University Or Drama School? That Is The Question

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Theatre critic and associate editor of The Stage Lyn Gardner recently investigated the rise in “theatre hopefuls” who are choosing University courses over applying for drama school.

It is no secret that the UK’s leading drama schools have a reputation for being elitist. With extortionate audition fees and limited places, they appear somewhat inaccessible and yet still oversubscribed. But is it realistic to say that the new courses presented by universities could potentially replace traditional drama school training?

Before I go any further, it is important to address why (as a drama school graduate myself) I think that drama schools are such a popular route for budding performers. Drama schools tend to be a full-time gig and, by that, I mean you are training and honing your skills for five days a week. Due to the competitive nature of the performing arts industry, this level of intensive training is very much seen as ‘necessary’ for being successful. A traditional drama school education rigorously trains you with industry professionals, connects you with casting opportunities, and eventually helps you get an agent. I have memories of visiting London theatres with my parents and scouring the programmes to learn how the people performing got there. I started to realise that there were around ten schools repeatedly cropping up, and I knew that I needed to be part of one of their intakes to make it to the West End.

As fantastic as the end product might sound, a place on a course is difficult to get in the first instance, and inevitably lots of applicants are left without training. Gardner states that “if universities spot a demand, they will develop courses to meet that demand”, and reveals that 117 higher education institutions now offer degrees in theatre. Many of these new university courses, as indicated by Gardner, offer high-quality, professional training. 

I spoke to University of Chichester graduate Matt Barnes, class of 2020, who explained that he thinks his time at University “prepared me for the industry as it covered all three elements of performing equally (singing, dancing and acting). We also had a busy schedule with similar contact hours to drama and dance schools with industry professional teachers.”

In The Stage article, Gardner expresses a broadness to the subjects that theatre university students are exposed to, which you see less of in drama schools. The BA Theatre & Performance Practice course leader at the London Metropolitan University, Rishi Trikha, describes his course as offering “agility with the programme to cater to their [the students’] developing interests.” 

This is supported by Matt who says:

“There were many additional elements to the course that I found helpful, but one in particular was Stage Management. It gave me the opportunity to be a member of a stage crew, lighting experience and I was ASM (assistant stage manager) for a second-year production at the university. This was brilliant for me and has expanded my skills.”

Although Matt feels his University course effectively prepared him to go into the industry, the same cannot be said for all experiences studying theatre-related courses at university. I chatted with professional performer Ashleigh Cavanagh (Reputation: The Musical at The Other Palace) who also studied the performing arts at university. She made the decision to continue her training at drama school after graduating: 

“I feel the course [at University of East London] implied that it would prepare me for the industry, but after going to LSMT [London School of Musical Theatre] afterwards, I feel that university was aimed more at educators.” 

She continued: “After year two at UEL, I felt that I just had to get the degree to allow me to teach one day, if need be. I feel none of it really covered the aspects of the industry I was interested in. [The course at] LSMT, however, all felt very necessary.” 

Ashleigh also explained that she “felt it was very important to have a named school behind me on my CV. I just feel like it helps with auditions and castings.”

Rishi Trikha has explained to Lyn Gardner that (at London Metropolitan University) “almost everyone arrives saying they want to be an actor. By the time they get to their second year, many will want to be a designer or a director.” 

While it is important that students are offered an opportunity to explore different careers in the ever-changing theatre industry, for the latter half of students who remain hopeful for a career as an actor it seems that, like in Ashleigh’s case, university exists not in replacement of drama school but in addition to it. 

As stated in theThe Stage article, playwright and professor of contemporary theatre at University of London Dan Rebellato says that “each year, a number of students from our course audition for drama school when they graduate, seeking that specialist training.” He goes on to suggest that, although the academic aspects of the university courses are extensive, arguably it still leaves some students with the need to continue their training at a professional institution.

The experiences discussed in interviews show that the content and design of the courses can vary greatly from university to university. While I agree with Gardner‘s sentiment, that university courses allow students to explore a broader scope of potential careers in the theatre industry, with some offering a more accessible opportunity to train professionally, it is not a clear-cut decision. What students must do is research the course they’re choosing carefully, as it is a costly option to study at university and then still feel the need to go on to professional training – particularly when many drama schools are now affiliated with universities to offer a degree programme.

Words by Isabelle Casey.


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