Susan Elkin: What’s the real cost of drama school auditions?
UCAS forms were sorted last month, and most other applications are in. So it’s about now that invitations to audition start dropping on to the doormats of excited young wannabe actors – tens of thousands of them.
With one or two notable exceptions, almost every one of those potential students has to pay a fee (to the astonishment of most of the rest of the academic world) for the privilege of being considered.
RADA charges £45 if you apply early, and £85 if you applied after December 11, for admission in September 2016. The audition fee is £50 at Bristol Old Vic Theatre School or Rose Bruford College of Theatre and Performance, and £45 at Oxford School of Drama.
Audition fees, travel, accommodation... no wonder students talk of an audition budget
On top of that, students often have to pay to travel long distances to the audition and, if they’re required to attend early in the day, there may be a cost for overnight accommodation, too. No wonder students in the know talk of an “audition budget”. But if you need, say, £200 in the kitty before you can even be a serious applicant to several colleges, then this process has the potential to be anything but inclusive.
Some colleges, therefore, have systems in place to get around this. LAMDA, RADA and Bristol Old Vic, for example, run an audition fee waiver scheme through the Conservatoire for Dance and Drama, whereby a certain number of free auditions are available for students in specific socio-economic groups. And several colleges hold regional auditions (RADA auditions in Manchester and Leicester, as well as New York and Dublin) so that the students don’t have to travel so far.
These are positive developments and should be trumpeted every time the national press runs an ill-informed story about drama school being out of reach unless you’ve attended an independent school.
And yet I have a strong hunch that the big, famous, oversubscribed drama schools are making profits out of auditioning large numbers of candidates.
They deny it, but let's look at the sums. Let's say you audition 100 students in a day (it’s often more) and charge them £40 each (ditto), then your gross take is £4,000. If you pay three members of a freelance panel £200 a day each (and it would probably be less), and allow £400 for overheads, you are still £3,000 in front. Bear in mind that these schools run whole series of these days (a dozen or more at Mountview Academy of Theatre Arts between November and April is pretty typical) and you have a pretty lucrative income stream.
Is this money ring-fenced in every school budget for the provision of mechanisms to make drama training more accessible to hard-to-reach groups? If it isn’t, perhaps it should be.
Then there’s the value-for-money question: what do you get for your audition fee? There are still schools that dismiss first round applicants after a few minutes. These prospective students are, in a sense, paying customers, and they deserve more than a brief dismissal for the fee they’ve paid. There should at least be a chance to take part in a group workshop, to learn a bit, to see the premises and to talk to current students. A workshop allows staff to see how each applicant works with others and gives the auditionee space to warm up – a civilised and useful idea, as the colleges which have the good sense to do it will tell you. Well done, for example, the Academy of Live and Recorded Arts and Mountview, which audition, even in the first round, in this way.
And no one should ever pay money to be reduced to a nameless number. Drama schools should treat their (paying) applicants like respect-worthy human beings, not like racehorses. I have seen students auditioning wearing numbers on their backs because the school can’t be bothered with names. Enough said.