Flick through any show programme at the theatre and more often than not, most actors have chosen to begin their biography with stating which drama school they trained with. This may be because they are desperately proud (and so they should be), it generates great publicity for the schools themselves, a status symbol even – RADA, LAMDA, Central looks infinitely better than some of the smaller, more unknown institutions. This does not mean, of course, that schools such as Rose Bruford, Drama Studio, or Guildford School of Acting, offer a significantly watered down or inferior education necessarily, but in regards to how successful and prestigious certain schools are, there has always been a hierarchy. However, this often seems ridiculous in the present climate when you consider not only how individually schools approach training and the widely different types of course offered, but also how suddenly they can go in and out of favour for whatever reason. Such a fuss is made of being accepted into a drama school but I have long wondered whether it is as crucially important as I am often told it is.
Firstly, let me just say that in no way am I against the notion of training at a drama school nor damning those who have chosen to do so. Indeed, it was my plan for many years to do just that. The lure of immersing oneself in this world, learning the craft in-depth and in painstaking detail, working with motivated, inspirational people who want exactly the same as you, following in the footsteps of some of the country’s finest performers, and the opportunities that come with the final agents’ showcase in the West End, seemed impossible to refuse. So, yes, there are a multitude of reasons why budding actors hanker after that coveted place at a drama school and in all honesty, I can’t really blame them. What if they are taught certain techniques and practices that shape how they develop as a performer? What if they meet an individual or group of people who they connect with so well that they decide to start an entirely new, innovative, and successful theatre company? What if they are spotted at the showcase, fought over by London’s top agents, and propelled into their chosen profession almost immediately, picking up decent roles on stage and screen, and can suddenly afford a flat and pay the bills without worry? It can happen, has happened.
But what if it doesn’t? What if nothing happens? Was that time, money, and effort wasted? Was it all worth it?
Well, this has to come down to the individual, of course. Some would argue that all training is worth it, regardless of whether it yields results straightaway or indeed, at all. If you have picked up tips, learned new things, forged relationships, built confidence, developed as a person and a performer, or even realised that the acting world is rather different than you imagined and is now not for you, surely there have been significant benefits to attending drama school. But the idea that once you have graduated, you are now a fully qualified actor and can now await the work to come flooding in, is often far from the truth, I’m afraid. For a portion of ex-drama students, they will fill their hours with finding auditions for themselves, obtaining any job they can in a theatre, working for very little money or even for free, chasing agents, or sometimes turning to creating their own opportunities – writing material, setting up a theatre company, producing productions on a shoestring – and all to get some recognition of their talent, their ambition, their passion. Now, some are perfectly content with this way of life (a great number simply want to work like this anyway) and so are using the training to their advantage, but what about those who clamour after a play at the Almeida, a lead role in a sitcom, or a stab at Beatrice in Stratford? Of course, this may happen for them in the future, but many will never escalate to jobs of this magnitude and feel understandably cheated – a few drama school graduates have told me recently that they either regret spending all that money on training (I won’t tell you the average cost here, in case I get sued for causing heart failure) or that they have friends who went down the self-employed route after University and are in the same position (or better) as they are.
Many of our finest actors did not train at drama school – Timothy West, Ian McKellen, Carey Mulligan, Eddie Redmayne, to name but a few – but it seems there are a large number of people who feel it is absolutely essential to train in this way. The other day I read a comment from a so-called “professional” who had told a college student that no-one would ever take her seriously or look at her twice if she had failed to train at an accredited drama school. Now, I’m afraid I find that comment rather ignorant and entirely misleading. Build up a decent and varied CV, get yourself auditions, work as much as you can in Fringe shows and invite agents, write to casting directors and theatre companies, try to get an apprenticeship – these are all possible in-roads to the profession and should not be ignored. There are those who do not need to go to a drama school. You certainly shouldn’t go if you are not sure, if you feel you are getting decent jobs already, if you feel pressured, or feel it’s the only opportunity available to you.
One last point I would like to present is the notion that drama schools can break down your character, your personality as a performer, your own style and attitudes and your personal techniques and mould you into a creation of their own. Sometimes, this can be beneficial – it all depends on the skill and natural ability of the actor – but it can also worringly damage that individual and their creativity. It has the power to make that person discard any former teachings or practices and only believe what the drama school drills in to them. Perhaps, worst of all, it can destroy the uniqueness of that particular actor – they will simply emerge as an image of their institution and any personal quirks, individuality, or more unusual qualities will have long vanished.
So, basically, my argument is a simple one. On the one hand, the merits of attending drama school are many and fruitful. It can be one of the richest and most rewarding experiences and offer you a unique, intensive education and the possibility of a speedier route in to the professional acting world. Then again, it is not everything. It is not for everyone. It does not guarantee success. It is not the sole choice. Do not be told otherwise. I wish you the best of luck…we actors need it!