Drama, perhaps more than any other subject, has the reputation of being a bit of a doss ‘” commonly perceived as a subject lacking in academic substance and more of a hobby than a career choice. Being a student in said subject, I will forcefully assure anyone who’ll listen that Drama can be taken seriously and is no less academic than English or History. There is also, however, an unseen side to studying for a career in the Theatre and it comes, unsurprisingly, from the glitzy and admired world of the Drama school. These are establishments such as RADA, LAMDA, Bristol Old Vic and Central, which individually run auditions for over 5000 applicants annually and accept just 20-30 students for a highly intensive and specialised three years. After their stay, many of the students have achieved Equity status and are picked up by agents, going on to have substantial Theatre and Film careers. However, is the potential of success in such a difficult field to crack worth the injustices of getting there?
A common misconception about Drama school is that they accept students based on their acting merit, or talent, alone. In reality, these exclusive establishments tend to accept students who have previous experience in the Theatre ‘” whether through completing an Undergraduate degree in Drama at a University or through acting in professional productions. First-timers are very rarely taken in, and it is more often the case than not that they’ve had some kind of outside help ‘” a contact, a recommendation from someone important, even a substantial fiscal advantage over fellow applicants will do the trick. Even if you are experienced in the Theatre, it does not mean that the audition is a level playing field. The process of casting a new year is primarily defined by certain ‘types’ of characters. In order to cater to the Agencies and Casting Directors who work closely with the Schools, they must train actors who will fit stock character descriptions ‘” therefore X% of the new students must be good-looking black males, X% white slim blonde females, X% fat ugly guys and so on. If you don’t fit one of these typecasts, there is not much of a chance of getting in.
‘Of course’ you might say, ‘everyone fits into some kind of stereotype’, and that is mostly true. However, the definitions of the stereotypes you need to fit into at the major Drama schools are so restricted that any normal person would be hard pressed to fit into the categories, especially in the case of women. It is not enough to be slightly pretty, or marginally skinny. According to an acclaimed West-End director who frequently works with a famous London-based Drama school, girls wishing to be considered for lead roles need to be on the very bottom of their acceptable BMI. This not only causes health problems because the girls are underweight, but the pressure of maintaining your ‘figure’ ‘” or else losing a job ‘” may cause dangerous flirtations with eating disorders, a problem already far too widespread among the entertainment industries. Schools should not be perpetuating this by putting such pressure on still young, impressionable students.
Since the popularisation of Drama as a medium of entertainment for the more affluent classes, actors have transformed from simple people ‘” sometimes even considered ‘second class’ citizens and prostitutes ‘” to a ‘special’ type of person, somehow removed from the hubbub of everyday life. Actors are people who can perform psychological magic tricks, take on different personalities, be confident in front of hundreds of people. They can’t be normal, right? I would assert that an actor is special in the same way a mechanic or scientist is special; they have a skill and they practice it, but it doesn’t make them different to anyone else: it’s only a job. Acting schools feed off and perpetuate this notion that actors have something different to the punters who fill the seats. They openly admit that the courses they offer are designed to ‘break you down as a person and build you back up as an actor’. Sounds a bit militaristic, right? I would maintain that the best actors come from little to no training whatsoever. They don’t have to pretend to be characters because they’ve lived them ‘” they learn by observing and copying, by experiencing and then relaying that experience in a way that no Drama school can teach you how to do. RADA, Central, Bristol and the rest can provide you with some wonderful tools with which to ply the skill of acting, but those tools can never replace worldly experience and talent. Indeed, they may even provide a hindrance: Drama training is little more than the acquisition of a set of tools which you can apply to a character, but what if those tools are irrelevant, or worse out-dated, for the style of play or film you are working on? You’ve been ‘broken down’ and then ‘built up’ into an acting ‘machine’ with a machine’s drawbacks ‘” including limited functionality.
Of course, there is a need for the gruelling process of becoming a good, successful actor. If the path wasn’t strewn with personal sacrifice, injustice, unfairness and hard, hard work I bet that Drama schools would be inundated with potential ‘actors’ hoping for their 15 minutes of fame in our celebrity-obsessed culture. Perhaps that is already the problem now: too many will go to extreme lengths to make it as actors and actresses simply to become rich or famous or both, leaving the people who actually care about the skill – the ones who dedicate themselves to it fully, have enormous talent, but do not look quite right – drowning in a sea of 5000 other applicants.
Unfortunately, it’s a no-brainer that the Drama schools are going to accept stock characters. That’s what Agencies and people like, it’s what they’re used to. The schools no longer train for an art; they train for an industry that has specifications and requirements. Talent is overstepped for popularity. For this reason perhaps the best Drama training around is, in fact, at Universities. You probably won’t receive an Agent or Equity status at the end, but (despite the current positive discrimination furore) they are more likely to accept you based on your intelligence and talent. Moreover, University is much less of a popularity contest than Drama school is. There are still problems, and you do still have to be on good terms with your lecturers in order to reap the full rewards of your work, but the level of nepotism is greatly reduced compared to that of the schools.
In a massively hypocritical endnote, I’ll say that if I was offered a place in a Drama school I would jump at the chance. It’s a pretty much guaranteed career launcher in a notoriously difficult field, as well as an incredible professional and educational experience in certain techniques and the history of acting. All I’m saying is that ‘” hopefully ‘” I wouldn’t take myself too seriously. Drama school isn’t the Holy Grail of actor training, and it shouldn’t be considered so. The young people who are going to move Theatre and Film forwards in the next decades are not in ‘accredited schools’ at the moment; they are forming their own companies, thinking up new concepts and practicing new ideas far away from the stodgy traditionalism of those institutions.