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Susan Elkin: Job offers before graduation can be a headscratcher

An MTA showcase – Principal Annemarie Lewis Thomas will help students decide if a job is worth leaving the course for. Photo: Leejay Townsend
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It’s the signing season. Showcases and graduate shows take place every day at this time of year. I saw two of the latter last week, and agents – unmistakable in their focused, professional demeanour – are out in droves.

The students who have what the agents are looking for get signed. Really talented young actors, or those who can offer some unusual, sought-after quality, may get a multiplicity of offers. It seems, from the outside at least, like a dating agency through which everyone eventually settles with the partner who is right for him or her.

This process has been going on for several weeks now. Some emerging actors have long since signed their contracts, although most drama schools have rules about how early in the course this can happen. The MTA, for instance, which runs a single two-year accelerated course, does not allow its second-year students to sign up with an agent before the annual revue in March.

Once a student is signed up it is in the agent’s interest to start putting her or him forward for auditions. That might – and often does – lead to a job offer for someone who hasn’t quite completed training. There is nearly always someone who is listed but not appearing in any top drama school showcase. That first professional job has lured the student away.

How do the schools feel about losing some of their best final-year students before the end of term? It must be quite a headache for principals who, presumably, have to decide each case on its merits?

“Yes it is and I do,” Edward Kemp, director of RADA, tells me. “There is a danger of students taking professional work too soon, which can lead to a lot of work quite quickly, followed by burn-out”. This is, I infer, probably a direct result of not being quite fully trained and I presume most experienced principals have seen it happen.

On the other hand, some imminent graduates are more than ready to move on.

“I had no difficulty at all in deciding to release Jessica Raine before the end of her third year because she had a good offer and I could see she was ready at that point,” says Kemp, making it clear that his permission is needed and that it is by no means automatic. David Shirley of Manchester School of Theatre recently told me the same thing.

MTA’s Annemarie Lewis Thomas takes a characteristically different approach: “They can leave after the penultimate term, but only if we deem the contract worthy of their finishing the course early. As we’re shooting showreels, looking at commercial casting and cabaret in that final term, we ask the student to weigh up what would be more beneficial in the long term.” She adds: “Whenever possible, they take the job and manage to squeeze in college around it. They might come back to classes once the show is up and running.”

I suppose it boils down to individuals and different stages of development – and responses to training, which kick in at different speeds. Principals, who certainly don’t want to stand in the way of anyone’s career, must sometimes need the judgement of Solomon.

Workshops and job opportunities

I recently attended part of a CPD workshop run by Shakespeare Schools Festival for primary school teachers whose schools are enrolled to take part in one of the 50 or so festivals taking place in professional theatres across the UK.

It’s heart-warming to see so many teachers working hard to improve their pupils’ confidence and cultural awareness with this sparky introduction to Shakespeare and to learn that more than 1,100 schools and 30,000 young people will be involved this autumn.

I was also struck by the job opportunities for actors, directors and other drama-trained people this worthwhile project creates. At the workshop I attended there were two facilitators (one was an associate and one works for the charity full time) supported by three members of SSF staff. All have relevant experience and backgrounds – often in drama or actor training – and they were all doing a fine job with the teachers, some of whom had been pretty nervous at the beginning.

As I’ve often commented, people with acting or acting-related skills can use them within the wider industry in far more ways than they probably realised when they originally set their sights on a career in performing arts.

This is my last regular weekly column for The Stage. Thank you for your support and interest in the past two years. Look for me in other slots, spots and guises. @SusanElkinjourn

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