Paul Clayton: When it comes to drama training, the customer isn’t always right
An oft-spoken dictum of my mother, who ran the village shop as I was growing up, was: “The customer is always right.” And as another dictum ran at the time: Mother knows best.
But all these years on, and having customers of my own, itʼs something I regularly question. Iʼm often hired to deliver presentation training or corporate direction, based on my training and experience as an actor, only to be told what to do, rather than doing what I know to be best.
In the education sector these days, you canʼt move for student satisfaction surveys. The most recent I read in The Stage claimed that only 30% of arts students actually thought their degree course was good value for money. Drama schools rate a little higher, yet these surveys are often misleading.
Apparently, 97% of Arts Ed students were pleased with their training and gave it a top rating in 2017. Yet how many of these students have ever been to any other institutions? How many have any point of comparison? As long as the school is giving them what they want, or what they think they want, they will presumably be happy customers. But do they know what they need?
No one can teach you to act. That is a fact. Acting is a natural talent that you either have or you donʼt. What good drama schools can do is teach you how to be an actor. And here is where the wants of the customer and the needs of the working actor seem to differ.
Drama students want to act. They want vocal training. They want to explore the vicissitudes of Meisner and Stanislavski. They also want big parts and an agent. It canʼt be long before drama schools have to guarantee the number of lines you will say on stage in your final year.
Graduates never knew what they were missing at drama school. They didn’t even know to ask for it, so how could they rate the quality of training?
Casting is conducted as part of a sharing process, not on merit. Many of us may recognise the frustration of watching one of our less obviously talented peers wrestle with the leading role in a Gorky.
Out in the real world, many never get the chance to use the skills they have acquired in training. The work doesn’t come in and they are lost. And they never knew what they were missing. They didn’t even know to ask for it, so how could they rate the quality of the school’s training?
Having been allowed by their drama school to sign with Top Talent of Twickenham, they are not getting interviews. They canʼt write good emails, have no idea how to fill in a tax return, or how to network effectively. These are all professional skills that should be taught as part of a good course, and which are easily assessable.
You canʼt even try out drama schools on an audition day without having to pay a fee. Customers shouldnʼt have to pay to go into the shop. The sooner independent bodies, such as the Federation of Drama Schools, start assessing courses the better. They need to check on the number of contact hours, the number of graduates getting agents and paid work within a year, and other easily checked markers.
Students may then get an idea of whether they will get value for money. Real satisfaction. And that’s when the customer will know theyʼre right.