Are auditions fair to drama college applicants?

Musical Theatre Academy auditions day (l to r: Helen Evans, head of acting, Carly Hainsby, head of dance, Nick Crossley, deputy head of dance)
Musical Theatre Academy auditions day (l to r: Helen Evans, head of acting, Carly Hainsby, head of dance, Nick Crossley, deputy head of dance)
Susan Elkin
Susan is Education and Training Editor at The Stage
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Well it’s January and my mind turns to auditions and the large sums of money which will move from student bank accounts to those of vocational training establishments during the next few months.

I have Simon Dunmore’s useful annual breakdown of the fees charged by Drama UK’s eighteen accredited schools (Actors’ Yearbook 2014  in front of me. He reports audition fees ranging from £35 (seven schools) to £60 at the Guildhall – with the caveat that those figures may have changed (ie risen) since his book went to print. And everyone in the industry knows that auditioning for the prestigious Musical Theatre postgraduate course at Royal Academy of Music  costs over £100 because it’s a music conservatoire and their charges are generally higher all round.

Yes I know, before you reach in fury for the electronic equivalent of your green inked pen, that it costs money for staff, often freelance and paid a daily rate, to run auditions and that the best colleges get huge numbers of applicants.  And, I wait to be told primly, that auditioning has nothing to do with making money.

In that case why don’t colleges, many of which are parts of universities these days, limit the number of auditions they run in order to keep staffing costs down? They have a tiny number of places in relation to the thousands of applicants most of them receive and the industry itself is overcrowded anyway so it simply isn’t fair – it’s dishonest in fact - to treat the hopeless as hopefuls. Except, crucially, that each pays a coffer-filling fee.

When I wrote on this subject a year ago, one major school cheerfully and publically told me that its audition “takings” were over £100,000. At least they didn’t try to pretend that running auditions had actually cost this sum.

And yet some organisations manage to audition without charging at all. FalmouthUniversity, for example, where Larry Lynch’s Performance department, based in rather magnificent premises,  runs a pretty decent set of degree courses in acting,  dance, musical theatre, music and so on does not levy an audition fee. When I asked Lynch how they manage that he just looked a bit puzzled and said “Well, we just pay for it via our central university funding”.  I rest my case.

Then there’s the vexed question of how students are treated when they get to these costly auditions. Now to be fair I meet more and more students in drama schools all over the country who tell me that their auditions were detailed, worthwhile experiences which lasted several hours and taught them a lot. So I think things are improving. And I should think so too. These students deserve something for their money.

On the other hand I still meet others who report miserable, brief experiences resulting in almost instant dismissal – after the student has, perhaps, travelled from the other end of the country and paid for a night’s accommodation in order to make, say, a 10am appointment at the drama school.

I happened to be visiting a prestigious London drama school recently while it was auditioning potential postgraduate students. The applicants were huddled, anxious and nervous in a stark corridor waiting to go in one by one. Each was wearing a large placard bearing a number as if they were anonymous runners in a race. What price human dignity?

There is a case, I think, for independent schools to charge for auditions because they have to balance the books and they have no back-up funding. But it should simply cover costs. The MTA (winner of 2012 StageSchool of the Year) has always been very transparent about this and others could learn from it.

MTA charges £45. For that the students get an all day audition in a group of not more than 22 so there’s plenty of individual attention and crucially each gets written feedback a few hours later.  The MTA auditions only 250 students a year (for 22 places) as opposed to the 3,000 or so which is the norm in most accredited drama schools so there’s no question of profiteering. It really can be done.

Good luck with your auditions if you’re applying this year to whichever institutions you’ve decided offer what you want. I hope you’re not overcharged and that you get value for money – and come out feeling invigorated rather than demoralised.