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Susan Elkin: The drama training industry is waking up to its numbers problem

LAMDA performers in rehearsal. Photograph: Richard Hubert Smith LAMDA performers in rehearsal. Photograph: Richard Hubert Smith
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Everyone knows that there are too many actors chasing too few jobs. Ours is an overcrowded industry and training trends have long seemed to be making it even worse than it has always been. Some 1,700 young performers are due to be unleashed on the world in the next couple of months by accredited drama schools. And there will be many more emerging from non-accredited schools. The statistics are both terrifying and immoral. However much college staff repeat to students that their chances of professional success are slight, every one of those young people is conditioned to hope against all the odds that their big break is just around the corner waiting for them. They’ve spent three years working flat-out to achieve industry readiness and nothing, to begin with at least, will dent their determination to buck the trend.

I worry about these attitudes because it is very sad to see people’s lifelong ambitions thwarted when they’ve done everything they possibly can to fulfil them. I also worry about the future mental health of people who have pinned all their hopes on Plan A and, in many cases, been actively discouraged from having a Plan B. Received wisdom is that if you want it badly enough you’ll focus all your energy on getting it and won’t even think about fall-back plans. I’ve seen what can happen to people when the longed for outcome doesn’t materialise and it is devastating.

I am, therefore, encouraged to note that the training industry seems to be waking up to its responsibility not to train people for jobs which don’t exist and are never going to. LAMDA principal Joanna Read, for example, told me earlier this year that when its long-anticipated new building opens in 2016 she has no intention of expanding the numbers on two and three-year performance courses. “We simply don’t want to train people for jobs which aren’t there,” she said, adding that instead LAMDA will increase technical theatre training provision “because that’s where the jobs are” and run more short courses.

Mountview is deliberately reducing the numbers in its performance degree courses

Not long after that I was at Mountview chatting to principal and artistic director Stephen Jameson. He told me that Mountview is deliberately reducing the numbers in its performance degree courses year by year. “We can’t do it all at once because we have to balance the books but we believe that we have to cut back because it is wrong, as you say, to train too many,” he said. I heard something similar at RADA recently too – not that it is cutting back but, like LAMDA, it is committed to maintaining its numbers at the current level. I detect a new trend and it’s welcome.

The relentless and irresponsible expansion seems to be coming in general – of course, there are notable exceptions – from very commercial non-accredited providers who take in almost any student who can pay and, given the demand, just go on growing. One college, for example, has launched a new course almost every year since it was founded in the noughties with the result that there are now thousands of former students whose careers are going nowhere but whose pockets are a lot lighter. Some of them, moreover, will now be hounded by low self-esteem, depression and worse.

We need much more honest discuss-ion about the numbers of students on vocational performance courses of all sorts. And it’s good to see people like Read and Jameson leading the way.

Accreditation woes for Exeter’s Cygnet Training Theatre

Cygnet Training Theatre in Exeter has done a useful job training small numbers of students for more than 30 years. Four students (the maximum number is six) in each year together form a company of 12-18 which trains through classes and rep performance, in Exeter and elsewhere, with many successful outcomes. It is – to adapt its avian name – the feisty finch of the training world which can exist in the same aviary as eagles such as Bristol Old Vic Theatre School and Royal Central School of Speech and Drama.

But there is a Big Problem. Cygnet, along with 20 other famous establishments, was a member of the old Conference of Drama Schools (CDS), which meant that students could and would see it listed alongside Drama Centre, LIPA, Manchester School of Theatre and the rest. Since CDS merged with the National Council for Drama Training to form Drama UK, the number of accredited schools has dropped to 18 and Cygnet is one of the casualties. Ros Williams, who runs Cygnet, told me that her tiny organisation cannot afford the £6,000 fee required by Drama UK. Neither can it spare staff to prepare the substantial paperwork. It is in danger of dropping, almost literally, off the map because it is finding it impossible to recruit without the support of a national umbrella organisation. Surely there’s a case for negotiation and compromise here? As things are, everyone involved is losing out.

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