.

Drama UK chief Ian Kellgren has been trying to persuade his organisation’s affiliate schools to do just that. Through the sterling efforts of his colleague, the casting agent Jane Deitch, Drama UK has staged its first survey into graduate employment (read my colleague Nicola Merrifield report in this week’s Stage).

It’s a sizeable sample and a major contribution but, as those of us who took part in the afternoon conference to debate the findings were made aware, there’s a lot more detail needed before it realises its full value.

The chief shortcoming and one not of the creators’ making, is that not every college is willing to participate fully. In addition, some of us wanted to see more detail about length of contracts, rates of pay and more back catalogue of data.

Predominantly the colleges involved are part of that old ‘premier league’ of schools, the Conference of Drama School. Even had they all been active in answering surveys, that would still represent a very select sample. The prestigious Royal Academy of Music for example is not part of CDS. Nor are many newer schools that range greatly in quality and produce large numbers of performers annually.

Cast the net wider and there are the vocational colleges linked to the National Skills Academy and many more.

CDS, though, is a good launching point – provided colleges participate. Some perhaps don’t treat data collection as a priority, others one suspects don’t want to share the information.

It reminds me of the way West End producers like to state they  didn’t mind releasing box office figures but XX (previously Sir Peter Saunders and now any conveniently absent rival) won’t, so why should they do so

That’s a shame because the colleges have more to gain from transparency. We all know the charges are high and subsequent employment insecure. The revelation would be to establish better the fluctuating pattern of an actor’s life.

By chance I received a copy of a piece from our transatlantic cousin US Backstage written by Robert Curtis and entitled What Actors Can Learn from Door to Door Salesmen.

Check it out but if I can paraphrase here: salesmen keep their spirits up against rejection with the reminder that odds dictate there’s a certain number of rejections for every acceptance. Hearing another “no” brings you one step close to a “yes”.

Good employment data provides the same comfort; it doesn’t make the working pattern more secure but it does make you a little more secure about it.