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The camera never lies – how well do drama schools prepare their students for TV?

Tuppence Middleton in The Lady Vanishes. Photo: BBC
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If you watched The Lady Vanishes the other weekend you will have seen Tuppence Middleton playing the lead role of a socialite whose sanity was called into question when she claimed a woman had gone missing on a train – a woman some characters said never existed.

I interviewed Middleton just before the drama went out, and was interested to learn that since graduating from Arts Educational Schools five years ago, all of her professional work has been on the small screen. Indeed, when we chatted she was just preparing to appear in her first play – The Living Room at the Jermyn Street Theatre – admitting that the thought of auditioning for the role made her nervous as it took her out of her “comfort zone” – her comfort zone being television.

[pullquote]Very often when I speak to actors, particularly young ones who are in a new television series, they talk about ‘learning on the job’[/pullquote]

I find it interesting that television has become what Middleton is accustomed to, and it goes to show where the work is for young actors coming out of a drama school. I’ve even heard it said on many occasions that soaps in particular are today’s repertory system, where young actors get to learn their craft.

If this is the case, how well are drama schools preparing actors for this reality?

Middleton told me that Arts Ed has both a “great theatre department and TV department”.

She said:

You tend to make your own films in the second and third year and you have to crew the whole thing. You get the chance to do sound, lighting and camera work. And that means you get to know the value of every job. It prepares you really well. It’s one of the few schools that does a 50/50 theatre and television training.

Is Arts Ed an exception to the rule however? How many drama schools actually invest a decent and proper amount of time to training actors for the reality of working in television?

Television, after all, is completely different to theatre. You don’t need to project or play everything big to be seen at the back of the upper circle. With a camera, every tiny detail can be picked up – and actors have to do the opposite to theatre – pull back, minimise and be aware of over emphasis.

Very often when I speak to actors, particularly young ones who are in a new television series, they talk about ‘learning on the job’, and about how terrified they were on their first day on a TV set, because of the fact they have so many technical points to remember (alongside learning their lines and actually acting). Of course there is an element to learning on the job for anyone – no training in any profession can prepare you for what the reality of a job is like.  But it seems to me that for actors working in television it really is a shock to the system.

And some of the actors I speak to complain that this is because the television training they have had is minimal – a day here and there.

I don’t know if this is true, and a quick glance at the course break downs for some of our top drama schools reveals that television training is offered. RADA provides its students acting-for-camera classes, and LAMDA has a make your own film module as part of its course. Mountview also appears to offer training-for-camera as part of its acting course.

But I am interested to know just how big a portion of each school’s course is actually handed over to television preparation, particularly as so many graduates do appear to find their first jobs in television.

My impression is that courses are more heavily weighted to a theatre training – which is interesting if, using Middleton as an example, performers can go years before actually getting a role on the stage.

So, over to you – what is the reality? I would love you to tell me what it’s really like. And if anything needs to change.

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