More than a drama school, Guildford School of Acting students say it feels like a family. With its world-class facilities and successful alumni, could it be the choice for you?
Although it was founded 85 years ago, Guildford School of Acting is a 21st-century conservatoire. “We have a long heritage and a strong reputation,” says principal Sean McNamara, “but we’re a school that’s looking forwards as well. We are accessible and inclusive, and proactive in ensuring we are representing society as it is today, telling those stories. We’re developing and innovating all the time to meet the industry’s ever-evolving demands.”
As a former student of GSA, McNamara feels “a strong responsibility” to make sure the school is the best it can be. His connection to the place is personal, as if it’s a family, and it is a feeling echoed by GSA’s students. “I’m always struck, whenever I see students tweet anything about the school – an event or an achievement – that they use the hashtag #GSAFamily. And the students do feel that.”
As chairman of the Federation of Drama Schools, McNamara has plenty of advice when it comes to choosing a drama school. Applicants should consider the size of the school, the location, its facilities and the cost. GSA has about 600 students and, as part of the University of Surrey, charges the same as any other degree programme at £9,250 per year, with students eligible for student loans. Other schools can charge far higher sums.
Its world-class facilities include 24 studios, three theatres and a new scenic production workshop with state-of-the-art machinery for set building, lighting and sound design.
He encourages applicants to look at alumni, too. It’s not just about considering the most famous alumni – although GSA has its share of those, including Michael Ball, Brenda Blethyn, 2019 Olivier award winner Kobna Holdbrook-Smith and Bill Nighy – but also seeking out recent graduates, and looking at the type of work they have been getting.
Recently, that includes Ella Balinska, who stars in the upcoming Charlie’s Angels film, Dominic Short, currently playing the lead in Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, and Danielle Fiamanya, winner of The Stage Debut Award for best actress in a musical.
“We’re seeing our graduates not just getting very good work, but being recognised by the industry. It’s great to see that our training is delivering graduates who are able to work at a very high level quickly after graduation.” In fact, last year 99% of GSA’s Acting, Actor-Musician and Musical Theatre students all signed with agents.
But, for McNamara, the training is the most important thing. GSA offers undergraduate degrees in Acting, Actor-Musicianship and Musical Theatre. It also has courses at all levels including foundation, MA and MFA.
The school is not prescriptive or overly philosophical in the way it teaches acting. “Our approach is that all acting techniques work, but not for all actors,” says McNamara. “We try to be as universal as possible.” The most important thing is that the student is at the centre of it. It’s about finding what works for each individual, while ensuring everything is done collaboratively.
That extends to auditions: applicants audition in groups of 20, and the assessors are looking for how each person collaborates, as well as how courageous and creative they are. “The ethos is always about the need to collaborate. This is a difficult industry at the best of times, and being isolated isn’t the best way to develop an enduring career.”
Alongside the acting programmes are courses in theatre production, and in stage and production management, too.
Finally, says McNamara, potential students shouldn’t underestimate gut feeling when it comes to choosing the right place for them. “When I walked through the door back in the 1990s I knew that GSA was the one I wanted to come to, even before I had my audition.” It’s hard to rationalise that feeling, McNamara admits, but “you have to prepare for the fact that the school may actually choose you”.