How Drama Schools Turn Dreams Into Money
How accredited drama schools in the UK take advantage of struggling actors' search for recognition for financial gain.
Everybody's thought about how amazing it would be to pretend for a living. To act out those scenes we see on the big screens or dazzle the crowd with your tear jerking performance. To connect with people who offer empathy in return from you offering your deep personal insights on stories and relationships. From a very young age I was a performer, I forced my sisters to be the backing dancers in the off-key production of Shania Twain the musical that I performed to my family in the living room and cried when I didn't get to play Portia in the school's production of the Merchant of Venice. Even after receiving constant warnings about the frequent rejection and instability, I carried on and told myself that no matter what I would become a working actor.
And so the research began. I soon realized that the traditional University route was not going to give me the vocational training that I desired. If I was going to get an agent, which everyone knows is the only way to get any work (note the sarcasm), then I need to get into the accredited drama schools which all exclusively reside in London. These drama schools are like something out of a dream, with a rich and diverse alumni all with household name celebrities and all with a curriculum to die for, they go by the names of RADA, LAMDA and the Central School of Speech and Drama. There are obviously others to mention, but none with such prestige. So I got to work. I started with LAMDA grades, firstly in Verse and Prose and secondly in Acting. These grades require you to take lessons from a very expensive tutor who is LAMDA approved, and then to pay to take the exam. In all fairness these grades improved my overall confidence and vastly improved me knowledge of playwrights and drama practitioners, setting me up for the detailed study I expected to learn once I made it through the front doors of the creative facility. I climbed my way up the ladder all the way to Grade 8 and received a Distinction and finally completed my PCert LAM, the highest qualification you can get in these Acting syllabuses. This was an intense piece of written work to go alongside 3 piece, all from different time periods and linked together with a common theme. I wouldn't hesitate to compare it to a dissertation. I completed this and then decided it was time to take things to the next level.
I was 16 was I applied for the "Audition Technique Course" at LAMDA and was accepted. It cost 800 pounds at the time, and for a 16 year old that is steep. After borrowing half the money from my parents I was set back but determined to do a good job. This course was not a general "how to do well at acting auditions", but more of a specific how to guide on how to get into these elite institutes. I got off the tube at Baron's Court and headed round the side to find the LAMDA building on the side of a busy road opposite a massive senior school full of other kids my age oblivious to my excitement. I had built this institute up so much in my head that when I arrived there was no way it could live up to expectation. After entering the door I was met by another set of doors with a woman on a desk in between demanding to know what I was doing here, she was outraged to think that someone so young would even dare enter this place of worship. I eventually managed to pass the Cerberus of LAMDA and found my way down the winding halls to the common room where other students mingled. I was the most on guard I'd ever been, with every person passing me looking me up and down, judging my worth. We were gathered into a normal looking room with tall ceilings so that you'd have to project to just have a conversation, I was the youngest by far with everyone else being at least 21. This was my first warning sign. After introductions I slowly realized that everyone else had done this before. Some of the participants had done three other audition technique courses and had been auditioning for years. From then on it was two weeks of doing the same 3 monologues over and over again in the hopes of impressing someone a year down the line when I go back to audition. During these two weeks I realized that they had no specific instructions to give me on how to get in, they kept telling us that to be accepted we had to have this rare thing called "life experience".
Anyone who knows me knows that I have more life experience in my little toe than any of those teachers telling me how to live my life in order to be a better actor. I've lived in 12 countries in my 20 years and have seen more things than the number of times these old farts have re read Shakespeare's Complete Works. I also have read the entirety of Shakespeare's plays (I'm working on the sonnets) in order to seem like the perfect candidate. What they meant by life experience is what most know as age. Unless you are a 37 year old male who is also a rocket scientist and can afford the 12,000 pound annual fee without help from student financing they don’t even consider you. I left this course with little ambition but no other plan, therefore I continued to apply to every drama school I could and attended the auditions.
Each audition cost somewhere between 50-150 pounds, depending on where you're looking. This money buys you two three minute monologues and a group movement workshop where you are surrounded by people who look exactly like you who are just as terrified. I forked out for the chance to get into RADA, LAMDA, Central, Mountview, Arts Eds, Italia Conti, Guildhall and Drama Centre, with only 3 recalls and 2 foundation year offers, bearing in mind I applied for BA courses exclusively. Some consider this to be very successful, and as an actor you could say that for 8 auditions that 2 offers is amazing, but foundation years are just another part of the system. Foundation years are basically a year long version of the audition technique course, created solely on monologue practice and the hopes to make strong enough connections so that during the next year of auditions they recognize you. These courses will probably cost around 1,000 to 5,000 pounds, with little assurance that you will be accepted onto the BA course next year.
Yes, next time. The standard practice for these drama auditionees is to come back year after year and spend your money on a chance to get into these places. What these schools fail to mention until you’ve had your audition is that the fees for courses that interested me were around 12,000 pounds a year due to the schools being categorized at "private institutions". Additionally, this means that you cannot obtain a student loan that will cover the tuition costs like you would if you went to a normal university that costs 9,000. You can only get a loan to cover half of the annual fee, this does not include a maintenance loan, so you have to find a way to manage feeding yourself and paying rent in London alongside of this. Something that most cannot afford. In all fairness to these schools they do try and give out as many bursaries and scholarships as they can, but this means that those who apply for these must be the best of the best as they cannot have everyone on the course attending on a discount. So during your audition they quietly take you to the side and enquire on how you are planning to pay the fees if you have not applied for any of these financial aids. This was my scenario, where two graduates of the school took me into a dark cupboard room and wrote down my finical situation. I fully remember them just crossing a box and them bottom and then giving me permission to leave.
The reason that we young actors strive to attend these degrading places is because of the third year shows. After 3 years of drilling discipline and received pronunciation into you, they showcase you to the industries top professionals. Some of which will only take on clients from these schools, and for good reason. They get the best tutors, the best resources and the best support once they are there. Although I've made the inner workings of drama schools to be damming, I truly feel that they quality of the course is fantastic.
Although these opportunities are priceless, there are many, many other ways to break into the industry, and with much less money. Through simply making your own work and building up experience you can become a working actor. There is work out there if you look hard enough for it. And you don't have to go by anyone's definition of "life experience" and you don't have to listen to a bunch of retirees from the RSC tell you that you're not good enough for them. At the end of the day, you can give it a go but don't be disheartened if they don't want you, they didn't want countless other talented individuals so why should you want them.