Phil Willmott: Here’s what a casting director wants from a graduate actor

Students from the Court Training Company in Blood Wedding. Photo: Scott Rylander
Phil Willmott
Phil Willmott is an award winning director, artistic director, playwright, composer, dramaturg, arts journalist and occasional actor. A former Equity councillor and ex co-head of musical theatre training at Arts Ed he is one of the most commissioned writer/composers in the UK and a pioneering director of Greek drama. He directs classics, musicals and cutting edge new writing internationally and has been theatre critic for BBC London, Attitude and Gay Times.
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What does the perfect acting course look like? Here's my wish list based on first-hand experience of drama school and working with graduate actors for more than 30 years, starting with my own training at Rose Bruford College of Theatre and Performance in the late 1980s, through decades of guest lecturing or directing at many of the best and worst institutions, directing many graduates and auditioning countless more. It's probably not a realistic or even practical list, but let's indulge in a little blue-sky thinking.

1. Course duration

Students need three years to study acting: one to get used to being away from home and to discover who they are, a second year to settle into their studies and make discoveries without the pressure of graduating and a third to get scared, excited and match fit, and to realistically plan their first steps in the industry.

2. Boot camp basics

Students should receive one hour of tutor-led vocal training and one hour of physical training every single day. It's tedious but they'll never find their full potential as actors unless their bodies and voices are as flexible and powerful as possible. They don't need to become athletes or develop Brian Blessed levels of vocal projection, but they do need to leave drama school in peak condition. After all, they'll probably stop exercising the moment they leave.

3. Intellectual curiosity

It's always a shock to me how little drama students know or care about the history, traditions and benchmarks of their profession. When you think about it, it's understandable. Every 18-year-old thinks of him or herself as the centre of the universe – that's how we survive our teens – but the drama school years are the time to shake this off and engage with the great writers, actors and creative minds who have and are forging a path. Students should be shown classic film and TV plus go to the theatre at least once a week and then be led by tutors to appreciate what they've seen and formulate informed opinions.

4. Film and stage acting balance

It's still absurd how few lessons in acting on camera most drama students receive, considering that successful actors are likely to work equally in both fields. Pretty soon after graduating I found myself playing a regular character in a soap opera and scrabbling to apply the one term of camera experience I had within a fast-moving production schedule. That was a long time ago and although some institutions have embraced significant on-camera training, it's still regarded as an 'add on' rather then a core part of many courses. I'd like to see time allocated to film every single student production in professional studio conditions following the onstage run, so that mastery of both mediums becomes second nature.

5. Pastoral care

Our early 20s are some of the most psychologically delicate of our lives. In the interest of robust and ongoing mental health, all students should be provided with an hour's one-on-one counselling per month with provision made for more if needed.

6. Choosing and casting student productions

It seems to me the majority of titles for student productions are chosen based on whether they have enough female roles. This is tricky as there are likely to be more women than men in any class. Unfortunately, the mainstream repertoire doesn't reflect this. We need complete gender/age-blind casting from day one of a modern drama training so that student actors can experience working with the very finest writing, even if it originated in less enlightened times and doesn't have many female characters.

7. An understanding of the real-world casting process

Every student in her or his third year should be given the chance to observe how relatively few actors from hundreds, sometimes thousands, of applicants are selected by casting directors for a meeting. This will banish any sense of entitlement and help graduates realise where they'll be in the pecking order. They should also observe a professional set of auditions to dispel any illusions that casting is fair.

8. Radicalisation

It's my firm belief that each generation should be challenging and changing the status quo in the industry, and ideally in society as a whole. I'd like to see students experience at least one block of training that makes them formulate informed political beliefs and a mechanism for changing hearts and minds through performance.

9. Dump Laban, devising, improv and Meisner

Too much time is dedicated to areas of study that are cheap and easy to offer, but which students will never use in their professional careers. Prioritise teaching Stanislavski and text analysis: tools of daily use in any working actor's life.

10. Drop the MA course

You don't need an MA to be an actor. There's nothing wrong with the pursuit of academic studies relating to theatre, but the ability to write an essay isn't necessary to a successful acting career.

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