Susan Elkin: Actors should stop making a drama out of tuition fees

Tom Hiddleston in Coriolanus at the Donmar Warehouse in 2013. Photo: Johan Persson
In an interview in May, Tom Hiddleston (pictured in Coriolanus at the Donmar Warehouse) said that high tuition fees put off poorer students. Photo: Johan Persson
Susan Elkin
Susan Elkin is a journalist specialising in training and education.
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It really is time that successful, prominent actors stopped telling the world that actor training is now impossibly expensive for working-class aspirants.

It is simply not true. It costs £9,000 for mainstream higher education – irrespective of subject and provided that the institution is approved – which all the top drama schools are.

Whether you train at say, East 15 or Rose Bruford as an actor, do a maths degree at Oxford, or read history at Durham, the fees are the same. Student loan entitlement, extended in a limited form to postgraduate courses from this autumn, applies to all first degrees. It’s financially no harder for drama students that it is for any university undergraduate.

If training is out of reach to ‘poor’ students, why does RADA find it necessary to provide subsidised meals to more than half its students because they are in need? How come Jenny Stephens, artistic director of Bristol Old Vic Theatre School, can point to the photograph of this year’s graduates and tell me the life story of each, including several with troubled, unmonied backgrounds?

Every single principal I’ve spoken to about this, and that’s most of them, has said that she or he wishes prominent, well-meaning but misguided industry people – such as Tom Hiddleston and Julie Walters to cite just two recent examples – would stop perpetuating the idea that you can’t become an actor unless you’re loaded. It actually deters some poorer students from applying. Thus the myth becomes self-perpetuating.

So why don’t the principals contact the actors in question and explain the reality of the situation? In some cases these well-intentioned people are their own alumni with whom they enjoy good relationships, which they don’t want to disturb. So they feel unable to say what I’m saying here.

Of course we’d all like education – all of it – to be funded by the taxpayer and free at source to all students, as it was when I was a student. But it won’t happen, so we have to be realistic. Remember too that in those days funding was automatic for university, but discretionary for drama school. Local authorities could choose not to fund a drama school student if they, for whatever reason, didn’t fancy his or her chances. That was a far more divisive situation than trainee actors face today.

I would, though, advise all drama students to build a reliable way of using their skills to earn money when the acting jobs don’t come in because the early years can be tough, especially if there’s no family money to fall back on. Teaching performing arts to children part-time is an obvious one. So is facilitating drama workshops in schools, or there’s potential in corporate acting. Drama schools should be actively helping students to develop these support careers and introducing them to the right contacts.

PQA’s new iAcademy app for performers

Pauline Quirke Academy must be one of the UK’s fastest-growing franchise chains of performing arts part-time training schools for children. It has more than 100 PQA branches – known as ‘academies’ – in 82 locations nationwide. Eleven new ones opened this spring.

It’s a good thing that so many children are enjoying confidence and skills-boosting classes. It also means a wealth of opportunities for performing arts-trained adults, such as actors between jobs, to get involved as principals or as regular or sessional teachers.

And because PQA is so keen to spread its message there is now a new app: PQA iAcademy. It allows performers to rehearse and hone their performance and includes a tool that helps you practise pitching notes. Another provides random scenarios for improvisation practice and plenty of video tutorials on, for instance, breakdancing, clowning, magic and puppetry. It’s available free from the Apple app store. I’m told they’re also working on an Android version.

New rehearsal space in south-east London

I recently visited a defunct leatherwork factory in Kemble Road, London SE23 and discovered a fine example of young actor entrepreneurialism. Abram Rooney (Christopher in The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time) and Andrew Bewley (assisting the assistant director on Jesus Christ Superstar at Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre) who live nearby, have taken over the building. It is called the Hardy. They are developing it as rehearsal space for companies, including their own projects. A group was rehearsing upstairs while I sipped tea and chatted with Rooney and Bewley (both impressive) on the ground floor.

Only 10 minutes’ walk from Forest Hill station, Kemble Road is interesting for another reason. Many of the roads are named after actors. Roger Kemble was Sarah Siddons’ father. There’s a Siddons Road nearby along with a Cibber Road.

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